Inside one Colorado middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself by raising scores without test prep

In just weeks, Principal Chadwick Anderson and his team at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School will learn whether three years of hard work have paid off.

Colorado’s latest set of test scores, set for release in August, will determine whether the school and 28 others will get to stay open in their current form. The schools have been on the state’s academic watch list for chronic poor performance for five years and have run out of time to improve on their own.

Now, if Scott Carpenter’s test scores don’t rise, the school could become one of the first to be shut down, turned over to a charter network, or be dramatically redesigned under the state’s school accountability law.

“We’re under a lot of pressure to perform,” said Stephanie Rosch, the school’s instructional coach and testing coordinator. “You just don’t want to be a low-performing school. You don’t want that for these families.”

Scott Carpenter — a 550-student middle school in unincorporated Adams County that’s run by Westminster Public Schools —  offers a window into how one suburban school under the gun to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test prep.

It also illustrates how a district that once educated almost only white middle-class families is adjusting to a new reality of educating Latino students. Only 8 percent of students at Scott Carpenter are white.

The school has relied on three main strategies.

It used federal funds to buy new computers and software to help teachers better serve the 58 percent of students who are learning English. It has participated in the district-wide shift to a new way of promoting students based only on when they have mastered material. And teachers have worked to build consistency across classrooms and relationships with their students, who increasingly come from poor families.

District and state officials told Chalkbeat that it’s clear to them that Scott Carpenter, once a middle school known for gang activity and unruly classrooms, has turned a corner culturally. But it remains to be seen whether the hard work of staff and students will translate into higher test scores that can stave off intervention.

One early sign Scott Carpenter is improving: The school generally outperformed the district’s other middle schools, which are not on the watch list, on the inaugural PARCC tests given in 2015. But the state is using those results as a new baseline. The true measure of the school will be how much growth its students shows on this year’s test.

“I’m not nervous,” Anderson said. “I like our chances.”

A false start

By time Anderson was named principal at Scott Carpenter, the school had been on the state’s accountability watch list for two years.

Scott Carpenter principal Chadwick Anderson reads an inspirational quote during the morning announcements. (Nicholas Garcia )

While the school had made some academic gains on state tests, the school remained a mess, said Cindy Ward a state education official who is responsible for overseeing the school’s performance.

“The school lacked focus. It was chaotic,” she said. “No two classrooms were the same. The relationship between student and teachers weren’t serving anyone well.”

Anderson was chosen to lead Scott Carpenter after successfully moving the elementary school across the street off the state’s watch list.

But Anderson’s first year at Scott Carpenter was not successful, in part because he was running both the elementary and middle school.

“Chad was trying to tackle all of it,” said Cindy Ward. “When you take on too much you’re not really taking on anything at all.”

Fearing that Anderson would misspend the federal grant, the state temporarily suspended the grant program until he could develop a plan.

The plan Anderson developed is largely what’s in place today at Scott Carpenter. There’s a focus on English language learners, consistent teaching strategies throughout the building, and more online tutoring for students who struggle with literacy.

A byproduct of those changes has been a healthier school culture, Ward said.

A recent student survey found student perception of the school is dramatically improving. Eighty percent of students in 2016 said there was at least one teacher they could trust at the school. That number jumped from 70 percent in 2013.

“They’re killing it, they really are,” said Becky Hoffman, the executive director of the Adams County Youth Initiative, a community organization that administers the annual survey for all five Adams County school districts. “They’re onto something. They’re focusing on relationships. They’re focused on connecting students with one another.”

Some eighth graders who have been at Scott Carpenter as long as Anderson has been principal said they’ve noticed a difference.

“Our behavior has changed dramatically, and teachers have been giving students more attention and help,” said Also Levario, an eighth grader.

But other students say problems still remain. “Some teachers don’t care what we’re doing,” said Alex Cordova.

A culture of talking, technology, and pictures

Stepping into Amy Murray’s classroom offers a best-case scenario for Anderson’s theory that students most need a rich curriculum, not test prep.

A new student at Scott Carpenter is learning English for the first time at the Adams County middle school. (Nicholas Garcia )

When students enter the social studies classroom, they’re greeted with a warm up activity. On one day this March, Murray asked students to answer five questions about the Bill of Rights, including when it was ratified and where it was written.

The walls in Murray’s classroom are lined with vocabulary words — in both Spanish and English — and posters with writing tips. The digital textbook the class uses is full of additional resources for students who are learning English as a second language: The textbook will define and sound out words students don’t understand.

