Category Archives: Choose a School

After school choice, the real work begins, by Tara Manthey

Tara Manthey and kidsIn our modern school choice system, you can choose your child’s school, but you can’t choose the parents at that school. I’m lucky to have won “the lottery” with both.

Last school year my child joined the founding crew of Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a Denver Public Schools charter school. Early in the summer I volunteered to join a parent focus group exploring how to start a parent-led effort to support the school, students and families. A year later, I’m the president of the DDES Family Council, an exciting organization that raised more than $30,000, set up afterschool enrichment programs, coordinated community-building events, set up communications channels and organized a network of parents to volunteer in classrooms and throughout the school.

This year of “forming, storming and norming” was one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I’ve experienced outside of becoming a parent. Our first meeting included more than 100 enthusiastic parents ready to get started. Coordinating these groups of strangers, without any established procedures or systems, was a new experience for me. But when everything worked—when we started an afterschool class, made a profit, published a directory, hosted a fun event—it was exhilarating. I learned a lot about navigating personalities, directing enthusiasm and knowing when to say “no” to good intentions in order to keep the group moving forward on the core projects to which we’d committed time and energy.

At the end of the year, we measured our success by the activity bus we bought for the school, the enrichment opportunities we enabled, and the systems we created for communication and organizing. But most importantly, we were successful because we came together amid chaos, confusion and competing priorities to create a community where there wasn’t one.

I think one of the biggest achievements of our first year was our collective recognition that everyone was working with the best of intentions. Mistakes were made, opportunities were missed. But like our students, we shared a “culture of revision” that made it possible to learn from our mistakes and move ahead.

Most importantly, parents at our school believe they are fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of this amazing school. With that blessing comes the obligation to make the most of it, and that is done by being involved in whatever way each of us are able.

We are crew, not passengers.


Guest Post: Key Partnerships Make DPS Stronger

Nate EasleyBy Nate Easley, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Denver Scholarship Foundation

Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Jan. 23 that DPS graduation rates have risen by 23 percent over the last six years. I’m not surprised to see this continual gain in graduation rates. DPS is now the fastest-growing urban school district in the nation because the secret is out. The measures DPS has taken to improve education and college readiness for its students are working.

One of DPS’s strengths is its community. DPS relies, in part, on community partnerships to enhance opportunity for students with additional resources and tools designed to keep students on a path to graduation and to college.

For many DPS students the path to college seems impossible. But, DPS has a key partnership with the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) that provides high school students with one-on-one support to help them achieve their college goals. This partnership is highlighted by DSF’s innovative college access program that supports DPS students as they prepare for and enroll in college.

DSF College Advisors, who are experts in college application and financial processes, serve as valuable resources and mentors for students. They work right inside the high schools, operating Future Centers at 16 different DPS high schools.

DSF College Advisors help students research and define their college and career plans. This includes help finding scholarships, applying for financial aid, and refining their college search. This partnership is part of what makes DPS great.  DPS realizes that it takes a community to help students find success.

Since DSF was founded, college enrollment among DPS graduates has increased by 30 percent. Still, there are too many students who do not know or believe in their own ability to learn and contribute to our community. DSF and DPS are working together to create an environment where these beliefs are defeated – an environment where every student is expected to do well in school, go on to college and become a successful, contributing member of our community.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But, DPS has a distinct advantage because of its partnership with DSF. Recently, Gov. Hickenlooper announced a statewide college completion initiative – Colorado Challenge – that aims to tackle college enrollment and completion. DSF is a proud partner in this effort because of our successful track record providing our students with the support they need to successful graduate from college.

Students who enroll in DPS should know that they are joining a community with great forward momentum. Graduation rates are increasing and college enrollment is up. What’s more, DPS graduates have exclusive access to one of the state’s best college completion resources – the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Nate Easley was appointed as DSF’s executive director on March 1 2013. Prior to his appointment, Easley served as Deputy Director of DSF since 2008, overseeing dramatic growth in the organization’s three-part program to help students from Denver Public Schools succeed in college. 

Choose a School: What to Look For in Programs for English-Language Learners

by Alisha Janes

With the rising number of English-language learners in Colorado, many parents searching for quality schools need to consider the quality of language instruction. Yet, the wide variety of programs and approaches make comparing schools for English-language learners a complex task. Here are a few key considerations for parents, including the type of program, the types of supports that are provided, how progress is measured, and the school environment.

