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.”

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.

Looking for options

State board raised questions over plan for Pueblo schools and management partners

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Board of Education on Monday asked Pueblo City Schools and state officials to submit slightly different plans for three struggling schools by mid-June.

While the district already planned to partner with two outside companies to improve student performance at the three schools, the board directed state officials to give the outside companies more of a management role in the next version of the plan.

While the board approved improvement plans for several other schools and districts this month, its request for changes to the plan for Pueblo schools was unusual. It also means that in June the board will have two plans to choose from for a final order.

Board members on Monday asked district officials about the work the district has done in the past few years trying to improve performance with an innovation zone — or a group of schools granted similar waivers from some laws and policies — about leadership changes in the schools and at the district level and about whether there have been any successful “bright spots” in recent years.

Board members also questioned district officials on the role of the external companies, Achievement Network and Relay Graduate School of Education.

Charlotte Macaluso, Pueblo City Schools superintendent said the management companies would not govern the schools.

“They would serve as a partner to identify needs,” Macaluso said.

But board members weren’t sold on a partnership of equals, and directed state officials to create a governance plan outlining how the companies would work with the schools. They also expressed frustration at the lack of a formal vetting process for the companies that would work with the schools. The same issue came up at hearings for Greeley schools earlier in the day.

The three schools include Heroes Academy, a K-8, Risley International, a middle school, and Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third-graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The initial state and district proposals call for the three schools to work with two external companies. For Heroes and Risley, the recommendations also suggest allowing the schools to waive some district and state rules.

Risley got innovation status in 2012, giving it such flexibility. So far, the status has not improved the school’s performance. For Heroes the autonomies would be new.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.