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NOT A MOMENT TO LOSE: Denver Commission on Secondary School Reform Stresses “Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships” as the Keys to Successful High Schools

"We envision that Denver's public high schools will offer the best educational choices for students and their families."

In addressing the current reality in high schools in Denver, Colorado, a new report has found “pockets of excellence” but an overall situation that demands the state board of education’s immediate attention. The report, Not a Moment to Lose: A Call to Action for Transforming Denver’s High Schools, centers its recommendations around three guiding principles for reform which emphasize academic rigor, educational relevance, and nurturing relationships.

“We envision that Denver’s public high schools will offer the best educational choices for students and their families,” the report reads. “Every student who enters a Denver high school can and will graduate having mastered rigorous and relevant learning in an environment that fosters strong, positive relationships. All high schools will be of high quality.”

Sadly, the commission found that the current state of Denver’s high schools is a far cry from its vision:

Today’s high school structure does not consistently support student learning. In fact, it hampers students and staff from achieving their goals. Class schedules move students from one subject to another with little connection between them or time for rigorous, meaningful learning. Teachers have limited opportunities to work and plan together or give students individual attention. While the demographics of Denver’s students and the options available to them outside of school have changed, the structure of the system and our high schools has not.


According to the report, in 2003 only 71 percent of Denver’s high school seniors graduated. However, the commission noted that while 71 percent is the “official” graduation rate as reported by the state, other calculations show overall graduation rates as low as 48 percent, with 36 percent for Latino students, 48 percent for black students, and 63 percent for white students. In addition to dismal graduation rates, Denver’s high school students also suffer from low reading and math scores. In reading, only 38 percent of ninth graders and 39 percent of tenth graders scored at a “proficient” level. In math, only 11 percent of ninth graders and 10 percent of tenth graders were proficient. In examining college readiness, the commission found that only 30 percent of eleventh graders passed the Colorado ACT with a score above 20, the score that indicates that a student “will have the necessary skills to succeed in college without remediation.”

The commission found that Denver high schools must become “learning organizations where adults and students collaborate to achieve academic excellence and continuously improve their performance.” In order to turn around its high schools and provide its students with the opportunity and skills they need to be successful after graduation, Denver needs to organize its reforms around three intertwined principles:

  • rigor: high universal expectations and a rich, challenging learning experience for every student;
  • relevance: learning experiences that are relevant to students’ lives, interests, and future plans and are aligned with real-world experiences and expectations; and
  • relationships: a safe, respectful, and caring environment in the city and at every school.

In addition to these three principles, the report offers nine strategies and twenty-five recommendations to help Denver’s public high schools “offer the best educational choices for students and their families.” The commission also suggests steps that can be taken to implement its ideas and insists on the need for a “systematic revitalization and redesign of the high school experience and learning opportunities” that the district provides to young people.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Wartgow pledged full support from district staff in the reform effort. “The dropout rate is too high and the graduation rate is simply too low for anybody who cares about students today to think that the status quo is acceptable,” he said. “The Commission has provided us with a clear vision of where we’re headed and many meaningful ideas for making sure we reach our destination. This is not a quick fix. It will be a sustained effort. But I believe this report will launch meaningful reform that will impact this district positively for years to come.”

In November 2003, voters in Denver approved a mill levy that provided $2 million annually to be directed to improve secondary education. The Denver Commission on Secondary School Reform was created in April 2004 and charged with providing the state board of education with recommendations on how to best use the money to increase student achievement, close the achievement gap, lower the dropout rate, and increase graduation rates. In preparing its report, the commission investigated high school reform initiatives, evaluated research, best practices, and data, shadowed students at each of Denver’s comprehensive high schools, held a student/teacher forum, commissioned three papers on reform, convened a colloquium of national high school reformers, and spoke extensively with principals, parents, students, teachers, and community members.

The complete report is available at


Is High School as Bad as All That?


Following a recent speech by Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools that declared America’s high schools to be “obsolete,” the Washington Post gathered six college students who attended public high schools to assess Gates’s remarks in an online forum.

The students talked about the different career tracks in their high schools, the reasons that caused some of their friends to drop out, and even took on controversial ideas such as rationing a high school education to those students who were willing to earn it. Some of their comments included:

“I remember when one of my career advisers told me of the unspoken tracks at my high school: There was the definitely-going-to-college group, the probably-won’t-go-to-college group, and the group of troublemakers whom they rush through the system without helping.”

“Maybe the answer is to start rationing education in America. Maybe we should start handing a high school education only to those who are willing to earn it. I should have been thrown out of the way so that students who were willing to earn their right to smaller classrooms and better facilities could be rewarded with them.”

“High school is such a tenuous in-between period riddled with the challenges of fitting in, potentially screwing up the rest of your life, and growing up at the same time. That’s really a lot to deal with and I think quite frankly not everyone is willing to stick it out.”


Additional excerpts from the discussion are available at


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