year in review

For Colorado’s lowest performing schools, 2016 was make-or-break

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Scott Carpenter principal Chadwick Anderson reads an inspirational quote during the morning announcements.

Improving chronically low-performing schools is one of the hardest jobs in education.

And for dozens of Colorado districts and schools, 2016 amounted to a make-or-break moment. That’s because after a one-year pause, the state’s “accountability clock” began ticking again.

Districts and schools that didn’t show enough improvement on this year’s English and math state exams faced possible sanctions from the State Board of Education.

Schools could be shut down, converted to a charter or redesigned as an innovation school. Schools awarded innovation status receive waivers from local policies and state law similar to charter schools. But they’re still governed by their district’s school board.

Districts could be asked to reorganize or hand over some of their operations to a third party.

The 18,000-student Pueblo City Schools was expected to be the biggest challenge facing the state. The district, as well as 12 schools, were considered chronically failing prior to preliminary quality ratings released in October. But nine schools boosted learning enough to be spared sanctions. The district was also taken off the state’s watch list.

Sheridan and Ignacio are among the districts that had languished on the state’s accountability watch list but bounced off at the last minute.

Thanks to an overhaul of the reading curriculum and other changes, Thornton Elementary School in the Adams 12 Five Star District also showed enough improvement to be spared sanctions.  

Two Westminster schools that were facing sanctions, including M. Scott Carpenter Middle School, moved off the list. However, eight new schools were put on the list, keeping the district’s accreditation in jeopardy. (Districts that fail to adhere to the state’s sanctions risk losing their seal of approval, potentially putting federal funding at risk.)

Five districts and as many as a dozen schools could end up facing some form of sanction from the state board. The state is expected to release school quality ratings in January.

There were numerous other efforts in 2016 to boost student learning at schools that were either not on the state’s accountability watch list or were not facing immediate sanctions. And early signs showed progress.

At Boston K-8 in Aurora, the school adopted a new writing curriculum and carved out new joint planning time for teachers. Those efforts led to some of the state’s best academic growth scores. Academic growth measures how much a student learns year-to-year compared to their academic peers.  

At one Jefferson County elementary school that serves a large population of English language learners, most students participating in an after-school reading club saw their literacy skills improve dramatically.

In Denver, officials in the state’s largest school district have found giving principals more time to plan school improvement efforts pays off. This year, the district gave principals tasked with turning around low-performing schools a “Year Zero” hoping it makes the work more doable and sustainable.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.