welcome parents

Denver’s new plan to engage families began with a daydream and ends with regulations

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post
Joshua Montoya and Tina Chavez attend a parent-teacher conference for her daughter, Sofia, at Fairview Elementary in 2010.

In a school district often criticized for not listening to the community, a few parents recently sat down with Denver Public Schools staff to revise its 13-year-old family engagement policy.

One of the first things they did was daydream, said Theresa Becker, the district’s director of family constituency services. “Close your eyes,” she said she told the parents, “and envision a school that has active, vibrant family engagement: What do you see? What do you hear?”

The staff took down their answers: parents helping in the classrooms, family members volunteering, parents feeling like the school is “another home for them,” Becker said.

The policy they came up with doesn’t differ much from the district’s last attempt in 2003. It talks about how schools should foster a welcoming environment for families. How principals and teachers should respect parents as equal partners in their children’s education. And how families should provide input and advice to their schools.

But this time, the parents and staff wrote regulations meant to better ensure the policy will be carried out. The DPS school board is set to vote Thursday on whether to adopt both.

“This new policy has more outlines for parents to break barriers, especially with the language part,” said Elodia Romero, a mother of three DPS students whose first language is Spanish and who works as an organizer with the Denver-based Padres & Jovenes Unidos advocacy organization. The regulations, she said, are “like a roadmap for how to engage parents.”

The proposed regulations say schools will have a plan to “effectively communicate with parents and the community on a frequent and regular basis throughout the school year, formally and informally, in the languages spoken by the parents and the community.”

When possible, front desks should be staffed with people who speak the languages parents speak. And they say interpretation should be available at school-sponsored programs and events.

Thirty-seven percent of DPS students speak Spanish, according to district statistics. Other common languages include Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, French, Nepali and Russian.

In addition, the regulations require schools to assign a point person to oversee volunteering, to set aside a dedicated space for families to network, to consult with families before making important decisions, such as changes to curriculum, and to set up fully functioning school accountability committees to provide feedback on school budgets and academic programs.

“Parents should feel like the red carpet is rolled out for them, not that there are locks on the doors to their involvement,” said Karen Mortimer, a DPS parent who is active with the community organization Together Colorado and who helped write the policy.

But that’s not always the case. While most parents report that they’re generally happy with their children’s schools, fewer say the schools ask for their input on important decisions.

In the most recent DPS parent satisfaction survey posted online, from 2014, only 60 percent of the approximately 40,000 parents who answered said their school does a good job. A slightly higher percentage — 66 percent — said their school provides opportunities to connect with other parents, while 65 percent said their school reduces barriers to parent participation by providing things like interpretation and convenient meeting times.

To Mortimer, who sees big differences in how well schools engage families, that’s not enough.

“Parents are not empowered with the knowledge and the understanding of what should be happening at their schools. School leaders are not being held accountable,” she said. “Those two things come together and mean that you have wide disparities.”

The proposed regulations attempt to change that by calling for the creation of a family advisory council “to provide advice on all matters related to family engagement to include programs supported by Title I funds.” Title I funds are federal dollars provided to school districts to improve academic outcomes for low-income students. DPS will get about $32 million next year.

Schools with a certain percentage of poor students are designated as Title I schools; 156 of DPS’s 199 schools fit that description, according to a district list. Title I schools are required by law to have a parent involvement plan that families help write. Research shows that when families are engaged in their children’s learning, they do better academically.

But DPS officials admit that the level to which Title I schools truly involve their parents in writing the plan and carrying it out varies. The district relies on school staff to report whether they’ve met with parents to show them the plan and explain what being a Title I school means as required by law, said Veronica Bradsby, the DPS title programs director.

“I can’t speak for every principal in every school,” Bradsby said. “But I can tell you there’s compliance and then there’s commitment.” She said that while she’d like every Title I school to show commitment, she knows that doesn’t happen.

