School & District Management What the Research Says

Denver’s ‘Portfolio Model’ Was a Success. But It Might Not Be Sustained

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 29, 2022 3 min read
In 2015, paraprofessional Ivana Jakovljevic helps 8th grader Cristina Amaya, who is visually impaired, navigate the halls at STRIVE Prep-Federal.
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A decade of cooperation among charter and traditional schools in Denver significantly boosted the district’s achievement and graduation rates, but pandemic disruptions raise questions about its sustainability.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, which studies the portfolio model. Portfolio districts are those in which individual schools receive freedom to experiment with time, staff, materials, and other ingredients in exchange for meeting student performance goals. Denver, Chicago, and New Orleans have some of the longest-running portfolio districts, but the model has gained traction in recent years across the country.

Denver launched its model in 2008, when its schools ranked among the bottom 5 percent in the state in math and reading achievement and were serving only about 70 percent of their enrollment capacity. The district set up a process to close the lowest-performing schools each year, while also creating new schools through charters and specialized “innovation schools,” which are run by the district but can waive some staffing and other requirements. From 2008-18, the district closed more than 30 schools and started 65 new ones, including some housed together on the same campuses.

“One of the remarkable things about our findings is the year-over-year consistency of this improvement,” across years and student groups, said Parker Baxter, the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis and an author of the study. He said that, during the study period, “Denver, where the average student is low-income and a student of color, outperformed the state’s largest districts, where the average student is white and not low-income.”

Of Denver’s 200 schools today, 95 follow a traditional model, while 58 operate under charters and 50 are innovation schools. The CEPA study found from 2008-09 to 2018-19, the district moved from the 5th percentile in both English language arts and math to the 60th percentile in English language arts and the 63rd percentile in math. It also graduated 71 percent of students in 2019, up from 43 percent a decade before—14 percent better growth in graduation rates than other large districts in the state.

School cooperation helped

Those benefits were more consistent for Denver than for other districts like New Orleans, the study suggests, because leaders shared more practices across different kinds of schools, and charter schools were included in the district’s overall achievement calculus, rather than serving as separate entities.

“Part of what is is interesting about Denver is, we have lots of examples across the country of places where charter schools and other forms of alternative delivery have grown, but those alternatives often have been created through the paradigm of disrupting the district model from the outside,” Baxter said.

“If you are in an environment where a district gets no benefit, no matter how strong a charter school’s performance is within its boundaries, then [the district] has arguably very little incentive to cooperate to facilitate that school’s success,” he continued. “In states like Colorado, where charters’ performance is included in the district’s performance, that creates a direct incentive for the district to view providers as critical even to their success.”

The study stopped in 2019, and the district has seen drops in both graduation rates and student achievement since then. Baxter said it’s not clear yet how much of the decline has come from pandemic disruptions or a new school board, which began rolling back some parts of the district’s accountability system and portfolio processes.

“One challenge that Denver is facing right now—and actually was facing before the pandemic—is trying to put its own progress into perspective,” he said. “We have evidence of unprecedented improvement, but I think there’s a real question of what will happen if those reforms are fully dismantled in light of the pandemic.”

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