Failure to launch

Freeing failing schools from bureaucracy hasn’t worked as hoped. So why is Colorado still doing it?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Colorado’s effort to boost student learning by allowing low-performing district-run schools additional freedoms from state and local bureaucracy appears not to be working as well as hoped.

Since 2010, only three of the 18 failing schools granted “innovation status” under a 2008 Colorado law have improved student results on annual standardized tests enough to jump off the state’s accountability watch list, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Education and additional state data reviewed by Chalkbeat.

The report and Chalkbeat analysis come as the State Board of Education is preparing to grant more failing schools innovation status in an effort to boost student achievement.

In July, the state’s school accountability clock turns back on after a one-year pause due to a change in the tests used to rate the quality of schools.

These schools, many of which serve some of the state’s poorest students, have been the lowest performing schools in the state for six years running. And despite previous efforts and millions of dollars in investments from the state and federal governments, the schools have failed to rally.

Some 30 schools that serve 13,000 students from every corner of the state are expected to face sanctions next year if they do not improve. Those sanctions could include being turned over to a charter school operator or closed.

But according to a committee of education experts commissioned by the state, most of the schools shouldn’t be shut or converted to charters. Instead, the group urged, they should be allowed to remain under district management with innovation status. That would allow the schools increased decision-making authority over curriculum, teacher hiring and firing, and budgeting.

Some schools — including the Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo — already have innovation status.

“I’m very wary of using innovation as a turnaround strategy,” said Robin Lake, executive director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington. “If a school has gotten to the point of being in the lowest 5 percent, usually there is something going on that is very hard to repair.”

Because so few chronically low-performing schools with innovation status have made meaningful improvement, some education reform activists, state officials and State Board of Education members are concerned the state is about to do more harm than good.

“This is not OK,” said Angelika Schroeder, a state board member and Boulder Democrat who has raised questions for several months now about innovation status as a turnaround effort.

A history in innovation

In 2008, Colorado became the first state in the nation to codify in state statute school-level autonomy for district-controlled schools. The law, which passed with bipartisan support, was celebrated as a major education reform victory.

Manual High School teacher Olivia Jones reviews classwork with a student in 2013.
PHOTO: M. Piscotty
Manual High School teacher Olivia Jones reviews classwork with a student in 2013.

Since then, other states such as Tennessee and cities including Boston have taken steps to provide schools with some flexibility from state regulations.

But Colorado’s law goes further than most, Lake said.

The state’s new innovation law quickly became a go-to school improvement strategy in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. No other district has more innovation schools than Denver.

The results are mixed. The only three schools to improve in the entire state — Ashley, Green Valley and McGlone elementary schools — are in Denver. But Denver still has another dozen innovation schools on the state’s accountability clock.

Not all innovation schools in Colorado use the law for school improvement efforts. Ten Falcon 49 District schools in El Paso County use the innovation law to create education programs with specific focuses such as STEM or international studies that stretch from kindergarten through graduation.

A tale of two schools

There’s no explicit reason why some innovation schools have seen improved student learning while others have not. But researchers and state officials have a few good guesses.

It comes down to the quality of the plan, how the school is using its waivers from rules, leadership and the relationship between the school and the district.

“Sometimes autonomy and a chance to innovate can be a good thing for a school that needs a fresh start,” Lake said. “But the test should be, ‘Does the school have a convincing plan that will result in something for kids very soon?’ When you’re dealing with low-performing schools, that’s not the time you just start pulling ideas out of a hat.”

Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.

Green Valley Elementary School in Denver’s far northeast corner is one of only three Colorado schools to use innovation status as a turnaround effort and succeed.

“You can’t leave anything up to chance. That opens the door to failure,” said TJ McManus, the school’s principal. “You can’t plan too much.”

McManus started at Green Valley five years ago as its assistant principal. She was part of a new team to reboot the school using the state’s innovation laws. The principal at the time had a year to plan a vision for his school, hire a new staff, and develop the curriculum and instructional methods those teachers would use to boost test scores.

Within three years, the school climbed from the state’s lowest school rating to the highest.