In 2003, the last time DPS updated its family engagement policy, the district set up a parent advisory council to ensure the policy’s success. According to Becker, who works for the DPS Office of Family and Community Engagement, the council met for a few years but stopped when the district began hosting its superintendent parent forums, at which the schools chief meets with parents to discuss initiatives and programs underway in DPS.

Mortimer, for one, hopes this time will be different. Only time will tell, she said: while policies and regulations are important, what the district does with them matters more.

“Any document is only as good as the staffing and the support that goes behind it,” she said.

FAQ

Goodbye, focus and priority schools: Hello, new ways of supporting Indiana’s struggling students, whether their school is an A or an F.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103. The school was on the priority school list for 2016.

Under new federal law, Indiana officials will no longer only have a responsibility to step in to help the state’s worst-performing schools — they’ll be responsible for rooting out problems in high-achieving districts as well.

Currently, Indiana education officials siphon off the state’s most-struggling schools each year for more support or other kinds of state intervention, based on their A-to-F grades. Schools that receive Fs or have graduation rates below 65 percent are called “priority schools,” and schools that receive Ds are called “focus schools.”

The categories serve as a watch-list for both federal and state accountability. Only D- and F-schools that receive federal poverty aid, known as Title I funding, are be eligible to go on the lists.

But going forward, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act makes some pretty big changes to this system. The law replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, and the state is currently overhauling its education policy plan to meet the new requirements. The plan is due to the federal government for approval in September.

Below, we break down the new rules and answer some questions.

So what will happen to focus and priority schools?

Those categories will go away, and two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

Targeted support schools are ones where certain group of students are doing poorly on state tests. It’s a distinction that’s focused on trying to close test score gaps between students from different backgrounds, a key aspect of what ESSA was designed to do.

Civil Rights advocates and educators have praised this part of the new law, which they hope will highlight inequities within schools and no longer allow “good” schools to overlook small groups of students who need more help.

“There needs to be a focus on these subgroups specifically because sometimes, when you’re looking at these schools as a whole, it can mask subgroup performance,” said Maggie Paino, director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools.

Which schools would qualify?

Targeted support schools would be ones where groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Technically, schools that have high overall grades could still fall into the targeted support category.

Schools that require comprehensive support include those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

There’s also a way that schools could transition from targeted to comprehensive support: If a subgroup remains in bottom 5 percent for longer than the state deems appropriate (based on a timeline it gets to create) they will be considered as needing comprehensive support as well.

When do the new categories go into effect?

Beginning in 2018-19, using test results from 2017-18, the state will identify the schools that fall into the two categories, with one exception: Schools requiring comprehensive support based on how subgroups perform wouldn’t be identified for the first time until 2020-21.

The initial identification will happen in the fall, and then schools have the rest of the school year to plan. The state will also publish a list each of year of “at-risk” schools that are in the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent and high schools with graduation rates 70 percent or lower.

How can schools shake off the new labels?

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support.

For schools in targeted support, they have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Both types of schools must also create a “strong plan” for how they will maintain their progress and how funding and other resources might change after they no longer need state support.

Do these schools get any extra money from the state to make their plans happen?

They do — multiple grants will be available.

Comprehensive support schools qualify for one to two years of extra Title I dollars to support their work improving their school. The money will be distributed by the state during the schools’ planning year after they are first identified.

Districts with four or more schools in comprehensive support can apply for additional grants to help them put in place bigger turnaround projects, such as transformation zones or innovation network schools.

How long can a school be labeled as comprehensive support?

Four years — the same as the state’s current accountability limit for F grades. After that, more serious consequences come into play.

At that point, Indiana State Board of Education can:

  • Merge the school with a nearby, higher-performing school.
  • Assign a special management team to run all or part of the school.
  • Allow the school to become part of a transformation zone.
  • Allow the school to become an innovation network school.
  • Accept recommendations from the Indiana Department of Education.
  • Delay action for another year if it thinks the majority of students are improving.
  • Close the school.
  • Employ other options as it sees fit.

The state board will continue discussing Indiana’s ESSA plan at its meeting next week.

