Later this month, Denver Public Schools will kick off a series of roundtable discussions with leaders in the Latino community to, “…host a dialogue… about the Denver Public Schools and our strengths and challenges educating our students, especially our Latino students.” Hosted by Interim Superintendent Susana Cordova, these roundtable conversations “will include various presentations by DPS staff and an open discussion for everyone.”
The dialogue invitation highlights progress the Denver Public Schools has made in recent years:
Latino student graduation rates have increased more than any other student ethnicity group, with a 31 percentage point gain in the Latino graduation rate from 30 percent in 2007 to 61 percent in 2015. During this same time period, the gap between Latino and white students’ graduation rates has decreased by 30 percent.
In the last decade, the number of Latino students graduating each year from DPS has nearly doubled – from 1,085 to 1,930.
On-time graduates increased from 997 in 2007 to 1,713 in 2015.
Still, the uphill challenge for DPS is clear. Even with celebrated statistics, the Latino community is not satisfied with 39 percent, nearly 4 in 10, Latino students not graduating from high school. According to the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonprofit organization that tracks the progress of our state’s children, the DPS Latino graduation rate is seven percentage points under the average Colorado Latino graduation rate and 16 percentage points behind the average Colorado graduation rate. DPS Latinos lagged the Asian graduation rate by a whopping 25 percentage points. In that report, out of 25 counties studied, Denver ranked 24th in terms of overall child well-being and was second to last for 4th graders reading at grade level – less than a third of Denver students were proficient in reading by fourth grade.  Latino students comprise nearly 60 percent of all DPS students and their progress will largely determine the success of the district.
“We are the largest demographic in Denver Public Schools. Unless our children graduate, they will become another generation of fodder for prison, crime and social services,” noted Rudy Gonzales, Executive Director of Servicios de la Raza. “We are still losing way too many children to disparities in the system.”
In their annual Kids Count report, the Colorado Children’s Campaign writes that 68.5 percent of Denver children qualify for ‘Free or Reduced-Price Lunch’ and almost 25 percent of Denver’s school-aged children are living in poverty.
Gonzales adds, “It all intersects to me. We [Colorado] hover between 49th and 50th in higher education achievement for our population. Now it’s at least a bachelor’s degree to be sustainable. Our school systems have created and perpetuated disparity. We are not in positions of power to determine distribution of wealth, to determine economic justice, or fair housing, these systems have been created unfairly and have been perpetuated over the life of the country.”
Grading Colorado Education
Compared to other states, Colorado was given a ‘C’ by Education Week. Graded on ‘Chance for Success,’ ‘K-12 Achievement’ and ‘School Finance,’ Colorado received 74.6 points out of 100, pegging the state to the national average of 74.4 percent.
Chance for Success – 13 indicators including early education opportunities, K-12 progress, and adult outcomes. Colorado – 83.2 percent - B.
K-12 Achievement – 18 indicators including academic performance and progress, graduation rates and Advanced Placement test results. Colorado – 71.8 percent - C-.
School Finance - School funding, spending and distribution. 68.6 percent - D+.
For all populations in Denver, some very encouraging trends are emerging. DPS has some 90,000 enrollees, recently becoming the largest district in the state after a population surge through an increase in availability of early childhood education and student return to the district since the end of mandatory-busing. Ninety-nine percent of all DPS kindergartners attend a full-day program; this along with the success of the Denver Preschool Program promoting and increasing availability of preschool for 4-year-olds, should enhance long-term prospects for grade level achievement for Denver’s youngest students.
At the other end of the P-12 spectrum, the number of DPS high school students taking college-level courses while still in high school is increasing substantially. In this concurrent enrollment system, 333 students at Denver’s South High School were enrolled in college classes, enough to rank the school 8th amongst all Colorado high schools participating in the program. Denver’s Fred Thomas Career Education Center had 316 participants, placing them 10th. As a district, Denver Public Schools ranked first among all Colorado districts with over 2,800 students enrolled concurrently. Importantly, the Colorado Department of Education May 2016 report found that enrollment in concurrent college classes led to a 23 percent increase in college attendance rates and a 10 percent decrease in the need for remediation once the student arrived on a college campus. Across the state, Latinos comprised 22 percent of all enrolled in the program, well short of the 35 percent Latinos represented in the state population aged 18 and under.
Needed Improvement in Community Outreach
In the wake of a flubbed board vacancy appointment, additional focus has been placed on the district’s relations with the Denver community. Also troubling is the administration’s handling of project management, architectural work and construction services in the last few bond issuances. The district failed to keep track of work done by businesses of color and percentages of work done were found to be minimal. Instead of emulating well-functioning standards in place at the City of Denver and Denver International Airport, the district embarked on a wheel-reinventing process largely seen as merely foot-dragging. With most eyes focused on test rates, the business side of the school district also requires attention.
According to Gonzales, “The last bond issue had participation by MWBE’s [Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises] of less than 1 percent. This kind of business has the potential of changing our community. Community committees are talking about not supporting a new mill levy or bond issue if we do not share in the work. When you talk about mill levies and bonds that have been passed, a majority has gone to the administration. That’s not equitable at all, it’s immoral.”
The superintendent’s series of conversations will undoubtedly provoke a productive conversation about multiple issues affecting the Latino community. It seems the right questions are being asked, ‘What can we do better? Where can we work more closely with the community to advance our common objectives?’