Students are seated in groups of four. They’re arranged based in part on their English skills. The ideal group, according to classroom engagement technology the school uses, would include one advanced student, two students who are at about grade level, and one student who needs extra help.

After about five minutes, Murray asks students to share their answers with the student sitting next to them. Then she uses the engagement software program to randomly call on students to share their answers.

The computer picks a student who was not on task. He stumbles to answer the question.

“I don’t know how the machine knew to pick you,” Murray said with a laugh. “But I would have.”

As the class progresses, Murray asks students to illustrate the different rights in the First Amendment. Students draw religious symbols, stick figures giving speeches, and newspapers. Some use a Google image search for inspiration.

“Images are huge with English learners,” Murray said. “You have to connect the visual and the verbal. They can own the word or phrase.”

The words on the wall, the Spanish-to-English translations, the warm up activity and textbook are part of principal Anderson’s theory. Give students as many literacy skills and resources as possible, get them to think and talk with each other about a problem, and watch them succeed.

“What’s supposed to happen is that the strategies I give them are supposed to help with the reading on PARCC,” Murray said. “I see what they do every day. I know they can do it. The frustrating part for me is I see their faces. I know they’re stressed.”

Some students left behind?

Other classrooms show that achieving the ideal is a challenge — and that the district’s top strategy in some ways conflicts with Anderson’s.

Assistant Principal Thomas Evans, left, and instructional coach Stephanie Rosch discuss logistics for the upcoming PARCC test in the hall. (Nicholas Garcia )

The boys in Lindsay Bartlett’s third period math class won’t stop pounding the table.

They use closed fists and open hands to turn the long rectangular tables into a drum. They’re supposed to be working on a warm up activity. But many don’t have pencils or paper. So they make noise instead.

“It’s like the Bermuda Triangle of pencils,” Bartlett said.

Ten minutes into class, an aide returns with pencils. Some of the students get to work.

This is Bartlett’s third year of teaching and first year at Scott Carpenter. The students in this class — many of whom require special education services — are at least two levels behind where they should be for their age.

“Knowing they’re behind, that makes them not want to try,” Bartlett said. “Maybe we should separate them?”

Oliver Grenham, the district’s chief academic officer, said for competency-based learning to work, students in those lower-level classes should be receiving targeted lessons based on their individual needs — not instruction in a large group.

The goal is to get students out of those classes and into higher-level course work as soon as possible.

“Those kids should be having their gaps closed quickly,” he said, adding that the district has not perfected this practice yet.

“It’s ebbed and flowed,” he said. “The bottom line is that we want the kids to be in charge of their own learning. That’s the goal where kids are in the driver’s seat of moving in their own education. That’s the place Scott Carpenter needs to go.”

But other teachers in the school voiced similar concerns about grouping too many students who are so far behind together. Those classes are often difficult to manage, making it even harder to provide the kind of instruction Grenham says low-performing student need.

This sort of grouping, also runs counter to the engagement technology employed throughout the school: The neediest students are separated from the most advanced students who could help them get ahead.

Two years in the dark

Even as Anderson says the school hasn’t made this year’s high-stakes test a major focus, it’s still a constant presence — even as students continue to bring personal challenges to school that make learning hard.

Students in a math class at Scott Carpenter work on personal finance. (Nicholas Garcia)

Christy Wray high fives her students as they enter her classroom. Classical music is playing in the background. “Miss, I did my homework!” one student exclaims.

Students make their way to their seats, open up their journals and begin writing.

One student walks in late, crying. During passing period, she received a text message from her mother saying she was sorry she ever had her.

As Wray consoles the student, another asks the teacher what she wants for her birthday. “I want you to work very hard, every day until spring break. And then I want you to come back and rock it on PARCC.”

Two years ago, Colorado joined nearly a dozen other states in administering the first ever PARCC tests. The computer-based standardized assessments in English and math were supposed to be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, and more rigorous than the patchwork of state-designed tests like the Colorado Student Assessment Program.

The change in assessments necessitated a timeout on the state’s accountability because the state wouldn’t have the necessary data for two years. The state also needed to make technical changes to recalibrate its rating system.

While the pause was welcomed by schools, it also created frustration. Schools like Scott Carpenter that could be shut down based on poor performance no longer know where the line between open and closed is. And the school won’t until scores are already released.

“I know I’m doing what I can do,” said Nick Kawalee, an English teacher. “All we can do is prepare these kids the best we can and influence others to do the same.”