Though they share a border, Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District couldn’t be more different when it comes to student performance, according to data released from A+ Colorado earlier this month.
The nonprofit organization’s report “The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts 2016” highlights how each district in Colorado is performing in terms of test scores, graduation rates and closing achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students.
CCSD was recognized for having the fifth-highest graduation rate for black students in the state and the fourth highest average composite ACT scores for the same population. Cherry Creek High and Grandview high schools were also among the top 10 in the state for highest average composite ACT scores for multiracial students.
But for science teacher Jennifer Nass-Fukai, she said there’s a lot the numbers don’t show. At Cherry Creek’s Overland High School, where 76 percent of the students aren’t white and more than half qualify for free and reduced lunch prices, there’s problems that predominantly white and wealthy school districts don’t face, she said.
“I’ve been a teacher who has taught at more affluent districts, so I can speak from personal experience. Some of the things that seem to go along with the lower-income kids is homework becomes more difficult,” said Nass-Fukai, who has been teaching at Overland for seven years. “A lot of the time, kids are having to go home and either they go straight from school to work or they have to watch younger brothers and sisters.”
Even something as simple as having enough food can be problematic for students, which is why Nass-Fukai keeps snacks, like granola bars, in her classroom.
“It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry,” she said.
Yet despite these challenges, CCSD has consistently performed well, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education and other organizations, such as A+ Colorado. Nass-Fukai said this is because of things like remediation programs and free ACT and SAT preparation. But most importantly, it’s because the district “doesn’t really mince words with respect to color.
“One of the standard questions in interviews (for new hires) has to do with closing the achievement gap and talking about black and brown children,” she said. “Rather than being tangled up in language, we’re very open about the fact that our kids of color very often have different needs and it’s important to understand what those needs are.”
Predictably, at APS’s Rangeview High School, where nearly 70 percent of students aren’t white and roughly 44 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, similar problems exist, said U.S. history teacher Samantha Westerdale.
However, the performance data at Aurora Public Schools couldn’t be more different than CCSD. APS has some of the lowest state graduation rates for black, Latino and multiracial students and some of the lowest average composite ACT scores for black and multiracial students. The district also has the third-lowest rate in the state for students who go to college after high school.
But like Nass-Fukai, Westerdale said the data doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Something I love about my district is how diverse we are,” said Westerdale, who has been teaching at RHS for five years. “I think that’s something that is neglected when it comes to collecting data. You have a lot of refugees, you have a lot of students moving, transient students, where English is not their first language … some students who have never had a lot of school experience. The high school setting might be some of the first years of school they’ve ever seen.”
Jon Sobolewski, an administrator at Rangeview, echoed the same concerns as Westerdale, adding that what is considered success for one school might not look the same at another. Sobolewski said that’s something people should consider when looking at statewide data and reports.
“What our community feels is important and what our kids need is very different than what a small rural town would do for their kids or (Jefferson County) or a mountain community, so I don’t know why we’re always measured using the same matrices,” Sobolewski said. “I think these overall widespread net reviews don’t do any school district justice because every school district and, frankly, every school should be measured differently based on what their kids need.”