tracking progress

Can Westminster’s different approach to learning get a fair shot under Colorado’s accountability system?

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

Leaders of the largest school district in Colorado facing possible state intervention next year are contending that the current system for rating schools is not capturing progress their students are making under an approach to learning that is one-of-a-kind in Colorado.

In 2009, Westminster Public Schools began phasing in competency-based learning, which is based on grouping kids together based on what they know instead of their age.

“Our system is at odds with the traditional accountability model,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools. He added that the district is showing growth and closing achievement gaps separating students of different backgrounds.

The state’s preliminary rating for the district is priority improvement, the second lowest rating on the scale, and the same as in previous years. The state is required to take action after a school or district earns five consecutive low ratings. Westminster Public Schools has reached that limit and if the newest preliminary rating is finalized they will face intervention. Among its options, the state can choose to shut down schools or require the district to merge with another.

Westminster Public Schools in the fall of 2009 began to phase-in what is now called a competency based system. Through it, the district did away with traditional grade-level assignments and grades. Instead, students in Westminster schools are assigned to classrooms based on their proficiency in each subject and they move up through the levels when they show they learned the content, not necessarily after a year of sitting in that class.

While other districts are experimenting with competency-based models in some schools, none have moved to do it district-wide like Westminster did by the 2013-14 school year. Westminster district leaders say it’s still evolving.

“One thing that has evolved over time is our tracking of our student data so we are as flexible as we can to move students when they’re ready to move,” said Pam Swanson, the district’s superintendent. “The other thing is we can never do too much communication.”

Part of the model is dependent on students understanding that when they learn the content, they can ask to prove it on a test so they can move to another level. Students accelerate more when they understand how the system works, officials say.

The district said it also can point to evidence that it is executing the model well. Last school year the district paid AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to review the model. The group accredited the district as a result and shared recommendations to improve the system, which the district is working on now.

Part of the conflict with the state’s accountability system, officials say, is that students have to be assigned a traditional grade level when they take state tests. A student may be assigned to a grade level based on their age, even if they have not had exposure to that grade level content yet.

District officials call the required grouping artificial, and say that the once-a-year tests don’t reflect the growth students make.

“We would love to be able to comply with state testing but to do it in a way that’s real time,” Swanson said. “If we could do it as we’re moving kids through their levels, that would make so much more sense.”

Maria Worthen, vice president of federal and state policy for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said competency is not at odds with accountability rooted in the idea that kids should know a certain amount by a certain age.

“When we talk about competency-based education, it’s about meeting students where they are and giving them all of the supports they need,” Worthen said. “We’re not talking about computer-based training. It’s not about everyone at their own pace. It’s about flexible pace. It’s about letting kids try again.”

Based on data from state tests, the most recent indicator of growth showed students in Westminster were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state. In English language arts tests, Westminster’s growth score was 47. That means Westminster students showed improvements, on average, better than 47 percent of Colorado kids who had similar scores last year. In math, Westminster’s growth score was 42.

Worthen said the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides more opportunities for states to create systems that better account for how kids learn in competency-based systems.

State officials say federal law requires students take tests based on a grade level because it allows officials to make sure students are keeping up with their peers and not being discriminated against. But Colorado is in the early stages of considering requesting flexibility from the federal government for a new state testing and accountability model.

That could involve a system that is more suited for competency-based teaching, or one that also allows for testing throughout the year instead of once.

“There’s not consensus across the state when it comes to what we should prioritize,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment at the state Department of Education. “One thing to keep in mind is that in the end, so, long term, the expectation is that the entire state will move to the same model.”

Worthen said that accountability systems don’t have to be exclusively built around competency. She said that one possibility could be basing accountability on multiple assessments over a period of time instead of one single test given in the spring.

“From an accountability point of view, we do want to know that no student is falling through the cracks,” Worthen said.

Educators across the state have raised issues with Colorado’s accountability system for a variety of reasons. While in Westminster it revolves around the competency-based approach, teachers elsewhere have said that students who are English language learners or who have special education needs are also unprepared for the tests they are forced to take.

Sharyl Kay Lawson, a special education teacher in Brighton, said that she has had students that blow through state tests in less than 20 minutes because they don’t know the material.

“My kids come to me for reading because the classroom reading is way above their level,” Lawson said. “Then they’re expected to go back to class and take a regular assessment at their grade level.

Recently, some district leaders also have questioned the validity of data for comparison when large numbers of students opt-out of taking the tests.

Westminster district officials are writing a request asking the state to reconsider their latest rating before it is made official by January. If the request to reconsider is denied, district, officials said they would appeal to the state Board of Education.

District leaders want to present the state with other evidence they say shows their district is improving, but they’re still figuring out what data the state will consider.

They have also been talking to state officials about what flexibilities they wish they had in the accountability system to let them continue their competency based model while not facing intervention from the state.

“Everyone here is open to having a conversation about what it is the assessment system should look like long term,” Zurkowski said. “But it needs to be something that allows for us to ensure that all of our students are getting access to high quality education regardless of race or zip code. That’s the balance and I expect there will be lots of discussion about that.”

'very difficult choices'

Five Jeffco Public Schools recommended for closure under budget-cutting plan

Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee speaking to reporters last month (photo by Eric Gorski).

The Jefferson County school district is proposing closing five schools in a cost-cutting move to meet a school board directive to better pay teachers and staff, Superintendent Dan McMinimee told reporters Thursday.

McMinimee’s comments came hours before a board meeting where the names of the schools will be publicly announced.

