The Colorado Paradox

The state has low unemployment and more and more jobs, but its future workforce may not be equipped to fill them.

A teacher writes on the whiteboard of a classroom at Lincoln High School in Denver.  (Brennan Linsley / AP )

DENVER— Colorado businesses are enjoying a robust recovery from the recession. Good jobs and great quality of life are luring college graduates to the state. But Colorado’s own students are at a disadvantage.

By 2020, three-quarters of Colorado’s jobs are likely to require some kind of education beyond high school. Right now, about 70 percent of jobs require some sort of postsecondary education, said Nicole Smith, the chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. To fill that need with local talent, the state will need to increase the number of credentials and degrees it awards by two percent annually. The state doesn’t seem to have an issue attracting people from elsewhere to fill open positions; unemployment is an impressive three percent. But the state has struggled to educate the children born and raised here so that they can also tap into the economic opportunities around them. It’s a well-known but persistent problem that locals call “the Colorado paradox.”

Right now, half of the adults  from out-of-town in Denver, the state’s largest city,  have a college degree. But less than a third of the city’s adults born in Colorado can say the same, and that statistic is even worse for people of color. According to state data, four years after they started college in 2011, 32 percent of white students had at least one credential, compared to just 14.5 percent of black students and 21 percent of Latino students. And children of color make up a growing portion of the state’s K-12 students, as they do nationwide. Educators and state officials need to figure out how to help these students graduate from high school and succeed in college, or fewer of the young people born in Colorado will find jobs there as adults.

In Denver, a beacon for businesses, about three-quarters of K-12 students are children of color. Denver is somewhat unusual in that the number of white children in its schools has actually grown in recent years, largely because of gentrification. That shift, combined with an overall uptick in the district’s performance that has happened faster for white and affluent students than for their peers, has widened the district’s achievement gap.

The city has shown that it can boost its students’ scores and graduation rates. A decade ago, a dismal 40 percent of Denver’s students graduated from high school in four years. So the district did something relatively radical: It opened enrollment. Families could choose between traditional public schools, charters, magnets, and hybrids. Schools that did well would be studied and scaled, while others would be closed. Denver’s decision was even more unusual because all of this politically risky maneuvering happened under an elected board.

The move was—and continues to be—controversial. But just shy of 65 percent of Denver Public Schools students graduated last year, up more than 25 points in just a decade. During that time, more than 70 new schools, many of them charters, have opened, and more than 40 schools have closed. The shift has forced schools of all sorts to look at the students they enroll and come up with new ways to help them succeed. The city is hoping that it can build on those lessons to boost lagging educational attainment among children of color.

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The CEC (which used to stand for Career Education Center) Early College of Denver has morphed into something almost unrecognizable from the vocational school it was 40 years ago. Back then, few students pursued higher education. Now, most do. Students can take college classes at a nearby university campus while they are still in high school. At the same time, the school’s technical-education roots have been preserved, so that students get hands-on experience with things like welding and audio engineering. Not many schools offer both options, principal Scott Springer said during a recent interview at his office on the second floor of the imposing beige building not far from downtown. Most of his students come from poor Latino families, many relatively new to the United States, many looking for a path to success, but not necessarily sure how to find it. Springer says his curriculum gives them the option to pursue what interests them while also connecting those interests to real careers.

Students at the CEC Early College of Denver take some of their classes at a local college. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Children from affluent families have long been able to take advanced courses and earn college credit in high school, or visit university campuses for a taste of college life, but that’s not true for many of Springer’s students. So he helps his students get both. Instead of taking a bunch of advanced-placement classes, his kids actually spend a good portion of their junior and senior years taking classes at the Community College of Denver, at no cost to their families. The college sits just across the river from the high school at the Auraria Higher Education Center, a sprawling campus where three of the state’s universities offer classes. The students earn college credit and get to experience college life at the same time.

Springer and his team have found the “concurrent enrollment” model more effective than offering advanced-placement courses. “Our kids persist better than they test,” he said, noting that even as standardized-test scores remain middling, his students are successfully completing college courses taught by professors who sometimes don’t even know they’re still teenagers. The high school picks up the cost of the college classes Springer’s students take if they pass. If they fail, the students are on the hook. But he says the pass rates for his kids are typically in the 90s, well above pass rates for the college’s other students. Students who have earned some college credit after four years have the option to stay on for a fifth year to finish up an associate’s degree. While Springer says most students pursue some form of higher education, students who graduate with technical certificates have connections to the local job market because the school works with local businesses to get kids work experience through internships. That’s “huge for aspirations,” Springer said. A kid is more likely to focus in his geometry class if he can see it in use at a construction site.

While the school’s 430 or so full-time students (several hundred part-time students take classes at the campus that aren’t offered at their home schools) don’t have the district’s best test scores, they do have higher-than-average attendance and graduation rates. Most students who don’t stay on for a fifth year enroll in a two-year college after graduation. Up until several years ago, Springer said, the school just cared about getting kids through high school. Now, it’s interested in where students go after they leave campus.

Springer said the district traditionally hadn’t made early college a focus, but it received a grant several years ago to test out the idea, and now a handful of other schools in the area are trying it, too. Other cities, such as El Paso, Texas, have been using the early-college high school model for at least a decade with quite a bit of success when it comes to helping ease the transition to college for students who have traditionally been left behind.

Eryc Olivas is one of those students. The 17-year-old moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was two. His parents, who had both traded school for work by the time they reached sixth grade, were deported when he was 14. Now, Olivas lives with his recently divorced sister and her two children. There is little guidance at home about how college works, but he’s confident he’ll be successful because of the preparation he’s received in high school. White kids in Denver have more educational opportunities right now, Olivas said, but he appreciates that his school tries to level the playing field for kids like him. Sonja Carling, 18, has wanted to be a teacher for years and chose CEC Early College because it would let her gain experience working with kids even while she was still a student. A first-generation college student, Carling works at a preschool on campus and will be a certified paraprofessional educator by May. She said she plans to stay for a fifth year so that she can work toward an associate’s degree. “I see it as a jumpstart to my career,” she said.

