How the state plans to deal with the struggling Westminster Public Schools

District and state officials have come up with a plan to improve student performance at Westminster Public Schools that gives the district’s unique academic model a chance to take hold and avoids more drastic changes at the state’s disposal.

Officials negotiated the plan — which involves enlisting the help of two outside companies — while also preparing for a legal confrontation about how the state evaluates districts.

Attorneys for Westminster schools will go before the state Board of Education on Monday to again ask for a higher performance rating. If the appeal fails, Westminster officials will present the state Board of Education with the plan for improving student achievement and graduation rates at an accountability hearing in two weeks.

Westminster Public Schools officials argue the state is not consistent in how it evaluates districts with challenging student populations. They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they show they’ve learned certain standards.

“Unique among Colorado’s school districts, WPS is being penalized for its particularly needy student population and constitutionally protected choice of the (Competency Based System),” the district’s appeal states. “The District deserves a real opportunity to implement this model under consistent expectations and in harmony with current state standards and assessments.”

After several years of low performance on annual state evaluations, the nearly 10,000-student district is the first metro area district in the state to face the possibility of losing state accreditation.

The plan that district and state officials may offer the state board would allow the district two more years to improve while it works with two companies to manage some parts of the district’s work.

The state could have chosen more drastic steps including turning management of schools over to a charter operator, recommending the district give schools more autonomy under innovation status, or forcing the district to merge with one that is higher performing.

“Charter or innovation at an individual school level may have a positive impact on student achievement and may be appropriate, however that approach alone would not be sufficient to address the needs of students across the district,” the state’s recommendation stated.

The documents from the state say that if “significant progress in student performance” isn’t shown in two years, state officials will reevaluate the recommendation.

Under the negotiated plan, AdvancEd, a consultant the Westminster district hired last year to review the district’s competency-based model, would help the district diagnose problems interfering with the proper rollout of the model and other achievement problems at each underperforming school.

After last year’s review, 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.

The AdvancED work under the plan is expected to take between one and three years.

The second company, Denver-based Marzano Research, would partner with the district to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model.

Marzano would also create a Marzano Academy in the district to open in the 2018-19 school year as a lab school that will be run based on Marzano’s research.

Westminster officials declined to comment on the plan at this point, but noted that the Marzano group has been involved with Westminster for some time with other work around the competency based model. They also noted that the AdvancED partnership is ongoing regardless of the direction from the state.

Some efforts to improve the district already are underway.

One example: Free, full-day preschool is being offered for four-year olds at seven locations in the district for the first time this school year. Westminster is also expanding internship and concurrent enrollment opportunities for students and is working to improve a new leadership pipeline program to train aspiring school leaders. The plan document from the district also mentions a program to mentor new teachers.

Although almost half of the district’s students are English learners, the plan from the district doesn’t address any specific changes to instruction for English development, although the district notes that “inconsistent quality, fidelity, intensity, and implementation,” of instructional strategies for English learners is a root cause of performance problems in the district.