You can find the state’s entire ESSA plan here and Chalkbeat’s ESSA coverage here.

Feedback loop

Colorado’s education plan earns cheers, jeers from national reform groups

Miguel Rosales, 8, middle, does as many push ups as he can while friends David Perez, 8, left, and Julio Rivera, 9, right, watch during PE class taught by Chris Strater at Lyn Knoll Elementary School on December 14, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Reviews of Colorado’s federally required education plan are beginning to trickle in from national observers. And they’re mixed.

What’s there to love, according to national education think-tanks? Colorado is taking seriously new requirements to include more information about how students are succeeding in school.

What’s there to gripe about? The state’s plan is not very detailed and lacks strong goals for student achievement, which critics say raises questions about how it plans to improve schools.

Colorado was one of the first states earlier this year to submit its plan to comply with updated federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education and state education department officials spent more than a year developing the plan with scores of teachers, advocates, parents and business leaders.

While state officials wait for an official response from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who must approve the plan to keep federal dollars flowing to the state’s schools — there’s no shortage of commentary from the education reform class.

Here’s what you need to know about three reports released this summer on Colorado’s education plan:

The Collaborative for Student Success has the most detailed look at the state’s plan — and is the most critical.

While this organization, which worked with Bellwether Education Partners, praised Colorado for its commitment to rigorous academic standards and data reporting, it raised several red flags that are consistent with some early criticism that the federal education department has shared with other states.

Chiefly: Colorado’s long-term academic goals are based on a confusing percentile system and make no sense.

Instead of setting a goal to increase the number of students reaching proficiency on state exams, the state wants to increase its average test scores during the next six years.

While that sounds simple enough, the goals are muddled because the state has set the same goal for different student populations. Students with disabilities who historically earn the lowest test scores are expected to raise their achievement to meet the state average. Meanwhile, Asian students who historically outperform the state would need to lose ground in order for the state to meet its goals.

The goals, the organization says, are “difficult for parents, educators and the public to understand, (do) not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve, and may not be ambitious” enough.

The group also raised serious concerns about the state’s lack of detail in several areas, including how the state would weigh different factors that determine school quality.

Throughout the development of the plan, Colorado officials repeatedly said that they intended to provide limited responses to the federal education department’s questionnaire, which guided the plan’s development.

That’s because they believed the new education law’s intent was to provide states with greater flexibility and less federal oversight. Therefore, Colorado officials reasoned, the federal education department didn’t need an excessive level of detail.

What’s more, the federal law does give states the opportunity to continually update and amend their plans. That’s something Colorado plans to do as it receives guidance from the federal government and the state legislature.

Colorado’s plan continues to garner praise from the center-right Fordham Institute.

The folks at the Fordham Institute can’t say enough good things about Colorado’s plan. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit came out early with an editorial praising the plan’s development. Now they are giving Colorado strong marks across the board.

Fordham graded state plans in three areas regarding school quality ratings: were they clear, focused on all students and fair to schools that serve mostly poor students?

What really gets Fordham revved up is Colorado’s switch to a normative approach of rating schools. Most states rate schools based on how many students meet or exceed a certain proficiency standard on annual English and math tests. Colorado rates schools based on a school’s average score on those tests. The closer the school is to the overall state average, the better the quality score.

Fordham and state officials believe this move requires schools to focus on the performance of all students, not just those who are near the proficiency line. Critics argue that the measure can be misleading.

Colorado is one of eight states to include a variety of “promising practices.” But it’s not the leading the pack.

A third group, Results for America, took a slightly different approach in critiquing the first batch of state plans. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Results for America identified 13 strategies states could use in their plans as ways to improve student learning.

Strategies include giving federal tax dollars only to schools that are using proven reform methods and creating a state system to support school turnaround efforts.

Colorado’s plan included four of the 13 strategies. Meanwhile, New Mexico is using nine and Tennessee is using seven.

Colorado’s plan was recognized for requiring schools to create annual improvement plans that are based on proven techniques and consolidating multiple grant applications for school improvement work into one.