Green Light

Pueblo’s plan: pour efforts into training and keeping teachers in struggling schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in 2014.

Struggling Pueblo City Schools got the go-ahead Thursday to unite six schools in an effort to better train and retain teachers, a plan that is likely to be the cornerstone of a broader improvement effort required because of chronic low student performance in the district.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the district’s first innovation zone, which will give the six schools serving the city’s most at-risk students more freedom to work together while not being required to follow some district and state policies.

“At the end of the day, it’s about what teachers do in the classroom,” said Charlotte Macaluso, the district’s interim superintendent.

The state’s innovation law is becoming an increasingly popular route for districts seeking to boost student achievement, especially those on the state’s accountability watch list for poor performance. Schools in Denver and Aurora are taking advantage of the law to extend their calendar and find new ways to hire and keep teachers.

Pueblo City Schools, which educates about 17,000 students, is the largest district on the state watch list. Schools and districts that fail to improve student learning within five years, like Pueblo, face a variety of consequences next year that could include closing schools or turning over management of the district to a third party.

Granting a struggling school innovation status is also an option.

Because the district worked closely with the state education department on the innovation zone, the plan is likely to play a significant role in any future decision the state board makes about Pueblo’s struggling schools. But the state board could still make other demands on the district, such as turning over some of its schools to charter authorizers.

The state board in previous meetings has cast doubt on whether innovation status is enough to move schools forward. A Chalkbeat review last spring of innovation schools found most have failed to improve academic achievement.

Pueblo officials acknowledged their existing innovation schools haven’t made enough progress to get off the list, but they believe a cultural tide has turned.

“The biggest difference is we have very safe schools,” said Karen Ortiz, the district’s director of innovation. “Now we’re starting to see the foundation to establish student achievement.”

State board members, growing more familiar with the role they will play in the coming months as low-performing schools come forward for sanctions, asked pointed questions about the plan.

Board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican from Parker, asked how the district’s plans would address longstanding problems in the district.

“If it’s more of the same, that’s not good,” Scheffel said. “The devil is in the details.”

District officials, citing one example of new training, said teachers were learning how to write better quizzes to match the state’s standards.

“The old saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ — I don’t think that’s true,” Ortiz said.

The state board’s approval on Thursday is one more piece of good news for the district after a rocky summer.

In July, the school board and the superintendent abruptly parted ways, catching many by surprise.

Macaluso was appointed interim superintendent last month. She was previously the principal at Risley International Middle School, one of the schools that will be part of the innovation zone and that has struggled to raise test scores.

“She’s lived innovation, and knows it very well,” said Phyllis Sanchez, Pueblo’s school board president. “We believe we have the right leaders in the right places.”

nailbiter

Westminster’s plan to improve schools gets narrow board approval

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

A plan to improve the struggling Westminster Public Schools was narrowly approved Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The Democrat-controlled board voted along party lines to approve the plan, with the Democrats voting in favor and the Republicans voting against.

The 4-3 vote followed months of negotiations and appeals between the 10,000-student district and the state.

Westminster is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face state intervention after more than five years of low performance on state English and math tests. It is the only district in the state, and one of a few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. Instead of traditional grade levels, the district moves students through instruction when they prove they’ve learned a concept.

As part of the improvement plan, the district has hired consultant AdvancEd to help diagnose problems interfering with the rollout of its teaching model and other achievement problems at each of the district’s underperforming schools.

The district previously hired the company to review its school improvement efforts. AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Under its plan, Westminster will also work with Denver-based Marzano Research to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model. Marzano will open a new lab school in the district in the 2018-19 school year. Called Marzano Academy, it will be run based on the company’s research.

Last week members of the state board pushed back on Westminster’s plan, saying it lacked clarity and didn’t make clear the roles the two companies would play.

Even though the district added new details to its plan, some state board members still balked.

“Will this program work?” Republican Steve Durham asked. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Earlier in the meeting Durham attempted to strip the district of its accreditation, a seal of approval from the state. But only one other board member, Republican Joyce Rankin, supported his motion.

State board members have increasingly voiced concern about how much authority external partners such as AdvancEd and Marzano should have in low-performing schools. A majority of plans have mirrored Westminster’s. Other options include closing schools or turning them over to charter operators.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson told the board’s Republican members that she rejected their premise that the district hasn’t been proactive in improving.

“We’re really pleased the board upheld Westminster’s plan to move forward,” Swanson said after the meeting. “We believe we’re doing great work. We believe we’ve had a great trajectory.”

defining roles

State board gives initial support to plan for struggling Adams 14 district and high school

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

The State Board of Education directed the struggling Adams County School District 14 Thursday to finalize an improvement plan but also asked for more details about the role of an outside company it plans to work with.

The board unanimously supported the direction of the plan. It will vote on a finalized version next month.

Adams 14, which enrolls almost 8,000 students, and state officials presented a proposal for the district to partner with an Arizona-based nonprofit, Beyond Textbooks, to help take on some of the duties the district hasn’t successfully handled itself.

The nonprofit will work with Adams 14 at three schools, including with half of the teachers at Adams City High School, providing teachers a guide to teaching the state standards, helping them track whether students learned the material and training them to help students who don’t get it the first time. The company will also train leaders to coach teachers.

District officials talked to the state board about how they’ve also introduced a biliteracy program at the elementary level. The district already offers a biliteracy seal for graduating students meeting requirements to prove proficiency in two languages. Adams 14 has the highest percentage of students identified as English learners in the state.

State education department staff members told the board they still have concerns with the district’s plan. They said they wanted more details about the role Beyond Textbooks will play, and more details about other proposed changes the district is planning on their own.

State board members questioned the district on how it is engaging parents, communicating with its staff and how it will give authority to Beyond Textbooks.

Kevin Carney, the executive officer for Beyond Textbooks, told the state board the company has had more success working in partnership with school districts and making recommendations, not taking full authority.

District superintendent Javier Abrego told the board that he will take recommendations from the company under serious consideration.

Carney added that it is the school district’s board of education that should be responsible for holding the superintendent accountable.

The state board has increasingly struggled with approving management plans where the districts don’t give much authority to the outside companies. Commissioner Katy Anthes told the board the department has clarified that the law requires companies take more authority in the case of struggling schools but is more flexible with districts.