Given enrollment trends in Jeffco, it’s likely that the schools slated for closure will include some along the district’s eastern border with Denver. Those schools, which serve large populations of students living in poverty, have been the focus of recent district and community efforts to boost academic achievement.

“It will be a disruption to some families short-term,” McMinimee said. “But hopefully long-term, those families will see the benefits of having high-quality educators in classrooms their kids can access.”

The proposed closures are part of an effort to save between $20 million and $25 million, with the goal of spending that amount on attracting and retaining high-quality educators. Jeffco teachers on average are paid about $10,000 to $15,000 a year less than their peers in other metro area districts, McMinimee said, making it difficult to meet the district’s goal of ensuring every classroom has exceptional educators.

The school board decided to make spending on compensation a priority in November, after voters rejected a bond request for capital improvements and a tax increase that would have helped boost teacher salaries.

The 86,000-student district also anticipates a drop in enrollment, which will mean less money from the state. A change in property tax assessments also could cost Jeffco an estimated $10 million in state revenue, McMinimee noted.

The board will not be making any decisions Thursday. School principals were notified earlier in the day that their schools are being recommended for closure, McMinimee said. He called the closure recommendations “very difficult choices.”

The district identified the schools after considering nine or 10 criteria, among them enrollment trends and the condition of the buildings, he said. According to data provided by the district, enrollment is declining in the Edgewater, Jefferson and Alameda areas along Denver’s western boundary. Some Arvada schools also have many empty seats.

Fewer than 120 teachers and staff will be impacted by the closures, and McMinimee said he expects most will be offered other positions in the district. Between 300 and 500 positions come open per year, either because of one-year contracts elapsing or people moving on, he said.

As a result, the district will save money not on personnel but on not having to keep open and maintain under-utilized buildings, many of which are in need of repair. The district can also sell the property, taking away earnings from that.

All five Jeffco school board members won election in 2015 after a bitter recall campaign that saw the ousting of three conservative board members who hired McMinimee for the superintendent’s job. The recall had strong backing from the teachers union; the union also supported the candidates who swept to power and now hold all five seats.

This month, the school board voted to begin a search for a new superintendent while McMinimee still has six months remaining on his contract.

Chalkbeat’s Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report. 

Tough options

Aurora schools weighing a long list of possible budget cuts for next year

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn in 2013 (Denver Post file)

Eliminating full-day kindergarten, adding furlough days and cutting middle school sports are among the steps Aurora Public Schools is considering to shrink next year’s budget as the district copes with an array of financial challenges.

The three scenarios are part of a long list of possible moves district officials are considering to slash the 2017-18 budget, which needs to be about $31 million less than the current year’s budget.

The district cut $3 million from central administration in the middle of this school year after an unanticipated enrollment decline, its largest in decades.

More expected declines in enrollment and other factors are causing district officials to seek community input on what to prioritize as it faces tough decisions about next year’s budget.

Like districts across the state, Aurora is also expecting state funding will again fall short of the amount that a state formula calculates it should get. Cuts could be even greater next year because a state constitutional amendment may drop residential property taxes, meaning districts would lose some local revenue.

The Aurora district has held back big cuts to the classroom in recent years by spending money from the district’s reserves — a rainy-day fund of unallocated savings — but now the district wants to start building up that account again instead of draining it.

“It’s a challenging mix of contributing factors,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools.

At an open house Saturday about the district’s budget conundrum, one person asked Munn why the district hadn’t asked voters for a tax increase from a mill levy override in November at the same time as a $300 million bond request — which voters approved — in anticipation of the cuts.

Munn said asking for both may have doomed the requests but said the district is considering asking voters for such a tax increase next year. Anticipating a longer trend of shrinking enrollment, he said the budget still needs to shrink.

A tax increase is not meant to address a drop in students, Munn said.

“It’s not appropriate for us to say we have fewer students but we want more money,” he said.

The district already has come up with one set of proposed cuts that would account for $21.8 million of the $31 million the district aims to cut. Those steps include renegotiating employee health benefits, eliminating late-start Wednesdays at some schools and charging more overhead costs to state funds that help districts for things like preschool.

The district is asking for community feedback on other possible cuts to find the rest of the savings. Officials are sharing a list of 41 ideas for cutting the budget and created four scenarios including one that just reduces school staffing. People also have the option to draw their own budget from the list.

Some of the ideas include shifting to a four-day week for a savings of $450,000; eliminating three swimming pools at high schools for a savings of $500,000; and postponing or canceling the adoption of new curriculum materials for a savings of $2.4 million.

Looking through the list, Marisa Sanchez, a mother of two boys in the district, worried that many choices would have too much of an impact on students.

“Wanting to remove staff from schools shouldn’t be an option,” Sanchez said. “They’re there because they are necessary. I’m a volunteer at my son’s school and I see it.”

Donna Godfrey said she is fine with the district getting rid of swimming pools but also doesn’t want to see less staff in schools. She said she worried about classrooms filled with students that need more support like those learning English or who are new to the country.

“Adding just three more students to that class, it’s a bad thing,” Godfrey said.

Sanchez also worried that shifting the enrollment process to the schools instead of at the district-level, an idea that would save $443,085, “would be chaos.”

Munn said he hasn’t processed the feedback that the district has received so far, but said it will all be considered.

“What I’m happy about is that people can actually digest these options and think about some of the tough choices we have to make,” Munn said.

The district will have one more open house at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Vista PEAK Exploratory School, 24551 E. 1st Ave. Online, the district will continue to take feedback through Feb. 3.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that more drastic budget cuts could be expected next year because of a change in personal property taxes.