Building Better Schools

Ritz, state board at odds over what went wrong on NCLB

State board member Dan Elsener (left) had several sharp exchanges with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz (right) at today's meeting. (Scott Elliott)

State Board of Education members sparred with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her staff today over why Indiana is in hot water with federal education officials.

In a tense meeting reminiscent of last fall’s battles between Ritz and the rest of the board over who controlled state education policy, board members peppered the superintendent and her team with questions and challenged the veracity of their answers.

Why, they asked, did the U.S. Department of Education give Indiana 60 days to answer a series of concerns or potentially face sanctions? And why didn’t board members know sooner that this could happen?

“It looks like 100 percent of it is implementation,” board member David Freitas said. “I believe the responsibility rests squarely on the superintendent as our leader of the Department of Education.”

But Ritz insisted her team had not dropped the ball and would meet the requirements of the letter from Deb Delisle, assistant U.S. secretary of education, which said Indiana could lose a waiver that freed it from some potentially costly and cumbersome rules of the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

“We all know the urgency and serious nature of exiting this waiver,” Ritz said. “The department has done its due diligence and takes full responsibility for making Indiana compliant with the waiver requirements.”

Delisle’s letter said indiana had “significant issues” complying with its waiver agreement that needed to be corrected before the waiver could be renewed for another year after it expires on June 30. The 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education included a promise that the state would have “college and career ready” standards and tests, an approved school accountability system and an acceptable plan for monitoring and supporting low scoring schools.

Indiana’s original plan to meet those requirements, crafted under Ritz’s predecessor Tony Bennett, pledged to put into place Common Core standards, Common Core-based tests, a new A to F school grading system and a new statewide teacher evaluation system.

But the state soon changed direction in ways Ritz said everyone knew would require changes to its waiver agreement. The Indiana legislature in 2013 paused and then later voided Common Core; the state withdrew from the testing consortium; Ritz radically changed the department’s school monitoring operation; and she altered the state model system that most districts used to evaluate teachers.

Indiana dropped the Common Core after complaints from critics that following the standards, which 45 state agreed to follow, ceded to much control over what students learn to those outside of the state. Newly created standards were approved last month and state officials are working on a plan to make changes to state tests to match those standards.

Given all that, Ritz argued, it should have been no surprise to board members that the waiver agreement would need to be revised.

But board members focused on Delisle’s complaints that the state was not adequately monitoring and supporting D and F schools as it had promised, demanding that Ritz and the state education department answer for the problems cited.

“Clearly there are issues within the department that need to be addressed,” board member Gordon Hendry said. “This isn’t a blame game but we need to resolve these issues and get the department back on track.”

Ritz and her lieutenants, however, said a simple explanation exonerated them: the monitoring complaints were outdated.

One of Ritz’s first initiatives as state superintendent was to replace the department’s five-person Office of School Improvement and Turnaround with 20 outreach coordinators to serve more than 300 low-rated schools around the state. But that team was just being assembled when federal officials visited last August.

The work of the outreach coordinators was not captured last year’s review but will meet the U.S. Department of Education’s monitoring requirements, Ritz said. State and federal officials have been in regular communication about monitoring schools since at least December, she said, even though her office did not receive formal notice until April 27 that conditions would need to be met before the waiver was renewed.

“Did the department know we had work to do?” Ritz said. “You betcha.”

State education officials said Ritz spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week and set a schedule to talk every three days about different complaints in Delisle’s letter until all nine have been addressed.

The letter constitutes a lower level of notice from the federal government than other states have received, meaning the state’s NCLB waiver is in no immediate danger if they address the concerns. Four states have been notified they are at “high risk” of losing their waivers, but Indiana was not added to that group. Last month, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver.

The  NCLB waiver allows Indiana to be judged on criteria other than the law’s escalating goals for student test performance. Without the waiver, NCLB would restrict how some federal dollars are spent, setting aside money for outside tutoring at schools rated as failing.

Throughout the board meeting, Ritz and board member Dan Elsener had sharp exchanges over whether education department officials, and Ritz herself, were meeting their responsibilities. Several board members shared Elsener’s skepticism.

“I hope they came away with that being unfounded,” Ritz said after the meeting. “Because we’ve been serious about this since my tenure. We know we have implementation to do with the waiver. We have implementation to do with all federal monies. Monitoring and technical assistance is what we do.”

Elsener was unmoved.

He suggested Ritz may have lost focus on the waiver in the fall as she battled with the board, a showdown that culminated in late November when she abruptly adjourned a meeting over the objections of others.

“I feel like we left accountability unattended,” he said. “I feel like our standards would have been done earlier if the superintendent hadn’t walked out of a meeting. That put us two months behind. I want leadership, discipline and a sense of mission.”

Ritz left today’s meeting saying she was just as frustrated with some of what she heard from the board.

“We kept asking some of the same questions over and over again that I felt we’d already worked with,” she said. “I’m very confident in the work of the department and of having the waiver extended.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”