Rocky Mountain News, February 18, 2008: Travel gap found with top schools

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By Nancy Mitchell

Monday, February 18, 2008

Poor children in Denver have to travel farther to get to the city’s highest-performing schools, a study to be released today shows. Even if they can get there, chances are that those schools are full.

A report by the Piton Foundation shows Denver’s top schools are clustered in the city’s southeast quadrant, home to its wealthier families.

Thirteen of 18 Denver Public Schools rated “high” or “excellent” by the state of Colorado are there.

Yet only one school in the city’s poorest areas – the broad swath of Denver west of Interstate 25 – is rated as highly by the state.

That’s the charter school, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, which targets low-income kids. And in far northeast Denver, in the rapidly growing Montbello and Green Valley Ranch areas, no school has achieved an excellent or high rating.

Elementary students in those neighborhoods, who have a poverty rate of 75 percent, must travel more than four miles to reach top-rated schools.

Contrast that to southeast Denver, where more than 90 percent of children can find a high- or excellent-rated elementary school within two miles. That area’s student poverty rate is 48 percent.

“Most people know that there’s a relationship between test scores and the income of a neighborhood because there’s a relationship between poverty and test scores,” said Van Schoales, urban education officer for Piton, “which isn’t to say it has to be that way.”

Beating the odds

As proof, Schoales points to a growing number of schools nationwide achieving success with students in poverty.

In Denver, only three of the 18 schools rated high or excellent have student poverty rates of more than 50 percent.

They are Asbury Elementary, Dora Moore K-8 School and KIPP, which has the highest student poverty rate by far at 89 percent.

“There’s an increasing number of schools showing they can outperform what their demographics might project, which is exciting,” Schoales said.

The study, which involved nearly 65,000 students in elementary and middle schools in Denver, Aurora and the Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County, mapped the distances between lower-income families and higher-rated schools in the 2006-07 school year.

“We wanted to find out exactly how far people needed to travel to go to quality schools,” Schoales said.

The study also considered whether those schools could enroll most students for whom they are the closest high- or excellent-rated school.

The answer in nearly every case is no.

Consider Morey Middle School, one of the few top-rated schools outside southeast Denver, which enrolled 773 students in fall 2006.

Morey is the closest high- or excellent-rated school for 2,477 students, the study found.

Piton included the three school districts in the study because all are undergoing major reforms, and all are, in one form or other, creating new schools.

The hope, Schoales said, is that district leaders will consider geography and locate new programs successful with poor children in low-income neighborhoods.

Siting new schools

This spring, DPS leaders are soliciting “requests for proposals” for new school programs from charters, traditional schools and others inside and outside the district.

Brad Jupp, Denver’s senior academic policy adviser, said the district can, and has, told those interested in opening programs in Denver that a certain area is preferred.

For example, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy was told to locate within the square bounded by Interstate 25, Alameda and Mississippi avenues and Federal Boulevard, said school founder Richard Barrett.

That wasn’t because the area is impoverished, though it is, Barrett said, but because the nearby schools were then crowded. It worked out because KIPP’s mission is preparing poor children for college.

“For us, it means fewer kids to have to bus,” he said.

More recently, West Denver Preparatory Charter School chose to locate in southwest Denver because founder Chris Gibbons wanted to serve low-income families. Michelle Moss, the DPS school board member who represents southwest Denver, welcomed West Denver Prep.

“Southwest Denver just has not been a place where we have developed either magnet programs or high-quality schools,” she said.

Choice in southwest

Moss believes that’s partly because it’s easy for families unhappy with DPS programs to slip across the county line into Jefferson County or Littleton schools.

So the parent activism in other areas, such as Padres Unidos, which led the effort to overhaul North High School in northwest Denver, has not developed in the poorest areas just south of Sixth Avenue.

A parent group has formed in the more affluent and more southern neighborhoods around John F. Kennedy High School.

The group, now known as the Southwest Denver Education Coalition, helped the high school and nearby Henry Middle School become part of the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. So options have improved in southwest Denver, Moss said, but she hopes the Piton study will lead to more.

“This is something the board needs to pay serious attention to,” she said. “It certainly helps us focus on the fact we do need to be more selective about where we’re putting programs and encouraging people to put programs.”

Others were less impressed with the findings.

In Mapleton, where one of the nation’s most radical reform efforts is unfolding, Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio said it’s not news that poor children don’t perform well in school.

The 6,000-student district north of Denver eliminated neighborhood schools last fall and now requires parents to pick from among 17 small schools and academies. None of the schools was rated high or excellent.

“What is happening in these schools is new and exciting and different,” Ciancio said, “and they don’t get results in a year.”

Maggie Gomer, who has four children in Denver schools, disagrees with the study’s reliance on state ratings, which are based on state test results.

“There’s a lot of things within schools other than test scores and, frankly, we focus way too much on those scores,” said Gomer, who heads the Southwest Denver Education Coalition.

“A lower rating does not mean good things are not happening in those schools.”

Schoales said the state rating was the only indicator that could be used across all three districts.

“It’s important for us to know that those kids aren’t performing where they need to be, and we now need to figure out how to get them to the next level,” he said. “It’s not a destiny,” Schoales added about poverty.

“Many people think it is. . . . We now have enough evidence to prove it isn’t.”

In Denver and in Aurora, relatively new superintendents have launched districtwide reform efforts aimed at lifting all schools – not just those in poor areas. A majority of students in both districts are eligible for federal lunch aid, an indicator of poverty.

Districtwide improvement

So they’re interested in programs successful with poor children, said DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet and Aurora Superintendent John Barry, but they need to see improvement districtwide.

“Our efforts need to be about creating as many great schools throughout the district as we can,” Bennet said, “so that your ZIP code doesn’t determine whether you are going to be able to get a high-quality education.”

Change is occurring in some of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods. This fall, four out of five “transformed” schools slated to open are in impoverished areas. That means the schools will close this spring and reopen with new programs.

How those schools will fare, and whether their communities will rally around them, remains to be seen.

At North High School in northwest Denver, a school rated “low” in an area where the student poverty rate is 82 percent, a reform effort officially launched in August still feels new.

On Wednesday, scores of students and teachers and the occasional politician turned out for an evening open house showcasing academic programs and student clubs.

Cheerleaders leaped in the hallway beside the Chinese language table, and a teacher showed off student work in the school’s state-of-the-art 3-D computer lab.

“We just decided we would come to North and give it a try,” said Heather Kroona, who with her husband chose the school over East High for son Aaron Janicke, a ninth-grader.

“So far, so good.”

But aside from Kroona and a few others, what was missing at the open house were parents – particularly the unfamiliar faces of parents of prospective students.

That disappointed Jennifer Draper Carson, whose job includes recruiting new families to the new North.

“I really want to dispel the urban mythology about this school,” she said as she searched for moms and dads in the energy-filled main hall. “We need to reach the parents.”

About the study

The Denver-based Piton Foundation explored where low-income students in the Denver and Aurora districts and the Mapleton district in Adams County live in relation to quality schools the state rates as “high” and “excellent.”

The study involved nearly 65,000 students attending elementary and middle schools in the three school districts in 2006-07. In addition to income and geography, the foundation looked at capacity in the high- and excellent-rated schools.

The objective was to determine where the greatest need exists for quality schools to serve low-income students. The study also sought to answer the question: If low-income students could get to the top-rated schools, is there room for them to enroll?

To learn more about the Piton Foundation, log on to or 303-954-5245

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