McManus credits a consistent leadership team, hard-working teachers and methodical planning.

That’s not to say Green Valley has not evolved since it relaunched in 2010, McManus said. Both the school’s curriculum and discipline code are drastically different compared to when the school first opened.

“We look a lot different, but we’re very intentional about what we do,” McManus said.

Marci Imes, principal of the Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo, agrees planning is paramount. But she had to learn that the hard way, she said.

Roncalli was the state’s lowest performing middle school in 2014, the last year data for which data is available. It is also one of the state’s innovation schools that has not improved academically.

“Year one was crazy,” said Imes, who served as the school’s assistant principal at the time. “Although it was a great plan, it wasn’t laid out clearly. … We tried to do it all at once. We quickly realized that couldn’t happen.”

When Imes took control of the school in 2014, she scaled back the school’s ambitions and focused on just a few efforts including the school’s culture and its instructional approach. This year, school officials focused on increasing the complexity of reading and math assignments.

“Like every school, you learn what you need to tweak each year,” she said.

Imes said her school’s innovation status has allowed her to better train teachers to focus on building relationships with students and understanding the state’s academic standards. It’s also allowed for more tutoring.

Retaining teachers is still a struggle for Imes, but she hopes when new testing data is released this summer Roncalli will have moved the needle.

“What I do know, with everything we put in place this year, the kids really, really felt more comfortable going into the assessment,” she said.

Pushing innovation as turnaround

For months, the Colorado Department of Education, the State Board and some school superintendents have debated whether the state’s school innovation and accountability laws work in harmony or are in conflict.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn has been a leading voice in that conversation.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

Last summer, the State Board gave Munn its blessing — with caveats — to pursue innovation status for a cluster of failing schools in the Denver suburb. As Aurora developed its plans, it became unclear whether the State Board would accept the school redesigns as a turnaround plan, flustering Munn.

Under the innovation law, the State Board of Education must approve any plan forwarded to it so long as board members believe the plans won’t decrease student achievement and are fiscally responsible.

Some believe that’s too low of a bar for the state’s most challenging schools.

State Board of Education Chairman Steve Durham said not all innovation plans are created equally. He said he might advocate for a change in the law to allow the State Board more authority to reign in poorly executed innovation plans.

“I think districts are looking at them as panacea and they certainly are not,” he said.

In March, Munn sent a letter to Education Commissioner Rich Crandall posing dozens of questions about how the state plans to navigate the two laws, especially where they conflict.

Among his questions: what law will the State Board use to approve innovation plans, which education department office will vet Aurora’s plans, and what is the criteria for a turnaround plan under the state’s school accountability law.

Only some of Munn’s questions have been answered.

At the State Board’s May meeting, Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the State Board that it has the authority under the state’s accountability law to reject innovation plans that it believes would not improve student achievement and could add stipulations to existing innovation plans like those just approved for Aurora.

A higher bar

In an effort to ensure innovation plans the State Board approves under the accountability law can make a difference, the state’s school improvement office will review the plans for quality.

The evaluation will focus on a variety of issues including school leadership, instructional changes and data systems, said Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer. Whether the schools will take his office’s advice is unclear.

Sherman’s office has already provided feedback to Aurora and Pueblo City Schools, which also hopes to create its own innovation zone to improve six schools that have run out of time. Three schools — Roncalli and Risley middle schools and the Pueblo Academy of Arts — already have innovation status and are among those that have failed to improve.

Superintendent Constance Jones, in her second year leading the Pueblo school system, said she hopes the schools working more closely together, coupled with an additional $2.5 million in staff and resources, will be able to drive changes through the district.

“We don’t see these schools or collection of schools working in isolation, but working closely with the total district,” she said. “I feel very solid about what we have in place in able to move our schools forward.”

Perhaps the most important unanswered question is whether the State Board will have the political will to compel schools and districts to make drastic changes in a state with strong local control laws.

Some school leaders have already threatened lawsuits if they believe the State Board violates their constitutionally protected local control of schools.

“It remains to be seen,” Schroeder said, “what we have the courage to do.”

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”