Building Better Schools

Colorado education department intends to create turnaround network

The State Department of Education hopes to lend more direct help to Colorado’s struggling campuses by forming a network of turnaround schools, it announced Tuesday in a letter to superintendents.

The network, which will be the first of its kind in Colorado, will offer intensive support directly to school leaders in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Previously, most of the state’s support has been targeted at the district level, providing training and resources to administrators, not principals and teachers.

Colorado’s Turnaround Network, “will be a highly-collaborative and accountable endeavor between local schools, their districts and the Colorado Department of Education,” according to a copy of the letter provided to Chalkbeat Colorado.

The department hopes to work with eight to 12 schools in just a couple of districts its first year. The aim is to not only improve student academic performances within the network’s schools, but also to provide support and build each district’s ability to provide tools and techniques to other low-performing schools within the participating districts’ boundaries, said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of school and district performance.

As of December, there are currently 190 schools rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” About 75 percent of those schools do not operate in school districts on the accountability clock.

Because of Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools, schools will have to opt into the network, Sherman said. The department’s model is more akin to Connecticut’s Commissioner’s Network, which has partnered with 11 schools and is expanding, than Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has the authority to take over low-performing schools and currently runs 16 schools, Sherman said.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

While the state does not directly accredit schools — that’s the job of local school boards — it does similarly rate schools. Schools, like districts, rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” are placed on the state’s watch list. If schools do not make enough improvement within five years the state board may make a series of recommendations to the local school board including turning the school over to a private organization like a charter network or closing the campus. If the local governing board does not heed the state board’s advice, the entire district may face a lowered accreditation rating.

Neither the districts nor schools enrolled in the network will be let off the so-called “accountability clock.”

“Our goal is to accelerate achievement so we’ll be able to get them off the clock because of improved student achievement,” Sherman said.

If enough progress isn’t made in enough time to beat the clock, Sherman said, his department would at least be able to stand with those schools in the network as the state and local board negotiate the campuses future.

“We would be able to advocate for [those schools] to some degree,” Sherman said. “We’ll feel comfortable saying the district has taken the right improvement actions and that we’ve exhausted everything we could.”

The network’s program will focus on four areas: culture, school design, personnel development, and district relations. One of the many requirements to enroll in the network, according to the letter, is a set of agreements between the state and the districts the schools reside in.

“We will negotiate with each district

assurances that they will create the right conditions for success for each participating school,” Sherman said.

The state will have no official say in curriculum, personnel or budget, Sherman said. But he hopes by enrolling in the network, schools will be provided autonomy and flexibility by it’s district.

The network will be funded by existing funds allocated to the state department, Sherman said. And his office will continue to offer its support to districts on the accountability clock.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.