Board of Education Update – Focus on Achievement Session, May 4, 2017

Focus on Achievement: Closing the Opportunity Gap

The Board of Education Focus on Achievement session on May 4, 2017 focused on a presentation and discussion around efforts to achieve the Denver Plan 2020 goal of closing the opportunity gap. Despite the district’s focus on equity in the Denver Plan, the Academic Strategic Plan and our Core Shared Values, significant gaps in opportunity and achievement persist for many groups of students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that successfully eliminating opportunity gaps is the key to accomplishing all of the Denver Plan 2020 goals, noting, “Our success as a district depends upon our success in closing opportunity gaps.”

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova introduced the core challenge faced by our schools: how will DPS mount a multidimensional response to the multidimensional challenges posed by persistent and pervasive opportunity gaps? She highlighted current Denver Plan initiatives focused on this area, including:

  • Efforts to attract and retain great teachers and leaders, encourage them to serve in our highest-needs schools, and give them the supports and coaching they need to develop the complex, sophisticated skills to successfully reach all students.
  • Strengthening relationships between our teachers and our parents by expanding efforts such as the nation’s largest Parent Teacher Home Visit program.
  • DPS’ Early Literacy initiative, which includes additional training and supports for teachers working with our highest-needs students that will help close opportunity gaps.
  • College and career readiness initiatives, such as expanded access to college-level courses and professional workplace experiences to ensure that all of our students are well-prepared for college and career upon graduation.
  • Creating a culture of equity that celebrates our diversity and provides the necessary resources and supports to raise the achievement of all students, while narrowing the gaps between our highest- and lowest-performing students.

The leadership of the district’s opportunity gap action team — Allen Smith, Associate Chief of the Culture, Equity and Leadership (CELT) team; Josh Drake, Executive Director of Exceptional Students; and Jorge Robles, Executive Director of English Language Acquisition (ELA) — provided context around the opportunity gap and our efforts to address it. Drake reported on the magnitude of the gap faced by vulnerable student populations, noting that in 2015-2016, 39% fewer third-grade African-American and Latino students met expectations on literacy — a key indicator of on-time graduation — than their white classmates.

Smith, with CELT, introduced the theory of Targeted Universalism, which holds that goals should be universal, but that efforts to achieve those goals must contain supports specifically targeted to the needs of student subgroups. Applying this concept to DPS, the Denver Plan 2020 sets universal goals for all schools, which are universally assessed via the School Performance Framework (SPF). The SPF’s Equity Indicator allows schools to assess needs for specific student subgroups, while the Unified Improvement Plan (UIP) and strategic school planning processes allow schools to identify and implement targeted supports for students.

Board President Anne Rowe echoed the importance of targeted strategies within our Denver Plan initiatives: “Great teachers and great leaders is not just about teaching ability, it’s also about cultural competency and making sure that we are hiring and retaining diverse educators.” Smith said a major change in mindset is needed to ensure all schools are ready to engage in equity-focused work. Board member Rachelle Espiritu agreed, noting that equity work is “not a single training, this is ongoing work that has to continue in a really intensive way.”

Robles, with ELA, discussed strategies that address mindsets and beliefs, as well as skills and knowledge, that are needed to improve equity throughout the district. He described the role of the SPF’s Equity Indicator as a way of identifying opportunity gaps in each school and directing targeted supports where they’re needed most. Cordova agreed schools are in the best position to understand their students, identify strategies and select the tools that are best suited to help them succeed.

Board members also heard from a panel of school leaders, who discussed their experiences in addressing opportunity gaps in their schools and offered insights on ways to strengthen the system of support. Voices from the field included:

  • Kaci Coats, Strive Prep
  • Amy Gile, High Tech Elementary
  • Pam Kirk, Asbury Elementary
  • Shane Knight, Knapp Elementary
  • Christian de la Oliva, John F. Kennedy High School
  • Renard Simmons, Denver Center for 21st Century Learning

The panel discussed strategies at their schools that are showing positive results, such as Teacher Leadership & Collaboration, as well as naming areas where additional supports are needed. In closing, board members discussed how to best ensure that every strategy includes an intentional focus on closing opportunity gaps to achieve our Denver Plan 2020 goals.

Read the board’s full presentation here.