Denver’s Approach to Black Student Success: Ruthless in Pursuit of Equity

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Large easel-sized adhesive notes adorned the walls of Nicole Saab’s classroom. Each note featured a student’s name and a straightforward prompt: Inquire about book bans! Inquire about cyberbullying! Inquire about kids and video games!

These topics were selected by her eighth-grade literacy students at Denver Green School Southeast. It was a collaborative brainstorming session to assist in guiding students’ research. With Bob Marley’s music playing in the background, Saab instructed her students, pencils in hand, to rotate among the posters, jotting down questions about their classmates’ research topics.

“Draft something you’d be curious to learn,” Saab encouraged her students. “Be inquisitive. Challenge that individual. Really challenge them.”

This activity embodied Saab’s teaching style: students were active, moving around, interacting with each other, and making noise. “No one can opt out” is one of Saab’s classroom policies, although exceptions are made for students who are fatigued or hungry, offering them brief breaks or one of the snacks she keeps tucked away in a corner.

Saab is among 10 Denver Public Schools teachers who have contributed to outstanding academic progress among their Black students and whose teaching techniques are under scrutiny by university researchers as part of the district’s Black Student Success initiative.

Saab’s curriculum includes a variety of literature, ranging from George Orwell’s timeless novel “Animal Farm” to rapper Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” Saab also shares her Lebanese heritage and her own experiences as a Denver Public Schools student with her students, whose father was a longtime principal.

“I am the warm taskmaster,” Saab remarked in an interview. “I will support you, but my expectations are exceptionally high, and this will be a demanding class.”

Once the researchers complete their assessment of Saab and the other educators, the goal is to disseminate any effective teaching techniques they discover throughout the district, commencing next year with six elementary schools.

“We aim to be strategic,” stated Michael Atkins, the district’s newly appointed director of Black Student Success. “These six schools will serve as a learning lab so our young learners can provide feedback on what we are doing well or what needs improvement before implementing district-wide changes we believe will be effective.”

Denver Public Schools has placed a strong emphasis on enhancing education for Black students over the last five years, following the adoption of the Black Excellence Resolution by the school board in 2019. The Black Student Success team, headed by Atkins, was established this academic year and constitutes the most recent phase of this endeavor. According to a district spokesperson, the district has allocated $750,000 for the team’s operations next year.

Approximately 14% of Denver’s 88,000 students are Black, and data reveals that the district is not adequately serving them. Black students are more prone to being disciplined harshly compared to white students and are less likely to perform at grade level in state literacy and math assessments.

The objective of the 2019 resolution and the essence of the Black Student Success initiative are aimed at rectifying this situation. This mission holds personal significance for Atkins, who attended DPS during the busing era for school integration in Denver and encountered discrimination and lowered expectations. Before assuming his current role, Atkins served as the principal of Stedman Elementary, one of Denver’s most diversified schools.

“My primary objective in education is to ensure that students who resemble me do not undergo the same experiences I faced while navigating the hallways of DPS,” he remarked.

Eighth graders Rishon Harvey, left, and Shahed Eissa collaborate in Nicole Saab’s literacy class at Denver Green School Southeast. (Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

Some principals see opportunity to ‘disrupt the system’

Chris Fleming serves as the principal of Joe Shoemaker School, an elementary school about five miles southeast of Denver Green School. Shoemaker is one of the six schools within the inaugural Black Student Success cohort, all of which cater to a substantial Black student population—each with principals who aspire to better serve these students.

Around a quarter of Shoemaker students are Black, surpassing the district average. However, only 9% of Black students at Shoemaker met literacy test expectations last spring, as per state data. This contrasts with the 35% of white students who did meet them.

The substantial achievement gap between Black and white students in literacy exams, a recurrent and widespread issue in educational institutions nationwide, is the foremost concern that Fleming hopes Denver’s novel Black Student Success team will address district-wide.

“We aim to become a site where we’ve solved this issue. We strive to have a cluster of schools that, in my most ambitious vision, have eradicated the achievement gap,” Fleming articulated. “It’s a lofty goal. But why not aim for it?”

Shoemaker has already savored a taste of success. Over the last two years, the school has experimented with what it terms “equity cohorts.”

Each teacher selects four to seven students of color, particularly focusing on Black students, who are substantially below grade-level in reading, according to Fleming. These teachers prioritize establishing relationships with these students, fostering their social and academic development. Out of approximately 450 students last academic year, Fleming noted 187 who received additional support.

