Stories of Impact: Grant Beacon Middle School - A Success Story in K-12 School Innovation

Students at Grant Beacon Middle School take guitar lessons as part of the school's enrichment program.Students at Grant Beacon Middle School take guitar lessons as part of the school's enrichment program. (Photo courtesy of Grant Beacon Middle School)

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and all 450 Grant Beacon Middle School students are staying an hour later at school. They’re not in detention. The buses aren’t late.

Instead, students are participating in a range of activities, from a rocket-building class to one-on-one tutoring in math, and they’re excited to be there.

Grant Beacon is a public school in Southwest Denver whose students come from mostly low-income families. The school is among several in our community that are successfully improving student achievement through Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO).

“ELO practices expand and deepen learning opportunities for all students,” explains Janet Lopez, Rose Community Foundation senior program officer in education. “Extending the hours in a school day for teachers and students, blended learning (technology in the classroom), and competency-based progression (students progress upon mastery of information), are all examples of this approach.”

Rose Community Foundation has long supported ELO practices as part of our commitment to helping eliminate the achievement gap in Greater Denver’s K-12 public schools. We recently announced a grant award to Grant Beacon to help the school grow its ELO success and create a plan for long-term sustainability. The $109,372 grant was co-funded through a partnership between Rose Community Foundation and Ford Foundation.

Uncertain future drives need for change
Just a few years ago, Grant Beacon looked very different than it does today. Enrollment numbers were declining, students weren’t reaching required academic levels and the school was “on watch” by the district. “We just weren’t making the academic gains we needed in order to maintain acceptable status,” says Alex Magaña, school principal.

Facing possible closure, school leadership, teachers and community members came together, intent on making a radical change. They developed an innovation plan and Grant Beacon reinvented itself.

Extending the day provides more and better time
At the core of the school’s innovation plan is an extended school day that adds five hours each week, all of which are being used in highly productive ways. During those hours students participate in a variety of enrichment programs such as athletics, arts and leadership, and also take advanced classes. Many of Grant Beacon’s enrichment programs are taught by more than 20 community partners, giving teachers additional planning and professional development time.

The extended day also gives teachers the focused time they need for individual student support. “If a student is struggling, we put them in an intervention class where it affords teachers one-on one time to provide real interventions that are having a noticeable impact,” says teacher, Jacob benEzra.

“The school has done really well at thinking about how to best utilize additional time in the school day,” says Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver Public Schools’ Chief Academic and Innovation Officer. “It’s not just about more time; it’s about what schools do with the time that matters most. Grant Beacon has done a terrific job blending a focus on additional academic intensity and also ensuring all kids have access to enrichment activities.”

“Enrichment for all students was a big driver for extending the day,” explains principal Magaña. In a predominantly low-income school like Grant Beacon, students aren’t often exposed to enrichment activities like their affluent peers. “We know for a fact when kids are engaged in clubs, after school programs, music, and sports, they’re more likely to succeed, do well in high school and go to college,” he says. “Before, only 10% of our students were in such activities. Now it’s 100%.”

Students are thrilled as they line up for enrichment classes like hip-hop dance, cooking, resume-building and even rocket-building. They’re focused, they’re finding new passions, and they don’t want to miss a minute of it. “I have kids who don’t want to leave school for a dentist appointment,” shares benEzra. “That kind of conversation is unheard of in middle school!”

Going forward, a priority for Grant Beacon is to increase the enrichment program’s impact on academic achievement by integrating it more closely with academic content areas. Our grant is funding this work.

From “on watch” to “in demand”
In only a few years, Grant Beacon Middle School has transformed itself. The school improved its status from “on watch” to “meets expectations,” attendance rates rose by 2% and suspensions decreased by 110%. “We are seeing pretty substantive gains in proficiency and growth for Grant Beacon students. This year Grant Beacon saw proficiency gains and strong growth in all core subject areas, including a four percentage-point gain in math. This is a strong indicator that the school is on track to ensuring all students succeed,” says Whitehead-Bust.

The extended day and enrichment programming have also become selling points for the school, and Grant Beacon now often has a wait list to enroll. “It’s a night and day difference,” says benEzra. “Students are beaming. Parent support is huge. A few years ago we were worried about declining numbers. Now we’re turning folks away. As a teacher I’m energized by the success and seeing something that’s working.”

Success starts with buy-in
Principal Magaña points to several factors that helped the school so successfully implement change. The first is buy-in. “It’s important that everyone buys into it 100% - teachers, students and parents,” he says.  

The second is structure. “We put clear structures in place,” says Magaña. “Teachers know exactly what their schedule is and so do students. Every minute is accounted for.”

“It’s also important to have someone who’s committed to the program,” adds Magaña. “Our dean of students, Michelle Saab, has been committed to making sure the systems are in place and to reaching out to and training community providers.”

“Finally, it’s important to support the funding,” says Magaña. “This approach is really good for kids and it’s making an impact. We need to figure out how to sustain and provide funding to schools that have found great success.”

A plan for financial sustainability
Of course, with teachers working more hours, students staying longer, and added programming, the school’s expenses have gone up. Luckily, for two years, Grant Beacon has been able to take advantage of special grant funds available through Denver Public Schools for Expanded Learning Opportunities.

Grant Beacon is also working to ensure its new approach continues well into the future and eventually hopes to serve as a model for other schools interested in implementing ELO. The school is leveraging Rose Community Foundation’s grant to create a long-term plan for sustainability of the extended day model, to incorporate Colorado academic standards into the extended day curriculum, and integrate the enrichment programming into the schools’ academic departments.

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