Sonja Carling, a student at CEC Early College, wants to be a teacher. (Emily DeRuy / The Atlantic)

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Across town on the approach to the Denver airport, the bright yellow exterior of Green Valley Ranch High School welcomes students. Inside one recent morning, teenagers are assembling under soaring ceilings for their morning meeting. It’s a standardized-testing day, and the students are being entertained by a teacher who seems more than happy to dance like a fool—the teachers are facing off against students in a lip-sync battle. “It’s important you go into this test focused and energized,” another teacher tells the teens before sending them off to their day of classes and tests.

The lip syncing might seem frivolous, especially on a testing day, but it’s an important display of the school’s values. Green Valley Ranch is part of a charter-school network called DSST that focuses, at least academically, on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But school leaders say it’s the emphasis on school community and culture that helps them achieve their mission to “[transform] urban public education by eliminating educational inequity and preparing all students for success in college and the 21st century.” Student achievement comes second, Bill Kurtz, the CEO of the network, said after the students had dispersed for testing. “It’s not about scaling test scores, it’s about scaling schools that develop young people.” Cliche? Perhaps. But since the school opened in 2012, all of its graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. With a largely Latino and black population where two out of three kids are eligible for either free or reduced-cost lunch, the school (and other campuses in the network) boasts some of the highest scores in Denver. Low-income kids in the network test better in some areas than high-income kids in Denver’s traditional public schools. More than half are the first in their families to go to college.

Lip syncing clearly doesn’t translate automatically into great scores and outcomes, so what’s really going on? There’s no simple answer, but Kurtz says everyone at the school, from administrators to teachers, operates with the mindset that every single kid needs to be prepared to succeed in college. No exceptions. “I think that clarity is really important,” he said, noting that in the private sector, the problem is “never the product; it’s management.”

Getting kids there starts with relatively small schools (typically fewer than 500 students) and good teachers. Good teachers are especially critical for poor kids, Kurtz said, because they can’t rebound from bad teachers the way rich kids who have access to more resources at home can. While many of the teachers come from Teach for America, which is often criticized for putting young instructors who last just a few years into the nation’s neediest classrooms, Kurtz said the teacher retention rate is around 80 percent, which is in line with the district’s rate. Each teacher has a coach they can turn to with questions. For students who are struggling, after-school tutoring (each teacher has a tutoring day) is mandatory. There are reading and math interventions in the early grades to catch up kids who are behind, and the network is not above having children repeat ninth grade if there is too much ground to make up. Teachers know which of their students are having trouble because the kids take mini assessments constantly and the network analyzes the data they collect on a regular basis. The assessments align with state standardized tests and the SAT and ACT, the latter of which all kids take. Even as protests erupt at traditional public schools about the over-testing of kids, DSST and other successful charter networks, including the California-based Summit Public Schools, say the regular assessments are crucial to gauging in real-time how kids are doing.

In a freshmen English class that escaped state testing that day, the students discussed a passage from Americanah, a novel about a young Nigerian girl who moves to the United States for college by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The teacher, a young Caucasian woman, coaxed the students along as they discussed everything from religion to identity to hair. While the network has nothing against Shakespeare, it makes a point of selecting books its students can relate to. There are all-female, and all-male advisory periods a couple of times each week, where kids have space to talk about issues that are bothering them and teachers can check in on students. It’s intended, school director Jenna Kalin said, to make sure “each kid has an advocate in the building.”

Every student who has graduated from Green Valley Ranch High School has been accepted to college. (Emily DeRuy / The Atlantic)

Local businesses coordinate with the school to offer 11th graders internships that help them connect what they’re learning in class to the world around them. Like Springer and a growing number of educators, Kurtz recognizes that kids need to not only be prepared for college, but understand the career trajectory of the major they choose.

The network has also begun operating a series of middle schools so it can begin to reach kids earlier. By 2022, Kurtz said, the network stands to serve a quarter of Denver’s middle- and high-schoolers. And in some ways success begets success. Affluent parents are interested in sending their kids to the school in a way that simply is not true yet for someplace like CEC Early College. “We have a brand that people want,” Kurtz said.

And it’s a brand that is developed and managed out of a central “home” office, so that the directors at each of the network’s schools are freed from some of the bureaucracy that can weigh on traditional public-school principals and get in the way of focusing on academics. “I think as a nation, we aren’t thinking as creatively as possible” about education, Kurtz said. “We need a workforce that is trained differently. This has to be about long-term strategy.”

While the district has pushed schools to be innovative, it is behind on several goals it had set for 2020, including a 90 percent graduation rate for students who were enrolled in a district school in ninth grade.  As Colorado Public Radio pointed out recently, Colorado is the 14th richest state, but it ranks 42nd in spending-per-student. Critics have pointed to teacher shortages and ballooning class sizes, calling for more money, but it hasn’t been quick to materialize. A recent report said the achievement gap in Denver between poor and affluent students in the Denver area was worse than the gaps in 90 percent of other large U.S. cities.

But the report also cited several charter networks, including Kurtz’s, that have made progress toward closing the gaps. While critics of Denver’s charter schools have pointed out that they are dealing only with families who actively choose them, many of the most successful are working with student populations that mirror Denver’s more broadly and getting good results. The district overall has improved dramatically. “The only way to improve things is to come together,” Kurtz said. “Money well invested does change things.”