Citywide Education Progress Report


Key Takeaways: June 2018

Denver has been a leader in education reform and an early adopter of cross-sector collaboration. Over the past decade, the city has experienced improvement in school performance and rapid growth in student enrollment. However, in the past year Denver Public Schools has struggled to find its footing. With Superintendent Tom Boasberg stepping down in fall 2018, education leaders must continue to push themselves to tackle the tough issues that remain to continue to earn the trust of their community and to maintain their national reputation as a leader in education improvement. The district must increase equitable access to high-quality schools and deepen engagement with community and family groups.


System Reforms

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Right teachers Good  
Right leaders Good  
Equitable funding Good

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

Broad support Good
City engages families Good
Variety of groups Good
System is responsive Developing

Do students have access
a high-quality education?

Enrollment is working Good
Families have information Good
Strategic school supply Developing
Transportation is working Developing
Array of school models Developing

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

► Facing the challenges of a maturing portfolio district

Like other cities that have seen global improvement, Denver Public Schools (DPS) now faces the much harder task of reducing persistent achievement gaps and maintaining momentum to continue to improve the system. Recent concerns have grown around DPS’ school performance ratings, slowing their new school RFP process, and putting a pause on school closures in 2018-19. The district can signal its commitment to closing achievement gaps and continuing system improvement by being more transparent about progress. Currently, DPS does not report any citywide sub-group performance rates, making it difficult for families, community members, or even education leaders to identify what gaps persist and what kind of progress the city is making. A revised school performance framework released in October 2017 includes an equity indicator that highlights performance gaps. But this overly complex rating system has come under fire for questionable results and the time is right to review and possibly create a new framework. Education leaders could also consider publishing regular equity reports similar to Washington, D.C.’s, which track student proficiency by student sub-group at the citywide, sector, and school levels. Tools like this can help to provide community members and organizations the resources to push for continued progress to meet student needs.

Addressing equitable distribution of high-quality schools across the city

A 2017 CRPE report revealed an uneven distribution of high-quality schools across Denver, and analysis of 2013-14 data showed inequitable access to top-scoring elementary and middle schools. DPS, which authorizes the city’s charter schools, uses current and projected enrollment data to identify where new seats are needed, but they should use it more consistently to drive adjustments in school supply. The district now has a process to encourage operator and school quality for new or restarted schools. DPS can build on these policies by leveraging its civic, nonprofit, and education leaders to identify barriers to strategic siting and work together to address issues—like lack of facilities—that hamper the process. To address the need for quality schools in low-enrollment areas, DPS can consider siting micro schools as extensions of existing high-quality charter or district schools, or forming partnerships with outlying districts so families can choose a high-quality school using inter-district choice.

Improving communication with all families

DPS collects feedback through superintendent forums, a community engagement office, and nonprofit partners. But community members we interviewed in 2017 and 2018 said a perception persists that the district is not responsive to issues families have identified as priorities. Multiple interviewees also pointed to an inequity in engagement: in general, low-income families are not well-represented and some neighborhoods are more effective than others in advocating for themselves. The recently implemented Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative is a good example of deeper engagement around issues that matter to families. District leaders should consider two additions to their current strategy. First, DPS should work to increase accessibility to and representation at forums and other events by coordinating meeting schedules through community organizations or schools and giving earlier notification of meetings. Second, the district can improve feedback by posting survey results and highlighting feedback that informed concrete changes. DPS can use current engagement strategies to identify changes that are most meaningful for families, especially families most impacted by low-performing schools. When community feedback cannot be incorporated, DPS should clearly explain the reasons through nonprofit partners or on the website.


As Denver Grows, DPS Works to Advance Socioeconomic Integration

For several years, Denver Public Schools and the city of Denver have seen rapid growth,  but  housing costs are increasing, too. As neighborhoods change, education leaders in Denver have taken steps to help make sure  that emerging issues of gentrification and displacement don’t mean that disadvantaged students are displaced from great school options as well. DPS has used various controlled choice strategies in the past to help integrate their schools, but as the city’s demographics and populations continue to shift, DPS is moving  forward with their Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative.

Through this initiative, a standing committee representative of city demographics advises and guides policy implementation related to issues around enrollment, transportation, choice, equity, community engagement, school openings and closings, and more—all in the interest of advancing socioeconomic integration and access as Denver changes. While the work of the 40-member committee is just beginning, this initiative is a proactive step toward work on a complex problem shared by many cities, using a method that incorporates the priorities of affected communities.

District’s Talent Strategies Focus on Hard-to-Fill Positions and Retention

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is using data to identify and respond to specific gaps to ensure that all schools have teachers and leaders who are a good fit. DPS is developing strategic partnerships with special education, math, and Spanish departments at local universities to fill positions that are typically difficult to staff.

To address the gap between the demographics of the workforce and student populations, DPS has a three-prong strategy: establish new partnerships with historically black colleges and universities; participate in Make Your Mark, a citywide recruitment effort with the mayor’s office and charter leaders; and use “stay interviews” to identify what supports teachers and leaders of color need from the district.

DPS identified a 20% teacher retention gap between the highest- and lowest-performing schools. The district is trying to retain effective teachers in the highest-needs schools by offering incentives of up to $6,500. Using surveys, DPS identified what types of supports teachers working in low-performing schools want. Regional superintendents then work with principals to make school-specific changes, such as hiring more social workers.

Student and School Outcomes

Citywide, school proficiency rates on state assessments have improved relative to the state, but outcome gains have been uneven. White students are more likely to enroll in top-scoring elementary and middle schools than in lower-performing schools, and they are overrepresented in advanced math coursework in high school. The city’s graduation rate remains 10 percentage points below the state’s.

► Between 2011-12 and 2013-14, the reading proficiency rate gap between the city and state was closing.

► In 2013-14, 20% of students enrolled in the city’s top-scoring schools. White students enrolled in top-scoring schools at higher rates than they enrolled in medium- and low-scoring schools.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.


About Denver

Denver Public Schools (DPS) had consistent leadership under Superintendent Tom Boasberg from 2009 to 2018. At the time of writing this summary, a new superintendent had not yet been appointed. In 2012, DPS adopted one of the nation’s first unified enrollment processes to include all charter and district schools in a city.  DPS started offering Innovation Schools with autonomy in 2008. In 2016, the school board provided all district schools with flexibility over curriculum, assessment, and professional development. In 2014, the district started the Imaginarium to help principals create innovative school designs. In 2018, DPS invited schools to apply to join more autonomous “innovation zones.”

School Choice in the City

Students are guaranteed a seat at any school in their assigned enrollment zone, but can choose any school in another zone on a space-availability basis.

Governance Model

The Denver Board of Education oversees all district schools. DPS is the sole authorizer of all charter schools.

2017 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 92,331 students
Race and ethnicity: 56% Hispanic, 23% white, 13% black, 8% other
Low-income: 67% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Source: Enrollment data from Denver Public Schools, 2016.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email