New Study, Innovative Leaders Give Colorado A Model for Improvement

Published February 1, 2006

Prompted by statewide trends it considers unacceptable, and guided by some successful exceptions, a Colorado education commission has given high schools a blueprint for improvement.

A December 2005 report from the Colorado Commission for High School Improvement (CCHSI) urges the state’s public secondary schools to smooth students’ transitions from middle school and to college, and to narrow the focus of instruction to essential subjects while offering more meaningful program choices. CCHSI is a diverse, bipartisan group of public officials, educators, and businesspeople brought together by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a 20-year-old statewide nonprofit organization that advocates policies intended to improve children’s health and education.

Significantly, the commission’s diverse group of educators, public officials, and community leaders all agreed on the need for schools to connect better with individual students.

“You need to [connect] in a way that allows for a student to have a relationship with at least one adult in the building, and a system with an adult or group of adults who know who ‘Frank’ is, and whether or not he’s ready to graduate, and the challenges he’s facing,” said Van Schoales, executive vice president for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Improving Preparation

Schoales said the urgent need for widespread change can be seen in the process by which students are moved from one educational phase to the next. Roughly 70 percent of students entering Colorado’s high schools, including less than half of Hispanics, graduate on time. Of the graduates going on to public colleges or universities in Colorado, about 30 percent need remedial classes.

“These data are reflective of high schools across the nation,” Schoales said. “What makes it particularly alarming is that Colorado is a relatively affluent state. We have less challenging demographics, a smaller percentage of non-white students than California or many other states.”

Though a few high schools are changing the way they do things, more could help improve the trend by administering diagnostic assessments to eighth-graders preparing to enter high school and offering them immediate remedial intervention as needed, Schoales said. Each new student, he said, should be assigned to a faculty advisor who would develop a personal rapport, ensure the student is in class and on track to graduate, and inform parents and other teachers of his progress.

Schoales also said guidance counselors’ roles should change. Instead of dividing limited time between the most challenged and most elite kids, the guidance counselor should become a head counselor, offering support and technical resources to faculty advisors regarding college admission and financial aid.

Modeling Transformation

Some schools are already working to connect better with students. Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), a charter high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2004, makes purposeful connections with all the kids it serves, many of whom are underprivileged, said founder David Greenberg. Each teacher oversees an advisory group of 12 or 13 students of the same gender and “is responsible for the kids’ academic and emotional well-being.”

“Personalization is one reason the school is so successful,” Greenberg said, giving credit to Principal Bill Kurtz.

Serious efforts to remake Colorado high schools into more “user-friendly” environments are not limited to the charter school community. Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio has worked to incorporate the advantages of personalization and choice into the suburban Mapleton Public Schools north of Denver. In recent years she has led the conversion of the district’s Skyview High School into six smaller program options–including arts, technology, and expeditionary learning.

Bringing her “small by design” innovation experience to CCHSI, Ciancio says the transformation can be challenging but the early signs of success have been rewarding. She hears from the student advisory council she meets with every month about how the new school environments are meeting their needs.

“The kids are so proud of what they are creating in their own schools, the cultures they’re creating, the learning approaches and strategies they are involved in developing,” Ciancio said.

Leading the Way

Mario Williams, principal of Denver’s George Washington High School, has made personal connections with students a high priority. “I think that every student walking into the school ought to be able to know that someone knows their name, and can say they feel they’re cared for,” he said.

Williams also said teachers in different departments are required to communicate better than they do in other schools, to facilitate the school’s relationship with students. In a process he calls “articulation,” the principal gathers the teachers for 90 minutes each Monday “to have a serious conversation” about the vision teachers have and specific ways to meet students’ needs.

“It’s phenomenal what these teachers can do,” said Williams. “We’ve given teachers the opportunity to be empowered.”

Williams highlighted his school’s attractiveness by pointing out that more than half its students opt to attend from outside the area. Many come to participate in its rigorous international college-prep program. A former member of the Denver Commission on High School Reform, Williams said the experiences gained from his school district’s earlier endeavor helped inform CCHSI.

“I think we’re leading the way,” said Williams. “But it takes time. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Restructuring Choices, Expectations

Denver and Mapleton aside, the commission members believe most large school systems do not offer students enough choices.

“As kids get older, they develop their own interests, and schools need to capitalize on those passions and interests,” Schoales said.

Schoales said the commission recommends high schools “take a hard look at reorganizing resources” to meet students’ needs. The old approach of providing a breadth of courses that don’t relate to accountability standards, such as extra foreign languages and specialized art classes, is inadequate, he said. Instead, school leaders should focus the curriculum on core expectations while still offering an array of program philosophies that engage different students.

The commission does not call for more effort from individual educators, but for a new structure to meet society’s expectations that a majority of kids pursue higher education.

“High school faculties and staffs in most schools are working their tails off,” Schoales said. “It’s not that people aren’t working hard enough. It’s a fundamental redesign that needs to happen.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Information on Colorado Children’s Campaign is available online at

For more on the Denver School of Science and Technology, visit

For more on Mapleton Public Schools, visit