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.

nailbiter

Westminster’s plan to improve schools gets narrow board approval

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

A plan to improve the struggling Westminster Public Schools was narrowly approved Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The Democrat-controlled board voted along party lines to approve the plan, with the Democrats voting in favor and the Republicans voting against.

The 4-3 vote followed months of negotiations and appeals between the 10,000-student district and the state.

Westminster is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face state intervention after more than five years of low performance on state English and math tests. It is the only district in the state, and one of a few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. Instead of traditional grade levels, the district moves students through instruction when they prove they’ve learned a concept.

As part of the improvement plan, the district has hired consultant AdvancEd to help diagnose problems interfering with the rollout of its teaching model and other achievement problems at each of the district’s underperforming schools.

The district previously hired the company to review its school improvement efforts. AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Under its plan, Westminster will also work with Denver-based Marzano Research to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model. Marzano will open a new lab school in the district in the 2018-19 school year. Called Marzano Academy, it will be run based on the company’s research.

Last week members of the state board pushed back on Westminster’s plan, saying it lacked clarity and didn’t make clear the roles the two companies would play.

Even though the district added new details to its plan, some state board members still balked.

“Will this program work?” Republican Steve Durham asked. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Earlier in the meeting Durham attempted to strip the district of its accreditation, a seal of approval from the state. But only one other board member, Republican Joyce Rankin, supported his motion.

State board members have increasingly voiced concern about how much authority external partners such as AdvancEd and Marzano should have in low-performing schools. A majority of plans have mirrored Westminster’s. Other options include closing schools or turning them over to charter operators.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson told the board’s Republican members that she rejected their premise that the district hasn’t been proactive in improving.

“We’re really pleased the board upheld Westminster’s plan to move forward,” Swanson said after the meeting. “We believe we’re doing great work. We believe we’ve had a great trajectory.”