Holyoke district hopes to modify state education reforms for rural schools

A rural Colorado school district hopes to become the second in the state to make use of a law that allows districts to request flexibility in state statutes.

Holyoke School District, a school district of roughly 600 students, is hoping to acquire innovation status under a 2008 law which allows schools and district to modify state laws in order to adopt pioneering practices.

The move is part of an effort to take state-level schools reforms that some rural leaders say are designed for urban schools and adapt them for rural districts. Holyoke district leaders hope to receive waivers to some aspects of two state laws that govern educator evaluations and early literacy practices.

The sole prior precedent for Holyoke’ actions comes from another small rural school district, Kit Carson, in southeastern Colorado. Kit Carson’s superintendent applied for waivers from the state’s 2010 educator evaluation law, including reducing the frequency of evaluations and extending teacher contracts beyond a year. At the time, the plan won approval from Sen. Mike Johnston, a reform advocate and a key player in passing the evaluation law.

“I don’t think it’s a scenario we’re very likely to see again,” Johnston told Chalkbeat Colorado at the time. The state board approved Kit Carson’s innovation status, four to one.

Holyoke is likely to face a more difficult battle, as it plans to do away with one of the law’s key provisions — the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluations. But district officials say they don’t intend to subvert the law, but to comply in a manner that works for their size.

“It’s not about fighting the man,” said Bret Miles, Holyoke’s superintendent. “Both [the early literacy law and the educator evaluation law] are good examples of good intentioned laws. They’re both examples of things that don’t apply to us as much.”

For example, the process of including student test scores in teacher evaluations requires a lot of work from a small administrative staff. And Miles said it doesn’t provide them any information they didn’t have already.

“We already had that kind of accountability in small schools,” said Miles. “When the test score comes out in the paper and 70 percent of sixth graders are proficient, everybody knows who that teacher is.”

He is aware there’s likely to be pushback, although he hopes critics will come around when they understand his plan.

“There’s no doubt some people are uneasy about what happens when a district tries to get out from under a law,” said Miles. But “we can increase the amount of time principals spend in classrooms by simplifying the process.”

Among the other modifications Miles hopes make is to eliminate the use of the only year-end early literacy test approved by the state, TS Gold. Instead, he plans to use a state-approved interim assessment already in place in the district.

On Tuesday, the Holyoke school board gave Miles the go-ahead to kick off the official process of applying for innovation status. In the next several months, Miles and his team will complete an innovation application, currently in the draft stage, and present it to the community. He expects a positive response from Holyoke teachers and parents, many of whom participated in the decision to move forward. If all goes as planned, Holyoke’s innovation plan will be submitted for approval from the state board this coming fall.

And contrary to Johnston’s predictions, Miles thinks his district won’t be the only one pursuing innovation status.

“I think it’s going to be something many rural school districts will consider,” said Miles. He’s already heard from two other interested districts.