high marks

Are Denver’s nationally-known school reforms paying off? New report says yes.

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management (Denver Post file)

Top-to-bottom efforts to reform Denver Public Schools are showing positive results, helping the district post the second highest rates of academic growth among large U.S. districts, a new report says.

The mostly laudatory report from Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, also noted continual challenges facing the 92,000-student district, including widening achievement gaps separating students living in poverty from their better-off peers.

Between 2009 and 2013, DPS trailed only Lincoln, Neb., in academic growth among U.S. districts with more than 25,000 students, the report said, citing federal data. Across all grades and subjects, DPS performance improved almost an entire grade level, the report said.

Academic proficiency increased across all groups of students, and in both district-run and charter schools, it said. The report credited DPS for how it manages schools with different governance structures, saying DPS has avoided “the unplanned under-enrollment and performance degradation in district schools that too often accompanies charter growth.”

However, the report also notes that DPS has taken steps backward in trying to achieve its goal of having 80 percent of students in high-quality classrooms by 2020. For DPS, high quality means schools that rank “blue” or “green” on its color-coded performance system.

As of 2013, DPS was on track to achieve its goals, with 60 percent of students in high-quality seats. That has since dropped below 50 percent, in part because of a shift to new state tests and changes to DPS’s rating formula, the report says.

The report said DPS’s goal may need “recalibration” as a result. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg recently told Chalkbeat he still thinks the 80 percent goal is achievable.

Karen Baroody, managing director of Education Resource Strategies, said the organization has worked with DPS in the past and approached the district about the study because it has “systematically tried to retool every part of its system” and seen results.

DPS cooperated with the report but did not commission it, a district spokeswoman said. The work was funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation.

Baroody said Denver’s changing demographics cannot explain the uptick in academic growth since 2009, saying the trend of more affluent families moving in has grown more pronounced more recently.

To better serve high-needs students, the group urged DPS to strategically place “proven models and operators” of schools and adopt policies “that encourage integration in gentrifying neighborhoods.” Baroody said district-run schools that are growing increasingly white and middle class could adopt preferences for higher-needs students much like charter operators do.

Speaking broadly of integration efforts, she said, “I don’t think anyone in the country has figured out how to do this.”

The report also credited DPS for its “willingness to put teeth into accountability systems by closing chronically underperforming schools.” However, considerable effort should be invested in helping struggling schools, Baroody said.

“In reality, you don’t want to keep closing and opening schools,” she said. “It’s like hiring a teacher and saying if they’re great, great, and if they aren’t, fire them. But brand-new teachers need help and support to get better and most schools, if given the right support, will get better.”

District critics will take issue with many of the report’s findings. For example, the report says DPS investment in changing how it evaluates teachers and school leaders “seems to be paying off.” It cites increased rigor in teacher evaluation and high retention of strong performers coupled with relatively higher attrition of low performers.

In the ongoing election for leadership of the Denver teachers union, the teacher evaluation system, known as LEAP, has come under heavy criticism.

Read the full report here.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

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

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

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.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.