Westminster schools launch radical overhaul

WESTMINSTER – Today – Monday, May 11 is a day of reckoning for students in the Adams County School District 50.

It’s the last day of the 2008-09 school year in the district. The last day of life as most students and teachers there have always known it. The last day that categories like “third grade” or “sixth grade” – or A or B+ or C- — will exist in most of Westminster.

The district is scrapping traditional notions of grade level and doing away with letter grades. Students will instead progress through academic levels 1-10 based on their mastery of subjects, not on the length of time they’ve been in school.

This concept, known as standards-based education, has been tried in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but never before in a large, urban district such as Westminster. The bold step is bringing national attention to the district.

This is also the day that students and their parents will learn just where they’ll find themselves in this radical new system that’s debuting in the district’s elementary and middle schools come fall and will gradually expand to the high school. And some of them aren’t going to like what they hear.

“It will be a hard conversation for some,” acknowledges Copper Stoll, chief academic officer for the district.  “We’ll be telling some eighth-graders they’ll be working at Level 4 or 5. They won’t be happy.”

But happiness is something that’s been in short supply in the Westminster district for many years now.

Once a typical suburban school district, Westminster has seen dramatic changes in its demographics – and its test scores — in recent years. The district once was home to 17,000 students. Today, it has fewer than 10,000, and about 3,000 youngsters who live within district boundaries have enrolled in other districts.

Ten years ago, almost half the district’s students were Anglo and 38% were Hispanic. Today, two-thirds are Hispanic and fewer than 25% are Anglo. In 1999, 32% of Westminster students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Today, 72% do. And 38% are still learning the English language.

Academic performance is well below state averages at all grade levels. The graduation rate is significantly less than the state average. The district has failed to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress targets at any level, and in January of 2007, it was placed on “Academic Watch” by the state and was at risk of losing state accreditation. The picture was bleak, and the district was desperate.

But a new superintendent, Dr. Roberta Selleck, arrived in September 2006. That same fall, Westminster voters approved a $100 million bond issue to build a new elementary and new high school. The combination provided the impetus for the district to reinvigorate itself.

A new approach

In the summer of 2007, 13 district representatives went to a Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) where they learned about standards-based education.

“We had tried every program we could think of to help our kids achieve,” Stoll said. “Then we went to this symposium and we kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is it.’”

Gradually, district leaders began getting community buy-in for the idea. Teachers and principals were trained in standards-based teaching and evaluation methods. The Colorado Department of Education came on board. The district recruited Dr. Robert Marzano, an internationally-acclaimed expert on standards and assessments, to identify the learning standards that should guide the district.

In February 2008, 85% of district staff voted to go forward with the idea. Some teachers began implementing the new learner-centered style of instruction – in which students set their own pace and decide for themselves how they want to approach a given topic – in individual classrooms. Last fall, Metz Elementary became the pilot school to test the system school-wide.

Since then, the district has pulled out all stops to educate not just teachers but also parents and community members on how the new system will work. The district website includes a slick, sophisticated section on standards-based education that walks viewers through all the changes. It has set up a wiki that shows just what the standards are, grade by grade, content area by content area, and gives suggested lesson plans for teaching them.

So many visitors – usually educators from other districts – have signed up for the day-long tours the district offers of its model classrooms, they’re now being offered weekly instead of monthly, as originally envisioned. And the district will host a three-day symposium on standards-based systems in July.

While the district once had a difficult time recruiting and retaining top-notch teachers, news of Westminster’s bold experiment, combined with a boost in teacher pay rates,  has reaped a crop of more than 1,000 applicants now seeking to teach there. And an astoundingly low number of positions to fill – about 35, Stoll reports. “Pickings are great,” she says.

A Sterling example

Recently, a group from the RE-1 Valley school district in Sterling spent the day in Westminster, visiting some classrooms where some of the new teaching techniques are already being implemented.

They watched while Nik Namba’s first-grade students at F.M. Day Elementary worked their way through grammar lessons. Namba is one of the district’s “beacon teachers,” an early adopter who will help others master this new way of teaching. In Namba’s class, all the students are learning about nouns, but they’re given a choice in how they want that lesson presented.

Some students may pair up with a friend to identify the nouns in a block of text. Others go on a “noun hunt,” identifying all the persons, places and things they can in their classroom. Others opt for an exercise in which they come up with a noun that starts with each letter of the alphabet, then draw a picture of that person, place or thing. Others work with a software program on one of the classroom computers.

