Progress report on Colorado SIG schools

More than $40 million in federal grants awarded to some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools as part of a massive national turnaround effort is producing mixed results, with state officials suspending funding for five schools because of declining test scores.

A Sheridan High School cheerleader high-fives an elementary student at a Sheridan School District rally last month celebrating gains on state exams. Sheridan’s Fort Logan Elementary is a SIG school.

This week, the citizens group A+ Denver released a report on the progress of the 27 schools awarded School Improvement Grants and singled out schools in Far Northeast Denver for praise.

“We’ve seen some pretty remarkable success in a first year of Denver Public Schools’ effort here at Far Northeast Denver,” A+ executive director Van Schoales said Wednesday as he stood in the lobby of High Tech Early College, one of the smaller schools opened with grant dollars awarded to remake long-struggling Montbello High School.

The A+ Denver report found most of the state’s SIG schools still lagged statewide average growth on annual reading, writing and math exams despite receiving an average infusion of $1 million to improve. The funding is awarded in three-year grants; 18 schools are in their third year of the grant cycle while nine schools are in their second year.

“Statewide, almost two-thirds of schools were not beating the state average,” Schoales said. “They’re already at the lowest level, they’re not going to get there.”

State officials have suspended a third year of grant funding for four Pueblo middle schools – Freed, Pitts, Risley and Roncalli – and one Denver school, Gilpin Elementary, after the schools posted declines in overall results on this year’s state School Performance Framework, according to Patrick Chapman, who oversees federal grants for the Colorado Department of Education.

The framework, essentially the state’s report card for schools, relies heavily on progress and growth on annual state exams as well as factors such as growth in English language proficiency and graduation rates.

Chapman said state officials analyzed results of SIG schools shifting from year two to year three of the grant and let districts know “if your achievement is flat or declining, we need to talk.” Framework results were released to districts in August and, on Sept. 30, all activities related to the SIG grants in those five schools were suspended.

“We need to meet with them … and help them think about what might be possible for year three in order to release the third year of funding,” Chapman said. “They’ve only got one year left and if they’re really not willing to make some bold decisions for the futures of those schools, we won’t be able to release the third year of funding.”

Funding that isn’t released will go back into the state’s SIG program and awarded to other schools, he said. An additional six schools were awarded SIG grants in August and are in their first year of the grant.

Chapman, who attended the A+ Denver press conference on Wednesday, said most of Denver’s SIG work deserves praise.

Raven Wright, a freshman at Denver’s High Tech Early College, described her school at Wednesday’s press conference.

“Denver has a real vision, a real model for how they want to work these turnaround efforts – they’ve had some successes, some failures,” he said. “But as a whole, the Denver turnaround schools are doing pretty well.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district is working with Gilpin leaders and hopes to expand a math tutoring program that proved successful in Far Northeast Denver to Gilpin, a small Montessori school.

Several schools in Far Northeast Denver are showing growth above the state average, including Collegiate Prep Academy, Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch, and Noel Arts School. High Tech Early College, which is in its second year, posted growth of 78 in reading and 77 in math, exceeding the state average growth score of 50. In math growth, the school ranked fifth among the state’s 336 high schools.

Boasberg said the district has used the SIG dollars allocated for Montbello and for nearby Noel Middle School to launch several smaller school programs, growing them one grade at a time, and to fund a school year that’s longer by three weeks and a school day that’s extended by an hour in the FNE schools.

New SIG schools
  • Six more Colorado schools were awarded federal SIG grants in August – Schenk, Ford and Smith elementaries and West High in Denver; Sheridan Middle in Sheridan; Mesa R-5 High in Grand Junction
  • Visit the state’s SIG webpage to see school budgets and improvement plans

In addition, schools have their own unique initiatives. At High Tech Early College, for example, Principal John Frye said the focus is on project-based learning, dual enrollment in classes at Community College of Aurora and work internships. Both the college courses and internships start as early as grade 9.

“I feel like is a family, we’re all as one,” said High Tech freshman Raven Wright, who came to the district-run school from a larger nearby charter school.

Boasberg acknowledged the controversy that surrounded the plan to remake FNE Denver schools two years ago, when board members approved the reforms by 4-3 votes after contentious. But he said the academic growth and other indicators, such as increased enrollment, are signs of success.

“We have 60 percent more ninth-graders now in our schools in the Far Northeast then we did two years ago when politicians were saying no to change and families were leaving this area in an attempt to find a better school for their kids,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most dramatic examples of a successful turnaround – the support among families knowing they have better schools for their kids in their neighborhood.”

Results at Denver’s SIG schools

Results in Colorado’s other SIG schools

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.