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.”

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.

First expansion

Aurora school board votes to approve DSST charter schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday voted to approve a charter application that will allow a high-performing charter network from Denver to open four schools in Aurora.

DSST applied to operate two campuses each with a middle and a high school. The first middle school would open in the fall of 2019. The application was written after Aurora’s superintendent invited the network to Aurora, offering to build the charter a new school with bond money approved in November.

Several people spoke during public comment, including students asking for the schools to be approved and teachers raising concerns about whether the charter will serve all students.

Two board members, Eric Nelson and Barbara Yamrick, voted against approving the application. Yamrick had said at a previous board meeting that she respected the school and its performance, but would vote against the application. Nelson said he wanted to postpone the decision to get more data about the outcomes of the charter school’s current students.

State law sets a timeline for voting on charter applications after they are submitted. DSST would have had to agree to postpone the vote Tuesday, but board president Amber Drevon said she was not going to ask for a delay after the work that had already gone into the application.

Board members also clarified that they will vote again in the fall to approve a contract with specific requirements around enrollment and performance.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, producing high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first ones outside of Denver.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the network, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting that Aurora’s invitation and the community’s interest in the schools — the charter presented hundreds of letters of support with their application — was a big factor in accepting the invitation.

But, he said, Aurora was also a good fit for DSST because of its proximity to Denver, the area’s need for better schools and the district’s offer of a building.

Initially, Aurora asked the charter network to come up with half of the funding for a new building. DSST offered to help raise funds, but said the district should take on the responsibility.

The resolution the school board approved Tuesday night set a March 30, 2018 deadline for coming up with the money for the first DSST campus — leaving the exact division of fundraising between the district and the charter network vague.

Kurtz said it should be made clear that the district will be responsible for paying for the construction of the building.

“Aurora Public Schools will own the building,” Kurtz said. “Because they own the building, they own the responsibility. We are happy to assist and support that effort but ultimately that is their responsibility.”