Character Study at 5280

5280 Magazine, perhaps better known for recent cover stories including “Summer Fun Guide” and “The Definitive Denver Pet Guide,” has evidently found the new critical category list. Yes, September marks 5280′s entrance into Education, with a report on “Denver’s Top Schools“.

Have no fear, educators, 5280 is far too much of a zeitgiest to use any objective method for evaluation, instead “5280 goes beyond the numbers to reveal a smarter education report card.“. Indeed, 5280 manages to tell us that it is “smarter” twice in the first six sentences, and continues:

This past May, 5280 assembled a panel of experts to discuss the state of local education and discover smarter methods for evaluating schools. The word the panelists kept returning to was “character,” the elusive, varied, often unquantifiable quality that arises frequently in the top schools…

The great thing about character, of course, is that everybody has their favorite. So what does this character study give us? To start, a pretty geographically expansive definition of “Denver,” including schools in Boulder, Littleton, Greenwood Village, Aurora, Golden, Lakewood, Lafayette, Louisville, Englewood, and Thorton.

If we keep it to Denver proper, 5280 includes 22 schools. Of these, just 8 are open enrollment (neither private nor a public magnet school). Of the eight, three are charter schools (DSST, PS1, and Wyatt-Edison). One is the highly unique (and not Denver-centric) Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning. Three more are elementary schools (Beach Court, Montclair, and Steck). Which leaves one.

Who, you might ask, who is the single, open-enrollment District Middle or High school to make 5280′s list of Denver’s Top Schools? Why, goodness me, it’s Bruce Randolph.

Now there are lots of good things to say about Bruce Randolph: they have an engaging leader and deeply committed staff, they have seen some recent progress, and they have intelligently pushed (somewhat) for innovation from both union and District restrictions. They are clearly moving in the right direction. But they are also in the first few yards of a marathon, with 2008 CSAP proficiency ratings in 10th grade of 9% (Writing), 3% (Science), 23% (Reading) and 4% (Math). Character they have, but I will go out on a limb and bet that there is not a single parent who has the option of 5280′s other choices for high school – schools such as DSST (charter), Denver School of the Arts (magnet) and Colorado Academy (private) — who selected Bruce Randolph by preference.

Of course, the oddities of ranking by character is not limited to District schools: hence the inclusion of PS1, a charter school currently on the second year of a two-year probation from the Denver Board of Education for poor academic performance. Odd character indeed, until one notices that a Founder of PS1 is among the seven expert panelists. PS1′s 2008 CSAPs for 10th grade math? Five Percent.

What is most remarkable about the 5280 article is not the oddity of the selections, it is what it ignores under the possessive heading of “Denver’s”: there is no mention of an achievement gap, differences in test scores by income, free and reduced lunch children, or anything else close to what is generally considered the most pressing problem in our schools: the lack of educational opportunities for poor kids. This is not a realistic list of Denver Top Schools to help parents, this is a list of Denver’s Top Schools If Everything Were Free And Nearby.

Oh, 5280 does include “diversity” among it’s unquantified iconographic criteria. There is even a diversity icon, which is defined, in its entirety, as “Diversity of student body and/or community, with programs that reflect that.” No, I am not making this up. While “programs that reflect that” might pass for diverse speech, it takes an remarkably tolerant view of both normalcy and grammar to list both Denver School of the Arts and Graland as diverse, while fellow Top School Bruce Randolph – with roughly 85% Latino students, and 10% African-American – is not. DSA is over two-thirds white (in a public system that is less than 25% white) and 12% free and reduced lunch (in a public system that is two-thirds FRL) – yet it gets the Diversity icon. As does Graland, with tuition of about $17k a year, and 85% of families receiving no financial aid. Diversity, in this light, is achieved by turning the city’s demographic pyramid upside down.

One of the problems here is that every school meeting this definition of “diverse” necessitates schools which are far more homogenous. To be 40% white or 40% FRL in a student population that is roughly 25% white and 66% FRL is, in some ways, mere passing the buck. If the district average is 66% RFL and one school serves 33%, a school of equal size must be almost entirely FRL, or several schools will need to be 75% or more. This pattern — true in public districts across the country — contributes greatly to a system of educational inequality. To praise schools which in no way reflect the overall student population as the correct models of diversity — thus further segregating other schools in the system — is a particularly perverse definition.

Of course “public” education is not really the focus for 5280, any more than the four annual cover stories touting places to eat and drink focus on “public” restaurants. The entire gist of 5280′s list-generation journalism is to suck-up to discretionary incomes. But 5280 has — purely by omission — revealed something many people in Denver know far too well: there are virtually no good public middle and high schools for the roughly two-thirds of Denver’s children who were born poor.

My two sentence summary on education in Denver for people with no knowledge of it is usually this: 1) public education in Denver is far worse than most people who live here think; and 2) However, it is not quite bad enough, for the people who make most decisions have resources and money enough to find alternatives in private schools, magnet programs, and affluent neighborhoods.

5280 has done an excellent job here of perpetuating the latter while ignoring the former. Makes me miss the Summer Pet Fun Guides.

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