State accountability

Adams 14 will retain low rating, setting district up for state sanctions

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.

State education department officials have rejected Adams County School District 14’s attempt to avoid state sanctions for continued poor academic performance, citing a lack of evidence showing improvement.

Colorado Department of Education officials will present final district performance ratings to the State Board of Education on Thursday. Districts received preliminary ratings in October and were given a chance to ask the state to reconsider the rating by presenting different evidence.

But according to a letter sent to Adams 14 that the district provided to Chalkbeat, state officials found the request was not strong enough to earn a higher rating, as the district requested.

“The data across grade levels and content areas did not present a compelling case of performance that warrants a higher accreditation rating,” department officials wrote this week.

The district’s rating will remain accredited with turnaround plan — the lowest of the five possible ratings.

The decision is a significant blow for Adams 14 because the district is one of five in the state that are facing state sanctions for earning low ratings on the state’s evaluations for five years. The state has a small number of options to deal with the low-performing districts, including closing schools, merging districts or turning over management to a third party.

Adams 14 officials have said they are working on drafting an innovation plan requesting waivers and flexibilities from the state to try new approaches to improving student achievement. If the state approves an innovation plan, that could serve as it sanction — giving Adams 14 more time to show signs of improvement before more drastic steps.

Superintendent Javier Abrego, who took the top job in the 7,500-student district this summer, said the district is disappointed but respects the decision. The district will not pursue an appeal, a district spokeswoman said.

“We’ve seen pockets of improvement around the district, but it’s simply not enough,” Abrego said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “That’s why my instructional team has taken a deeper dive into the state test data as well as other instructional data and we’re working with principals and teachers to strengthen the alignment of instruction to the Colorado Academic Standards. We’re also re-evaluating the support and training provided to educators to make sure it’s targeted to improve instruction.”

The Adams 14 request asking for a higher performance rating asked state officials to remove a set of 2015 test data for students who are learning English as a second language, saying it did not reflect recent changes to instruction for those students.

State officials responded that they did remove that set of data, but it didn’t change the overall assessment of the district.

The district also presented data from district tests, but didn’t provide what was required.

“As stated in the request to reconsider guidance, a successful case for a request based on a body of evidence will include three years of data. Only one year of data (2015-16) was provided in the request,” the letter stated. “Without a sense of whether the district is on an upward or downward trajectory, and relying solely on one year of supplemental data—which depicts many of the district’s students failing to meet the 50th percentile in growth—the department cannot accept the district’s request for a higher rating.”

State officials also give performance ratings to individual schools, but those won’t be finalized until January. Adams 14 had asked the state to reconsider several of their district’s school ratings as well, and in the same letter from the state, they learned the state will reconsider one elementary school’s rating.

collaboration not confrontation

Colorado shied from taking aggressive action to fix its lowest performing schools. Will it be enough?

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

At historic Aurora Central High School, the last few years have been a trial.

Students have described widespread fights, high truancy rates and a heavy police presence. Academic performance has suffered, with fewer than half of all students graduating on time.

The clock finally ran out on the city’s oldest school this year. After six years of academic struggles, it was time for state education officials to intervene with a plan of action.

State officials could have closed Aurora Central or handed it over to a charter school.

But instead, they chose a far more lenient path — allowing the 2,100-student high school to continue a plan that began a year ago that gives the school more flexibility from the district’s school schedule, curriculum and hiring practices. The school was required to hire a consultant to help execute the plan.

This kind of approach — relatively cautious, devised in close collaboration with local school districts and reliant on outside consultants — sums up Colorado’s strategy this year for trying to turn around five districts and a dozen schools that have persistently struggled since 2010.

This was the first year under Colorado’s current school accountability system that required the state to take such action. The strategy of working collaboratively with school leaders reflects both the power of local control in Colorado and the philosophy of a department that has evolved in recent years from one that is less strong-armed regulatory enforcer and more partner.