When Fleming and other school leaders ventured into classrooms for observations, they concentrated on the students within the equity cohorts. Fleming mentioned, “When teachers were aware that we were observating these students, it altered things.” He further added that test scores witnessed an improvement. Although most Shoemaker students were still reading below grade level, students of color displayed greater-than-average progress, portraying an influx of green markings on the school’s color-coded report card amidst a sea of yellow and red.

“That served as validation,” Fleming declared. “We knew we were on the right track.”

Nonetheless, Fleming acknowledged that sustaining the equity cohorts this year has presented challenges, including teacher turnover and an array of fresh district and school initiatives. This is precisely why Fleming opted to engage in the Black Student Success endeavor.

“Similar to any situation, when you undertake numerous initiatives, it can become overwhelming,” Fleming reflected. “By aligning our focus, we increase our chances of success.”

Principals at other participating schools echoed similar sentiments as Fleming.

“School districts are besieged with multiple competing priorities,” Corey Jenks, principal at Columbine Elementary, vocalized from his standpoint. Situated in a historically Black northeast Denver area where gentrification has led to a decline in Black student numbers to around 21%, Columbine Elementary has encountered this shift. “I am particularly looking forward to having a well-defined, distinctive, and relevant theme that will remain steadfast,” Jenks emphasized.

Gabriela Quiroga-Beck, principal at Oakland Elementary in far northeast Denver, where roughly 20% of students are Black, initially hesitated to partake in the cohort of six schools. She expressed concerns that the initiative might fizzle out, much like previous efforts.

“Nonetheless, the six of us were motivated to implement change and transform the system,” Quiroga-Beck shared, referring to herself and the other principals. “That’s why I agreed to join.”

“This is an extraordinary opportunity,” she added, “to challenge the system in support of our Black students.”

An adult stands in the middle of a classroom with young students sitting at their desks.
Nicole Saab is one of 10 Denver Public Schools instructors whose Black students have demonstrated remarkable academic growth. University researchers have delved into her classroom to analyze her teaching techniques. (Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

‘Unyielding effort towards achieving equity is imperative’

The endeavor is still in its initial phases. The researchers, inclusive of Erin Anderson, an associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Denver, are concluding their examination of Saab and other highly effective educators.

Anderson expressed her aspirations to extract “actionable change ideas” that teachers within the six schools in the cohort could implement in their classrooms come the next academic year.

“Our goal is to bridge the gap between research and application,” Anderson expressed. “This model advocates for the transition from practice to research and back to practice.”

Concurrently, the principals of the six schools will undergo leadership training this summer through the University of Virginia, a program widely embraced by DPS and other districts nationwide.

At a Friday session in March, the principals convened in a conference room at DPS headquarters to devise strategies. Atkins initiated the session using an analogy.

He likened students to plants and educators to rain. Drawing a parallel to plant stickers that specify the required amount of rain for nourishment, Atkins questioned, “What is the equivalent ‘raindrop icon’ for our Black students?”

The principals noted down issues they are striving to address on sticky notes. These encompass students feeling disinterested and disengaged in class, excessive absenteeism, and generational trauma stemming from adverse school experiences. As they brainstormed, the principals raised significant questions on possible solutions.

“How can we ensure that every student absorbs information with rapt attention and collaborates in small groups without constant monitoring, driven by their eagerness for success?” pondered Jenks, the principal at Columbine Elementary.

Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero visited the session, expressing gratitude to the principals for their willingness to engage in pioneering efforts. “Is this a venture into the unknown? Certainly,” he affirmed, referring to the innovative initiative. He pointed to the prominently displayed word “equity,” one of the district’s core values hanging on the wall.

“Our commitment to achieving equity must be unwavering beyond mere rhetoric illustrated on posters,” he asserted. “I’m eager about this initiative—we’re dedicating considerable effort to it—and I’m enthusiastic that it’s the collective effort of all of you.”

The ramifications of this initiative, if successful, could influence how the district serves other student demographics. Marrero has indicated the possibility of introducing a Latinx Student Success team.

Enhancing classroom instruction by examining exemplary teachers like Saab will likely form one facet of the district’s strategy. Saab, who dedicates half her time to teaching and the other half to coaching fellow teachers at her school, expressed pride in being selected for this research.

She acknowledged that while it’s impossible to coach one’s personality, certain teachers naturally excel in building connections with students, while others may struggle. Nonetheless, coaching best practices is feasible, Saab emphasized: “How can a classroom foster more collaboration? How can teachers effectively engage with a seemingly disinterested student? Is it punitive, or does it involve understanding them?

“Teachers can undertake this effort,” Saab affirmed. “That’s what truly counts.”

Melanie Asmar

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