One of my childhood heroes was Commander Spock from the original Star Trek series. I grew up valuing logic. I’ve even been accused of lacking emotion. But recent news about a change being made by Denver Public Schools made me lose my usual Vulcan cool.
Last October, the district adjusted its school-rating system — which assigns schools a color from red (for the lowest performing schools) to blue (for the highest performing) — in the wake of the state switching to a new set of standardized tests.
To my colleagues in schools whose ratings may fall: tu eres mi otro yo. You are my other me.
Because those tests are harder, students’ scores were lower, and many schools were going to see their ratings drop as a result. At a school board meeting last semester, board member Mike Johnson actually said, “I’m really worried about public perception, where a lot of people just look at that color and make decisions about schools.”
After hearing concerns about fairness and other factors from school leaders, district officials changed the scoring system. Although the district said this would impact a relatively small number of schools, the move made me furious.
I’ve spent my career in education working in districts where 90 percent or more of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Most, if not all, of the schools I’ve served would probably fall into DPS’ red or orange bands — the lowest tiers in the ranking system. But I never once heard a superintendent or school board member voice such concern about how our children, families and teachers would be affected by the very public rating system.
And they were affected. I saw firsthand that once a school is labeled red or orange, it becomes difficult to recruit teachers with experience, and the constant pressure means that teacher turnover rates rise. That affects students’ growth, which in turn prompts greater scrutiny from the district, which then incurs greater pressure and stress for the staff. It’s a vicious cycle. When the school serves predominantly black and brown students, public perception moves even further away from reality.
I currently work at a DPS school that has seen its rating change from green to orange to almost green. And although we’ve made great strides in student growth, and have built a school community to be proud of, we still carry the stigma of being labeled red, orange and yellow at various points.
The principal who hired me was gone before the beginning of the next school year. The replacement principal didn’t make it to the end of her first year. We had an interim principal until a new one was hired. That’s three principals in three years, and the administrative instability was eclipsed by teacher instability. We were in the midst of the vicious cycle described above.
Not all of the challenges my school faced stemmed from the rating system, of course. But it was a real factor that kept us from attracting many strong teachers and leaders.
Even so, I took comfort in the belief that schools in DPS were being evaluated fairly and hunkered down with the resolve that our students could achieve as much as any others. With this concern for public perception, though, I feel like the district is reminding us that our community is not worthy of similar consideration.
This is painful, and feels fundamentally unfair. My students and families have borne the effects of this rating system for years. A hint of this inequity is finally exposed, and those affected require recompense?
My students are intelligent, kind, and good humored. I’ve seen English Language Learners go from speaking little English to taking Advanced Placement language courses. I hope all students in schools across Denver have similar opportunities. And to my colleagues in schools whose ratings may fall: tu eres mi otro yo. You are my other me.
Randall Duval is a Denver Public School Teacher. Chalkbeat.org