Colorado’s approach is part of a growing trend away from aggressive state takeovers that produced mixed results in states such as Tennessee, New Jersey and Michigan.

“States have increasingly recognized that the work of school improvement is hard,” said Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

State takeover of districts and schools was not on the table in Colorado. That’s because Colorado’s constitution puts ultimate control of schools in the hands of local school boards.

State and district officials explained in some cases why more aggressive steps — such as school closure or charter school takeover — weren’t feasible given the circumstances.

But concerns have arisen — including from some members of the State Board of Education, which had the final say on the plans — that Colorado’s efforts may not be drastic enough.

“Will this program work?” Republican board member Steve Durham asked while discussing the plan to improve Westminster Public Schools, a district with more than 9,000 students northwest of Denver. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, said the state gave the schools and districts a pass.

“Nobody is losing their job, no one is forced to hand over a building,” he said. “I just think it’s outrageous and systemic. There were a lot of options — and the state board and CDE decided not to take them.”

No ‘silver bullet’

The 2009 law that created Colorado’s current accountability system gave the state board four options. It could direct schools be closed; turned over to a charter operator; redesigned under the state’s innovation law, which would give the school some flexibility from state law and district policies; or be managed in part or completely by an education management company.

The state also had the option to order a school district with too many low-performing schools to merge with a nearby district with higher test scores — a step officials did not take.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes acknowledged the challenges of choosing a course.

“What kept me up at night was that these are high-stakes decisions that affect real students and teachers and educators in these systems,” she said. “The toughest decision was making a decision, because you know there isn’t one silver bullet and there isn’t one right answer.”

As the state prepared to intervene, it appeared the favored course would be to allow districts and schools to radically redesign under the innovation law. The law allows for freedom in curriculum decisions, different school calendars, and makes it easier to hire and fire teachers.

But state board members and department officials grew worried the struggling schools were in no position to manage those responsibilities on their own.

In three cases, the state board approved a school’s innovation plan on the condition it also contract with a management partner to help put it in place. The state also directed six schools and districts not seeking innovation waivers to contract with an outside group for assistance.

“The state board found (innovation) as a strong option, as there would be some dramatic change,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, a state education department official who helped shepherd this year’s accountability hearings. “But we also want to make sure” the schools had strong leadership and necessary help putting the plans in place, she said.

While state officials may believe the combination of innovation status and external help could prove fruitful, one observer cautioned that the strategy poses risks.

“Schools often adopt a million different strategies, not recognizing that some of those are incompatible with each other,” said Lorrie Shepard, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “New leaders sometimes want a million of those things. Incoherence is bad, and only adds to the churn and the chaos in schools.”

The amount of authority each management partner will have varies from school to school. The Aguilar School District turned over considerable decision-making power to its partner, Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit organization that works in Denver and New York.

Westminster’s partnership with AdvancED will involve a more traditional consultant role, in which the outside officials will review and make recommendations to the district on how to better see through its unique approach to learning. AdvancEd has accredited the district, and officials told the state they will pull that accreditation if the district doesn’t meet their standards.

In some cases, like with Pueblo City Schools and the Adams 14 School District, the state board pushed for management companies to have more authority than the districts had envisioned.

During the process, department officials said that some options were just not viable.

State documents outlining recommendations for changes to schools and districts said that closing schools was not a good idea, in many cases because a better alternative was not available nearby. Other schools could not absorb such a large number of displaced students.

Turning over schools to charter operators was a nonstarter for many school districts, according to district officials.

Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of the Greeley school district, told the state board during a hearing that high-performing charter networks were not interested in taking over her schools.

Pilch said the former superintendent approached at least one high-performing charter network and was told Greeley’s low student funding wouldn’t support its model. Greeley voters have never approved local property tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, for school funding.

“They are not coming,” said Pilch, whose district does have seven existing charter schools. “So you know what? The work is on us. It is our job to take care of our kids.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, challenged that contention.