“It’s been very hard,” admits Namba, who along with fellow “beacon” first grade teacher Alison Mund, has been stretched to the limit coming up with creative ways to entice his children to learn. “But next year, the Level 1 teachers will all be able to take what we’ve started and use it,” he says.

At Shaw Heights Middle School, Greg Russo’s sixth-grade social studies students are leaning about Native American culture. But again, how they choose to learn, and the rate at which they learn, is up to them. And they spend the last few minutes of class assessing what they’ve accomplished that day. Russo asks each one to name the lesson they’ve worked on, to rate their proficiency in whatever tasks they were asked to do, to rate the level of effort they put forth, and what they could change to do better tomorrow.

“They do daily self-monitoring,” Russo explains. “Each kid knows where they’re at, and where they’re going. About 80% of them are really with the program. The other 20% not so much.”

Anne Owens, a history and geography teacher at Darrell Smith High School, an alternative school in Sterling, was impressed by what she saw – not because it is so radical, but because she feels it is so “doable.”

“I’ve been doing standards-based education for some time in my classroom, but it’s all very individualized,” she said. “This isn’t as complicated as what I’ve been doing, and it’s more doable. It’s not as radical as I thought it would be, and it’s easier for teachers to assess their students’ progress.”

“Control freaks” may struggle

Carol Brom, president of the RE-1 Valley Board of Education, also liked the active learning she saw going on in the classes. “But I bet teachers who want a lot of classroom control will struggle,” she said.

Ranum High School biology teacher Tina Falconer confirms that that’s exactly what’s she had to overcome this year in implementing her standards-based classroom. “I was definitely a person who liked to lecture,” she said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that kids can set their own pace, and the kids who are really self-learners like the idea that they don’t have to wait for everybody else. But for a control freak like me, it’s been hard.”

What about those eighth-graders whose assessment tests show they’re only working at fourth-grade level? Are they really headed back to elementary school?

Not at all, Stoll promises. “We’ll put kids at the school most appropriate for their age,” she says. “We won’t put 16-year-olds working at Level 3 at an elementary school. We’ll bring the Level 3 instruction to them.”

There is no neat one-to-one correlation between the old grade levels and levels of proficiency, but in general elementary schools will offer levels 1-4, with Level 5 available for enrichment activities. Middle schools will typically offer levels 4-7 with some Level 8 classes, and high schools  would offer Levels 7-10 and beyond. Students might be in different levels for different subjects.

Gone would be the days when elementary students stay in one classroom with one teacher all day. All students would change classes throughout the day, and move up to the next level of instruction – and a new set of teachers – as they are ready.

Quick learners may complete all 10 levels required for high school graduation while they’re still just 16. If that happens, they can begin taking Level 11 classes for college credit, Stoll says. Conversely, some students may not finish the required 10 levels until they’re 20 or older, she says.

The new system will begin in the fall with all students K-8. It will begin the following fall for freshmen at the new Westminster High School, which will open that year. Ranum will close. Current eight-graders and high schoolers will be grandfathered under the old system, so for awhile the high school will run parallel systems, until the last of the students on the old system graduate.

Stoll knows there are lots of questions still to be resolved. Athletic eligibility requirements remain unclear. She knows there will be scheduling difficulties, transcript issues, and questions about GPA. She figures the district will simply work those things out as it goes along.

Meanwhile, the experiment seems to appeal to all sides of the academic philosophy spectrum, she says.

“Essentialists love this because there are clear standards, and there’s no moving forward until a student meets them,” she says. “But progressivists love this because even though there are standards, the kids get to decide how they’ll meet them.”

The district’s goals are lofty. Officials say once the system is fully implemented, they anticipate the graduation rate to top 90%, with fully half the graduates earning some college credit before they leave high school. They say they expect district scores on statewide achievement tests to rise well above state averages.

And they expect Adams District 50 to be transformed from a marginal place whose best students flee to other districts into a world-class, exemplary school district that is a lighthouse of hope for other large urban districts.

Rather than losing its own students, Stoll hopes Westminster begins to attract students from other districts as well. “We’ve been bombarding other districts for so long with ours, it’s time we got some of theirs,” she says.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.