A Closer Look At Denver School Praised By Obama

President Obama gave a shout-out in his State of the Union address to Bruce Randolph High School, a Denver public school in a tough neighborhood that last year graduated 97 percent of its seniors. Bruce Randolph was Denver's first "innovation" school. It was taken over by its principal and teachers a few years ago. But a more complete picture of the school is a little less glowing than the president let on.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In his State of the Union Address last night, President Obama stressed the importance of education in keeping America competitive and he praised the turnaround effort at one Denver high school.

President BARACK OBAMA: Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado, located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their families to go to college.

BLOCK: As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the makeover of the Bruce Randolph school is still a work in progress.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Just a few years ago, Bruce Randolph Middle School really was one of the worst schools in Colorado. But an ambitious turnaround effort has completely changed the atmosphere. Today, the school has a combined middle and high school focused on getting kids into college. The halls are lined with college banners and awards for academic achievement.

The current principal, Cesar Cedillo, says it's been a tough fight.

Mr. CESAR CEDILLO (Principal, Bruce Randolph High School): It was incredible difficult work. Students were very reluctant to learn. And so we battled with the students. And we stuck together as a staff and we won out.

ABRAMSON: In the speech, the president recounted an incident where a student thanked the previous principal for showing that we are smart and we can make it. Eleventh grader Nomi Rodriguez(ph) says students have a unique and frank relationship with their teachers.

Ms. NOMI RODRIGUEZ: The teachers know how to receive feedback from the students. And, you know, it's not feedback that actually puts down the teacher. It makes the teacher become better at their job.

ABRAMSON: But the experience of this school highlights just how complicated and fragile these turnaround efforts can be. The transformation hinged on giving the staff of Bruce Randolph more autonomy from the central administration of the Denver city schools.

So the president's remarks are a bit of a swipe at big city school systems. Van Schoales, executive director of the think tank Education Reform Now, points out that Bruce Randolph also got a break from the city's teacher's union contract.

Mr. VAN SCHOALES (Executive Director, Education Reform Now): It's certainly a dig at hundred-page contracts that describe every detail in terms of when teachers are supposed to show up, when they're supposed to take their breaks.

ABRAMSON: The Obama administration has frequently butted heads with teachers unions on these kinds of issues, and there will be more fights ahead. For all of its success, the Bruce Randolph school still bears the scars of its rough beginnings. The city still has the school on an academic watch list. While test scores are improving, they are still very low.

Mike Cohen is head of the advocacy group Achieve, Inc. He says that if Bruce Randolph is graduating 97 percent of its college seniors, that's laudable. But he says we need to know another number.

Mr. MIKE COHEN (President, Achieve, Inc.): Not just the percentage of 12th graders who graduate, but the percentage of 9th graders. Because a lot of students who drop out, drop out before they get to their senior year.

ABRAMSON: Like many schools, Bruce Randolph can't say just how many freshmen made it all the way through to graduation, since many transferred to other schools. Many of the school's graduates have been accepted to college. Some, as the president pointed out, may be the first in their families to do so. But most have been accepted to open admission schools, like a community college.

Those schools traditionally have very low graduation rates. So, many of these students will need a lot of special attention for years to come or their experience in college could be short-lived.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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