Academic development:

The most important factor to consider when comparing programs for language learners is the need for students to continue their development in all academic areas. Learning a second language is a natural process that takes time. While it may vary across learners, it can take too long for students to ignore other subjects while they try to learn English. How this is addressed depends on the school’s program. In some, this access to other content material is done through instruction in a learner’s native language; in other programs, teachers provide language support to help learners understand lessons in English. Yet other programs take students out of their traditional classroom to provide direct instruction in English that should relate to what students are learning in their classes. Check out this helpful link that helps explain the differences in programs used for English-language learners.

ELL teacher preparation: 

No matter what program model a school uses to help English-language learners, an important question to ask is how teachers have been prepared. Different states require different levels of preparation, and requirements can differ across programs as well. Teachers providing extra support to students in traditional settings should be able to explain how they help students understand the English being used in their lessons. Some possible strategies teachers might list include:

-       Using gestures and photos to add extra context to language,

-       Incorporating real objects to add meaning,

-       Teaching in thematic units to help familiarize students with vocabulary, and

-       Allowing students to work in groups or with a partner.

Teachers should also be able to articulate how they focus on key academic vocabulary to help English-language learners.

Measuring progress:

Another important question for parents is how a student’s progress will be measured. Research has shown that students who remain in programs designed for English-language learners for longer periods of time do not perform as well as their peers who exited the program more quickly. Teachers should use short assessments throughout the year that monitor a student’s progress with language learning as well as their progress in other academic subjects. When students are being tested for their understanding of other content like math or social studies, they may require extra assistance or tools to make sure that they understand the questions and directions. The data from these short assessments should be used to provide students with help in areas where they need it most.

Attitudes about language learning:

Finally, a teacher and school’s attitudes regarding language learning is important. Bilingualism should be considered an asset and not a deficit and teachers should take responsibility for a student’s progress both in learning English as well as learning across subject areas. Students should not be punished for using their native language and overall should feel like they are part of a welcoming community that embraces their culture and native-language skills.

Alisha Janes is a fellow at Colorado Succeeds and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration at the University of Colorado at Denver. Alisha’s previous experience include: coaching new teachers, teaching intervention lessons, and three years of teaching a Bilingual 5th grade class in Houston, TX.










Guest Post: The pros and cons of choosing a diverse school for your child

By Michael Petrilli (@michaelpetrilli)

Executive Vice President at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In the middle of the last decade, in urban communities across America, middle- and upper-middle-class parents started sending their children to public schools again—schools that for decades had served overwhelmingly poor and minority populations. From the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to northwest Denver, to Brooklyn, and beyond, white families in particular have come back to local schools—not in dribs and drabs but in droves. In one D.C. high school, students sarcastically called it “the Caucasian invasion.”

My wife and I lived in one such urban community—an inner-ring suburb outside Washington—with our two small boys, and we loved it.  Still, we weren’t sure we wanted to stay for the long term. Mainly, we were concerned about its schools. They had a mixed reputation and lackluster test scores, largely due to their diverse population of students. (Research has long shown that poor and minority students tend to perform worse on standardized tests than affluent white children.) At our local elementary school, white students were a minority, and one-third of the kids were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch from the federal government.

We very much liked the idea of our sons becoming friends with kids from other races and backgrounds, and we didn’t think we could afford private school. But we expected that our boys would be entering Kindergarten with the basics—and more—under their belts, and we worried they wouldn’t get the attention and challenge they needed. What if their teachers were focused on helping recent immigrant children learn English or giving low-income kids remedial help? What if the schools were test-prep factories, obsessed only with getting students to basic proficiency in reading and math?

To answer these questions and more, I talked to parents, educators, and experts, dug into all of the relevant research—and wrote a book in the process: The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. So what did I find?

There were some “pros”:

  • Sending our sons to a diverse school would give them an opportunity to learn how to live in diverse twenty-first-century America.
  • It would provide exciting and enriching multicultural opportunities they wouldn’t experience in a homogeneous school.
  • It would reinforce our commitment to the “common school” ideal. We would be standing up to “separate but equal” and helping our sons’ poorer classmates learn more about the world than they would if segregated into schools with only other poor children.

We’d get to stay in the urban community that we love.

