This Colorado elementary school nearly closed. A math makeover helped it stay open.

A teacher sits a small table holding up a whiteboard so two students can see it.
Leslie Ortega, a fourth grade math teacher at Minnequa Elementary School in Pueblo, works with two students in a small group. (Zach Allen / Pueblo Chieftain)

In 2019, Minnequa Elementary in Pueblo was on the brink of closing because of low test scores and declining enrollment. Today, the school is off the state’s “watch list,” has the state’s top “green” school rating, and recently won a $50,000 award for exceptional growth in math.

So, how did a school where only 8% of students scored proficient on state math tests in 2019 change course?

Principal Katie Harshman says it was a combination of factors, including a good math curriculum, regular coaching for teachers, constant data analysis, and a shift to having some upper elementary teachers focus only on math, while others teach reading and writing. Using state grants and federal money the school receives because it serves many students from low-income families, Minnequa also tapped outside experts, including the Relay Graduate School of Education and a math consulting group called 2Partner.

Harshman and her team say the yearslong math push has given students a better understanding of key concepts, pushed them daily to articulate how they solve problems, and pumped up their math confidence.

Minnequa students now post some of the highest rates of academic growth in the state, showing more year-over-year progress on standardized tests than the vast majority of their Colorado peers. Those gains are what earned Minnequa and 11 other Colorado schools state “Bright Spot” awards this spring — each coming with $50,000 in leftover COVID relief funds. 

Educators and policymakers statewide are pushing to improve math instruction after sharp declines in scores on state and national tests during the pandemic. This spring, lawmakers passed legislation to offer after-school tutoring in math, expand teacher training, and encourage schools to choose high-quality math curriculum. State leaders also paid to provide a digital learning tool called Zearn Math to Colorado schools.

The work that has unfolded at Minnequa over the last five years illustrates how effective instruction can translate into student achievement. 

Harshman and her colleagues say there’s more to do. While the share of students who are proficient on state math tests has more than tripled to 26% in four years, It’s still below the state average. 

“We’re not done. We’re still going to keep going,” said Leslie Ortega, a fourth grade math teacher at Minnequa.

Still, after the threat of closure, the school’s progress is gratifying. 

“It’s been like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ortega said. “It just shows us what we as a whole school can accomplish.”

Coaches step in

A few weeks before state tests were given this spring, Harshman stood in the back of a fifth grade classroom watching carefully as the teacher reviewed fractions. She noticed that students weren’t answering in full sentences as they should, and as they would be expected to on parts of the upcoming test. Harshman caught the teacher’s eye, brought her hands together and pulled them apart — a reminder that students needed to stretch out their responses into complete thoughts.

“It’s a very silent signal. It’s nothing dramatic,” she said. 

This kind of real-time coaching — by Harshman, the school’s math coach Christy Vasquez, and outside consultants — has become the norm at Minnequa over the last several years. 

The idea is to provide on-the-spot feedback through a whispered suggestion, a quick side conversation, or a few minutes of co-teaching so teachers can practice immediately. 

“I’m not there to be like, ‘Ah-ha! Gotcha!’ I’m just there for support,” said Vasquez, who started as a teacher at Minnequa six years ago and took the math coach job last year. 

Jeanette Valdez, a fifth grade teacher who grew up in Pueblo and lives just two blocks from Minnequa, said it’s been nerve-wracking at times to have so many people stop into her classroom to observe and coach — sometimes even top district administrators.

“I told myself that all they’re there for is to make me better and that’s my whole reason for being a teacher,” she said.

All the feedback — a coach was in her classroom practically every day last year — has helped her improve, she said. 

These days, when students work on math problems independently, she’s in “aggressive monitoring” mode. That means she’s walking through the classroom to watch how students are solving problems and exactly where they’re getting stuck. Previously, she’d watch students work, but wasn’t checking for anything specific.

“I had to learn to be all up in their business …. and to really hone in on what it is I’m looking for,” she said.  

Creating math specialists

One of the biggest changes at Minnequa in recent years has been having some teachers in third through fifth grade specialize in math instruction — a practice often called departmentalization. 

That means teachers like Ortega and Valdez teach math to all the students in their respective grades, while colleagues take on literacy instruction. 

“I think it’s the best. I really do,” said Ortega. “I’m able to focus on one subject. I’m able to really dig deep into the math data and the math lessons.” 

She said the switch has also given her more time for planning each day — 80 minutes, up from 40 previously. And while five years ago, she might have spent planning time cleaning her classroom, Ortega said Harshman ushered in a different expectation —  that teachers use the time to look at data on each student’s strengths and needs. 

Alongside the departmental structure, consultants have helped teachers organize their daily math block so students are actively doing math most of the time rather than listening to the teacher. That has meant tweaking the school’s math curriculum, EngageNY, which the school adopted about six years ago when it was rated “red,” the state’s lowest rating.

Vasquez, Minnequa’s math coach, said the curriculum is high quality, but contains a lot of material. Consultants for 2Partner helped teachers identify the most critical parts and pare down the program’s long teacher-led lesson introductions. 

Brianna Mazzella, a consultant with 2Partner who’s worked with Minnequa staff for four years, also dissects Colorado math standards with teachers to ensure they’re covering key pieces and building a solid foundation for the next big skill.  

In April, she met with a fifth grade teacher to talk about long division, a skill students will be expected to master in sixth grade. They talked about the need in the last month of school to ensure students have a conceptual understanding of what division is, the language of division, and how estimation and knowledge of place values can give meaning to the rote rules that students also learn. 

Mazzella said she wasn’t surprised by Minnequa’s math growth on state tests or that it earned a green state rating last fall. She knew how much work teachers did and saw the results in student work. 

With a closure threat like the one Minnequa faced, she said, “You either rally or you don’t, and that building rallied.”

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

Studies show students who complete federal financial aid applications are far more likely to attend college.

Proposed legislation would also block the current school board from changing admissions policies at selective enrollment schools.

Amid a literacy crisis in Michigan, these educators want nearly every public school in the state to have a library and a certified librarian.

One is participating in an intensive apprenticeship program at Bloomberg and the other dashed off 23 college applications.

Turnout was characteristically low — below 3%.

The CEO of The Learning Source, which provides adult education at locations across the state, said thousands of Colorado adults will lose out.