“We’ve got charter schools operating all across the state in different districts and they make it work,” Schaller said. He added that “the real question” is whether school districts are willing to share available money with all schools or hold some back from charters.

Board member Durham, at one hearing, cited a lack of time as a barrier to charter schools playing a greater role. He said that by the time the board reviewed options, it was too late to suggest a charter school take over a school program in just a matter of months.

Schaller agreed, and added that charter school operators in Colorado are interested in playing a larger role in the turnaround of low-performing schools.

“It just has to be a much longer-term conversation,” he said.

The education department is considering options to make charter schools part of the mix moving forward. Charters receive tax dollars but are run independently of school districts.

One possibility is the state requesting proposals months in advance from charter groups that would volunteer to take over one or more schools in a certain region.

Working together — and the trouble that brings

In 2010, the Colorado Department of Education began a philosophical shift under the direction of then-commissioner Robert Hammond. The department would be less focused on making sure schools and districts are complying with state law and more focused on supporting their efforts.

That’s a philosophical approach Anthes, the current commissioner, continues to embrace.

“This is a human relationship-driven, complex endeavor,” Anthes said. “I find interacting positively, working toward a common goal, will bring us to a higher quality outcome faster. And that’s my North Star: higher quality outcomes the fastest way possible.”

In an effort to support schools — and avoid the political and emotional conflict typical of school improvement efforts — the department created a grant program for schools and districts to develop their own plan that the state board could endorse.

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14, called the state’s approach a wise decision that his community appreciated.

“Allowing us to choose our own pathway, I thought that was a very important strategy,” Abrego said. “It gave us ownership. They didn’t mandate anything.”

Other states, including Massachusetts and Tennessee, are experimenting with similar approaches, hoping that better involving communities into the school improvement process will yield better results than more heavy-handed takeovers. In both states, however, the education department has considerably more sway over how schools are run compared to Colorado.

The dual role Colorado plays in holding schools accountable and supporting school improvement efforts brings a host of problems, said Jochim, the Washington state-based researcher.

“When you’re charged with holding people accountable, can you also take responsibility for guiding the improvement process?” she said. “It’s tough to tell schools what to do, and when (they) fail you sanction them.”

Anthes said she sees the roles as complementary. She said the education department’s role is to provide guidance and expertise to help school districts complete the work.

“I do have confidence in the process and the plans that were put forward,” she said. “I’m not going to say they’re perfect. But I don’t think any intervention is the perfect solution.”

on to the work

State Board signs off on Adams 14, Adams City High School improvement plans

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 Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday quickly and unanimously approved a revised improvement plan for the Adams 14 School District.

“I am hopeful and optimistic,” said board member Jane Goff, who represents the area that includes the Commerce City-based district. “I am very firm and forthright in my confidence that this is a good plan, that you have taken all the necessary steps to interact well in new and different ways with the community.”

Goff noted the role students have played in shaping the discussion.

Students from Adams City High School walked out of school earlier this year demanding to speak with the district administration, asking for a voice in their school’s future and pleading for stable leadership.

The district’s approved plan calls for an Arizona-based nonprofit group, Beyond Textbooks, to help improve teaching at three schools and make recommendations about possible management changes.

The final order for the 8,000-student district allows the state to take further action if the state’s 2018 performance reviews don’t show improvement.

The order also states that if Adams City High School earns a priority improvement or turnaround rating in 2018 — the two lowest ratings on the state’s evaluations — the commissioner “may assign the state review panel to critically evaluate the school’s performance, revisit its recommendations and report back to the state board.” The high school is under its own improvement plan because of poor performance, along with being part of the district’s plan.

The state board has given most other schools and districts on improvement plans until 2019 to show improvement, and set different ratings to trigger further action in the different orders they’ve approved.

Westminster Public Schools must earn a rating higher than the two lowest ones by 2019. Aurora Central High School must show improvement in the 2019 evaluations, but it will only face further action if it earns the lowest rating of turnaround.