There were also “cons”:

  • We would probably have to give up on finding a school that was progressive or artsy or unstructured. (Low-income and minority parents tend to shun such schools—and for good reason, as they tend to have a bad track record with low-income and minority children.)
  • We would be taking some (small) risks with our kids’ safety and would increase the odds that they’d have one or more disruptive students in class with them, which could slow them down academically.
  • If we chose a school that grouped students by performance—which might be best for our kids—the classrooms themselves would probably be largely segregated by class, if not by race.

For us, and for all parents, this is a tough call, a major life decision. It’s essential for parents to go and visit the schools they are considering.

Probably the most important thing to learn is whether the principal is a strong leader and open to tackling these vexing issues of race and class head-on. After all, it takes an extraordinary person to bring together students, teachers, and parents of diverse cultures and backgrounds and make the mix work effectively. It especially requires a ton of outreach and communication on the leader’s part. Is the principal up to this task? Does he or she even see it as part of the job? If not, that’s a big red flag. And if you are treated like a pushy parent for just trying to find out, go somewhere else, fast.

Second, you want to understand the school’s instructional strategies, particularly when it comes to serving kids who are achieving at vastly different levels. How does it group students, and how are students selected for those groups? Do the groups change much over time? If the school uses mixed grouping, how does it challenge all of its students, especially the highest-achieving ones? Likewise, what is it doing to boost the performance of its struggling students? If the school says it differentiates instruction, what evidence is there that this is for real and that teachers are up to the challenge? Ask to see the different kinds of assignments that teachers give to kids at different levels. If the school can’t provide such examples, that’s another red flag. At the middle- and high-school levels, does the school offer honors tracks or Advanced Placement courses?

Third, you want to learn how integrated the school truly is. Is there a lot of self-segregation at recess and lunch? Are people of color represented at PTA meetings? Are parents chatting with moms and dads of different races? What school-wide events are hosted to make people feel included? Is there an International Night? Are there school fairs?

Finally, trust your gut. But also be willing to admit that your gut can sometimes be wrong.


Here’s the good news: Regardless of which schools your children attend, they are very likely to do well. That’s because of what you are already doing as your children’s first teacher: showing an interest in their learning, reading to them, checking their homework, providing a safe and supportive environment at home, enriching their education with trips to museums and libraries and historical sites, and expecting them to go to college.

Keep doing all of that, and any school choice you make will be a good one.

Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He blogs at Flypaper.

Guest Post: Teachers Support Transparency and Accountability

Colorado School Grades is a coalition of 18 partner groups. Our guest posts feature these organizations and others, who will offer tips and advice for parents who want to choose or improve a school.

by Tim Farmer, Policy Director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators

tfarmer sm photoSince the launch of two years ago, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) has been a proud partner in this effort to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public schools. In a state like Colorado, which has abundant school choice policies, PACE recognizes that parents and teachers are looking for an easy-to-understand source for making informed decisions.

By giving every school an easy-to-understand letter-grade ranking, this website has created the simplest and clearest representation of how schools truly are performing – both good and bad. This system allows parents and community members the ability to understand how their local schools are performing. An informed and engaged public will be instrumental in improving schools in the future.

Colorado’s teachers are also faced with the challenge of making decisions about school choice. Teachers can choose to teach at a traditional, public charter, virtual, alternative or many other public choice schools. Teachers must also decide if they want to teach in an urban, rural, turnaround, innovation, or in some other school setting. The information on can also be a benefit to teachers as they make important decisions about their career.

In the emerging age of accountability in public schools, teachers are embracing policies that promote transparency and results. According to a national survey conducted by PACE’s national partner the Association of American Educators, 89 percent of teachers surveyed support services such as, and other programs and organizations that allow stakeholders to search and compare schools in their area via letter grades.

Teachers do, in fact, support policies that easily identify schools based on performance. Although improving schools is a complex issue, we must embrace accountability and transparency in our public schools.


Guest Post: Three Observable Expert Teacher Behaviors

By Kaitlin Pennington, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress

Over the past several years, the connection between teaching quality and student achievement has been a much-discussed topic among education policymakers and practitioners—and for good reason. Research conclusively shows that quality teaching matters to student learning. In fact, it has been identified as the most important school-based factor in student achievement.

But until recently, what quality teaching looks like wasn’t at the forefront of the debate in education. Now, however, many state departments of education and local school districts across the U.S. are developing and restructuring teacher evaluation systems, with the goal of cracking the code of teacher instructional practices that lead to student achievement, and then holding teachers accountable for performing those practices. This is a difficult task that often prompts debate, but one worth pursing for the sake of student learning and the integrity of the teaching profession.

