Monday, January 10, 2011

Census shows education gaps by district

Written by Nancy Mitchell

In the Adams 14 school district that includes Commerce City, nearly one in five adult residents – or 17 percent – have less than a 9th-grade education. Altogether, 40 percent of adults over the age of 25 living in the district on Denver’s northeastern edge have yet to achieve a high school degree.

In contrast, more than half of the adults living in the Douglas County School District have graduated from a four-year college or university, including 17 percent with advanced degrees such as doctorates.

Data showing the estimated education levels of adults in each Colorado school district was released last month by the Census Bureau, part of its five-year survey of residents between January 2005 and December 2009.

It provides a rare, if incomplete, district-by-district look at a factor linked by researchers to student performance – higher parent education levels tend to produce higher academic achievement. But the data should be interpreted with caution since the Census Bureau did not break out parents separately.

Still, Education News Colorado found adult education levels appear to track closely with other factors, such as poverty, correlated to achievement and may deepen the picture of the challenges facing some school districts.

Adams 14, for example, had the lowest level of adults aged 25 and over with bachelor’s degrees – 7 percent – among school districts statewide. It also has the highest poverty rate of any sizable Colorado school district with 8 of 10 students qualifying for federal lunch aid, 10 percent of its students are classified as homeless and 45 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home.

“Yes, we believe it impacts student achievement,” John Albright, the district’s communications director, said of the education levels data. “I think the challenge is trying to isolate those statistics versus all the other statistics.

“What we find is you’ve got the majority of families in our district in what could be considered survival mode. We certainly can’t be in the business of saying it’s the family’s fault but when families are in survival mode, often the first priority is not developing language with your child – it’s putting food on the table, paying rent, finding a place they can live next month.”
Highs, lows in education levels

Not surprisingly, the district with the highest level of adult education attainment is Boulder Valley, home to the University of Colorado’s main campus. Just 4 percent of adults aged 25 or older have less than a high school degree.

Boulder has the highest percentage of adults with four-year college degrees – 62 percent – and 28 percent of those degrees are advanced, meaning master’s, doctorate or professional diplomas.

Adams 14 came out near the bottom of the state’s list, as one of seven districts to receive the lowest rating of “turnaround.” That means district leaders have until Jan. 15 to submit an improvement plan to state education officials for their approval.

Albright, the district spokesman, said the lower adult education attainment levels, combined with other factors such as poverty, language and mobility, show up across the spectrum:

Students may arrive behind in language development as youngsters, may lose newly learned skills during the summer months and may not see the importance of education as they reach middle and high school.

“If parents don’t necessarily have a high level of educational attainment, then students may not see the connection to their current life of having a high level of educational attainment,” he said.

The district has reached out to families by placing a part-time parent liaison in every school this fall. And it operates an intergenerational learning center at Adams City High School that provided basic adult education classes to 800 in 2009-10.

But the key emphasis for Adams 14 – while some other struggling Adams County districts have implemented dramatic structural reforms such as Mapleton’s small schools and Westminster’s standards-based system – is improving teacher quality in a traditional setting.

“We believe, regardless of where our students start on the achievement level, they will still realize growth over time if we have highly effective teachers in our classrooms,” Albright said. “We’ve built all of our work around that.”

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