Off the list: Two Colorado school districts improve enough to spare themselves from state sanctions

Two small Colorado school districts have improved their schools enough to avoid the drastic scenario of the state stepping in to force changes, Chalkbeat has confirmed.

Both the 1,300-student Sheridan School District southwest of Denver and the 790-student Ignacio School District in southwestern Colorado were notified by the state education department last week that they have dropped off the state’s watch list for chronic low academic performance.

“We’re very excited, and we were unbelievably elated when we got the news,” said Michael Clough, Sheridan’s superintendent.

Schools and districts that spend five straight years on the watch list face state sanctions that run the gamut from school closure to takeover by charter school organizations. Going into this school year, eight districts and 30 schools were staring at that prospect.

The legislature put the accountability clock on hold last year because of a switch in state assessments. Now that Colorado has results from the second year of PARCC testing in math and English, among other measures, schools and districts are learning their fates.

Last week, state department of education officials began calling schools and districts to share the news. Sheridan officials celebrated their milestone at a school board meeting last week, and the Ignacio superintendent confirmed his district’s status in an interview.

Thornton Elementary School in the Adams 12 Five Star school district also improved its rating and will not face sanctions, a spokesman for the district said.

State education department officials confirmed the districts and schools improved enough to move off the watch list, citing the fact that local officials had shared the news.

The education department declined to identify other districts or schools that improved their ratings. The department said doing so would also identify those that did not improve, and those districts and schools still have time to appeal for a higher rating.

District leaders with schools on the list that were contacted by Chalkbeat were either unavailable to comment or declined to discuss their ratings until after sharing them with their school boards and staff.

The state is expected to formally release preliminary ratings and their reasoning to all schools and districts this week.

The state’s school rating system uses results from the state’s standardized tests and other factors such as graduation rates to determine the quality of schools and districts. Schools and districts that earn the state’s two lowest ratings — “turnaround” or “priority improvement” — have five years to improve or the state steps in.

Schools and districts that object to their preliminary rating have a small window to challenge the department’s findings before the ratings are made public. In some instances, districts may provide data from local assessments to demonstrate that students are growing academically.

The final ratings are expected to be made public in the winter.

After the results are final, the State Board of Education will begin doling out sanctions to schools that have not improved since 2010, when the system was created by the legislature.

Among the board’s options: direct schools to be closed or be turned over to charter schools, or direct a school district to turn over all or a portion of its operations to a third-party manager. The state board may also direct schools or districts to apply for innovation status, which would free schools from some state laws and district policies.

Districts that do not comply with the state board may lose accreditation, which has never happened.

Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of the Ignacio school district, said he and his teachers breathed a deep sigh of relief after learning the district is no longer on the watch list.

He credited a new district-created curriculum based on the state’s academic standards, focusing on data and better planning by teachers across grade levels and subjects.

“It wasn’t easy some days,” Fuschetto said. “We had teachers crying some days. But we stayed focused on the hard work to get us where we wanted to be.”

Both Clough and Fuschetto said the news also means their respective districts can begin to shake off the stigma that often comes with a failing rating.

“We cannot stop here,” Fuschetto said. “It’s been a long, long road to get here. Hopefully by doing this, we’ll change the stigma and we’re going to continue getting better. We’re not going to let up.”