Colorado was at the forefront of teacher evaluation reform with the passage of SB 10-191, the Educator Effectiveness bill. As part of SB 10-191, through a collaborative effort involving diverse stakeholders across the state, leaders developed a State Framework for Teacher Evaluation unique to Colorado. Through this framework, education leaders in Colorado created a tangible idea of what quality teaching looks like regardless of where a teacher works in the state.

According to the Colorado framework, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is determined by professional practice and the other 50 percent by student growth. If the Colorado framework for teacher evaluation lives up to its design, a teacher’s daily practices rating on the evaluation observation rubric will align with student learning data. So, if a teacher’s daily practice rates high on the rubric, that teacher’s students will show increases in learning and vice versa. Therefore, the contents of the observation rubric are important to educators, and have the added bonus of being a useful guide for families when talking with students’ principals and teachers.


However, like most teacher evaluation observation rubrics, Colorado’s is long and quite detailed. I scanned it and summarized traits that I noticed across all of the standards into the three key teacher behaviors that I discuss below. This is by no means a complete list of effective teacher behaviors, but it can serve as a starting point for observing and talking with teachers:

Analyze Student Learning

Expert teachers have a clear understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They can speak at length about their students’ abilities and can support their claims with student work and data. These teachers are intentional about how they assess student learning and then use student assessment results to inform their instruction. Analyzing student learning is a part of high-quality instructional practice, which allows teachers to know what each of their students understand or misunderstand after each lesson. To have a conversation about student learning with a teacher, a parent or family member may ask the teacher to discuss a topic or concept the student understands particularly well or poorly. Ask the teacher to show student work or assessment results that connect to that topic. If it is something the student is struggling with, ask the teacher how she or he is working with the student to clarify misconceptions and how that instructional practice can continue at home.

Differentiate Instruction

Differentiating instruction is an extension of analyzing student data. After effective teachers analyze student data at the end of each lesson or unit, they then use the data to differentiate their instruction in order to ensure that all students are learning. A clear sign (though not the only sign) that a teacher is differentiating instruction is the use of student grouping. Teachers may put a group of students together who are not understanding a specific topic so that she can work with them one-on-one while another group of students who understood the topic move onto a project that applies it to real-life scenarios. When implemented correctly, this method allows for student misconceptions to be addressed while not boring other students who have already mastered the topic. Student grouping should not be used to teach some students less, but rather to give more time and attention to students who are struggling with a particular topic before moving onto the next lesson.

Clearly Communicate Academic Goals to Students and Families

Effective teachers create a roadmap for the academic year. They then break that roadmap up into weekly or monthly units and then, lastly, into daily lesson objectives. In addition to creating the plans, teachers relay those plans to their students and their students’ families so that they can be key players in their education, not simply compliant observers. If a teacher is proficient in communicating academic goals, students should have a clear understanding of their individual goals and a plan on how to achieve those goals. This communication allows students to take control of their learning and ask for help if/when they are not meeting their goals.

The shifts in teacher instructional practices expected due to new evaluation systems—and other concurrent reforms such as the Common Core State Standards—are just beginning and will take some time to fully implement. As the adjustment in the system takes place, asking teachers questions about their practice can help family members better understand students’ academic goals.

Kaitlin Pennington is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Previously, Kaitlin worked at Colorado Succeeds and in the office of Senator Mike Johnston. As a Teach for America corps member, Kaitlin taught middle school English and language arts in Washington, D.C.




Guest Post from The Fordham Institute: What Parents Want, in Colorado and Beyond

by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Adam Emerson (@adamjemerson), former Director of School Choice Programs, & Michael Brickman (@BrickM), National Policy Director

This year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a groundbreaking study, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Tradeoffs, that examined the educational goals and school attributes that are most important to parents. Fordham teamed with market-research firm Harris Interactive to segment parents into distinguishable groups, something that the private sector does all the time in order to find ways to customize their products.

But can public education be so customized? Fordham’s findings suggest that, yes, school systems and charter schools can better attend to parent preferences. Fordham and Harris Interactive couldn’t easily segment parents into distinctive groups, but we did identify parents who prioritized individual school attributes or student goals that most other parents viewed as less important. From this six market “niches” surfaced:

  • Pragmatists (36 percent of K-12 parents) who value schools that offer vocational classes or job-related programs
  • Jeffersonians (24 percent) who value instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership
  • Test-Score Hawks (23 percent) who look for schools with high test scores
  • Multiculturalists (22 percent) who want their kids to learn to work with others of diverse backgrounds
  • Expressionists (15 percent) who want schools that emphasize art and music instruction
  • Strivers (12 percent) who want a pathway to a top-tier college

But something surprising also rose to the surface: Must-haves didn’t vary greatly. Everyone wanted a high-quality instruction in core subjects and STEM fields; they wanted their kids to learn to think critically and to communicate strongly; and they wanted their schools to instill good study habits.

So what does this mean for Colorado? For starters, Fordham’s findings imply that districts such as Denver and Douglas County have done well to maximize their educational “portfolios” so that more families have school choice. But, overall, Colorado still has far to go to maximize choice.

Prospective charters still don’t have many authorizers who care about choice and charter quality. Mostly, school districts are the primary charter sponsor. An independent chartering board isn’t all that independent from the state education department, according to the Center for Education Reform, and can only authorize charters in certain location. Denver has gotten a lot of attention for its portfolio approach, which positions the district mostly as a manager of high-quality options, but that still places other Colorado districts in the status quo.

And if the Fordham Institute study has shown anything, it’s that many parents won’t find what they’re looking for in the status quo.  Once their non-negotiables are met—a good core education and strong learning skills—many parents want something special. Some want a school with high test scores. Others want diversity. Still others value art and music. It would be hard, outside a system of school choice, for all of these parents to get what they want.

Many industries in the private sector have figured out not only that they need to customize their offerings, but they have learned, through a better understanding of their customers, how to customize. The education industry—even in choice-friendly Colorado—still has a lot to learn.

Guest Post: School Choice in Rural Colorado

Colorado School Grades is a coalition of 18 partner groups. Our guest posts feature these organizations and others, who will offer tips and advice for parents who want to choose or improve a school.

By Shelby Edwards, Senior FellowShelby Edwards, Colorado Children’s Campaign

No matter if you are a parent in Durango or Denver, Dolores County or Douglas County, you want the same thing: for your child to grow up healthy and smart. You want to know that your child is in a safe school that will help her develop and learn. Measuring whether all that is happening can be tricky, however.

Colorado School Grades is a valuable resource for parents across Colorado. For parents in the metro area who have many school choices, School Grades offers a place to make comparisons and get clear information when it’s time to decide where to send children to school. However, when it comes to rural Colorado where school choice often isn’t an option, School Grades still provides a valuable tool: transparency.

Getting a clear picture of improvements over time and how well students are doing at your local school can help you be a stronger advocate for your child’s education. This knowledge can help you ask the right questions and drive stronger outcomes for your children and for all kids in your community. With school grades, you can see where your local schools are doing well and where they are struggling.

Let’s look at one example, Roaring Fork High School in Roaring Fork RE1 School District. The snapshot provided by Colorado School Grades shows us:

  • Roaring Fork High is ranked 180 out of the 333 high schools in Colorado for overall performance.
  • Academic growth and proficiency hasn’t changed much during the past 3 years.
  • 93.8 percent of students graduated within four years.
  • 86.4 percent of English language learners graduated within four years.
  • 43 percent of students who went on to college in Colorado needed to re-take high school level courses known as remediation courses.

With school performance data in hand, we can ask deeper questions of our school leaders. How can we better prepare our graduates for college and careers? Why do our students need to take remediation courses? How is the school working to increase academic growth? How much growth is “good enough”? What can be done to help support our English language learners?

Similar questions prompted teachers, administrators, parents, policy makers and communities to work together to find solutions and pass groundbreaking reforms to the public education system. New assessments, evaluations, professional development programs, instruction and standards are being implemented in a combined effort to improve student outcomes across the state. New standards, for example, have been implemented across 10 content areas that make clear what is being expected of your child each year. You can read through the Colorado Academic Standards to better understand how Colorado is increasing emphasis on problem solving and creative thinking over rote memorization of facts.

Prepared with information about your school and the expectations of your child, it will be easier to talk with the teacher and school leaders about what is needed for success throughout school and after high school. With Colorado School Grades, you’ll have the information at your fingertips to track performance improvements or slow-downs at your child’s school from year to year.

Great schools don’t just happen. They are intentionally built by people who believe we have a responsibility to ensure that all Colorado children – no matter who they are or where they live – graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and 21st Century careers. Focusing on every student, every year is the smartest path to building healthier communities and a stronger economy for today and tomorrow.