Who Is In Charge

State board turns to common standards

The clock is ticking for the State Board of Education to decide whether to enroll Colorado in the growing number of states that have adopted the national Common Core Standards in language arts and math.

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones is scheduled to give the board a telephone briefing Wednesday on differences between the common standards and recently adopted state standards in those subjects.

The board is scheduled to meet again by telephone on Aug. 2 to vote on adoption. That’s the deadline for states to adopt the standards if they wish to remain eligible for the second round of Race to the Top funding, for which Colorado has applied.

The core standards were not created by the federal government but rather were developed under the leadership of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But, the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear it supports the effort.

While many in the education world are backing the common standards, some conservative and libertarian groups oppose them, arguing that they would lead to an unwise federalization of K-12 education and that the proposed standards aren’t sufficiently rigorous.

State board member Peggy Littleton, R-5th District, has publicly criticized the common standards for those reasons. Some groups are trying to make a test case on the issue in Massachusetts, where the state board is scheduled to vote Wednesday.

Colorado’s reading and math content standards are about 90 percent aligned with the proposed national standards in those subjects, according to an analysis prepared for the Colorado Department of Education.

The final draft of the standards was released June 2, and CDE contracted with WestEd to do a line-by-line comparison of Colorado’s math and language standards with the common core. (WestEd is a California-based non-profit education research and consulting organization that has worked with CDE on a number of reform projects, including creation of the new Colorado standards.)

The WestEd analysis also was reviewed by subcommittees of experts that helped develop the Colorado standards. The documents were released late last week.

Jo O’Brian, CDE assistant commissioner, said, “The bottom line is that 90 percent of the two standards align. … There is extreme similarity.”

The primary differences are “only in two or three grades in mathematics,” O’Brien said. She noted that in some areas the common standards are more detailed and more like curriculum than are the Colorado standards. In some cases the two sets of standards differ on what things students should learn in which grades.

“The state board is going to have to talk that one through,” she added.

The federal R2T requirement for the common standards allows a 15 percent variation between a state’s standards and the common ones. Given that, O’Brien said, “We already are adoption-ready.”

Half the states have adopted the common standards, and advocates hope another 15 or so will do so by Aug. 2. The only other Western states to adopt so far are Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming. In California an advisory panel has recommended adoption.

Supporters of the common core envision that the standards will be the foundation for multi-state achievement tests that may roll out in 2014. Colorado has been a participant in both common standards development and in groups that are working on the multi-state tests.

That sort of multi-state standardization is what worries critics of the common standards. In a May 27 audio interview with Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute, Littleton said, “Education should be taken care of by parents and states” and that the common standards push “flies in the face of choice in education and local control.”

Littleton also debated common standards with state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, in a June 4 Independence Institute video.

Last December the state board unanimously adopted new standards in 11 content areas, dance; comprehensive health and physical education; math; music; reading, writing and communicating; science; social studies; drama and theatre arts; visual arts; world languages; and English language proficiency.

future of SCS

Dorsey Hopson leaving Shelby County Schools, sources say

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

Sources report that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson will resign after five years of leading Shelby County Schools.

Rumors of Hopson’s departure have been flying for months and he said as recently as early October he had no intention of leaving, saying he was “excited about our momentum.” Three sources told Chalkbeat Monday night that they had heard from district administrators that Hopson will make an announcement on Tuesday detailing his transition from the helm.

The Commercial Appeal also reported Monday night that Hopson will likely resign.

Check back with Chalkbeat on Tuesday for updates.

Hopson took charge of Shelby County Schools in 2013 as the first superintendent after the former city district merged with the suburban school system. An attorney, he previously worked as associate general counsel for Atlanta Public Schools and later as general counsel for the Clayton County School System in Georgia. In 2008, he became general counsel of Memphis City Schools.

Hopson has overseen a tumultuous time for the district. In 2013, the city’s school district folded into the county system, a complicated logistical feat that still reverberates today. The following year, six suburban towns split off to create their own districts with about 34,000 students. At the same time, the state-run Achievement School District grew as it took over district schools that had chronic low performance on state tests. Nearly two dozen district schools closed during that time as Hopson and his staff rushed to fill budget deficits left in the wake of all the changes and reductions in student enrollment.

Despite the strenuous circumstances, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state’s district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from six years ago. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban district leaders.

In recent years, the Shelby County Schools board has rated Hopson as satisfactory, though not exemplary, and extended his contract last year to 2020 with a $16,000 raise. Next week, the board is scheduled to present its most recent evaluation of his performance as the panel seeks to tweak how it rates the district’s leader.

Hopson was one of two superintendents consulted by Gov.-elect Bill Lee while on the campaign trail, and Hopson publicly expressed his support of the Republican from Williamson County before Lee won the election. Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson told Chalkbeat before the election that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half. Sources did not confirm Hopson’s next steps.

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report. 

Super Search

Denver superintendent search nearing end with one local name getting support — and calls for multiple finalists

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the search for Denver’s next school superintendent approaches a key juncture, support is mounting in some quarters for an internal candidate who many believe is likely a front-runner: Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

At the same time, parents and other residents are calling on the board to name more than one finalist next week — preferably, three — and to give the community an opportunity to vet them. The chance for parents to provide feedback is especially important, they said, in a district with a poor reputation for transparency and what one mother called a “paternalistic pattern.”

“If we are only given one finalist, we will feel that the decision has already been made behind closed doors,” said another mother, Angela Tzul, who lives in the far northeast Montbello neighborhood, where tensions with the district are particularly high.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district and one known nationally for cultivating a “portfolio” of different school types, including independently run charter schools, and encouraging families to choose among them. The district serves nearly 93,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and black and come from low-income families.

This is the first time in 10 years the district has had to choose a new superintendent. Longtime leader Tom Boasberg, who was responsible for many of the reforms, stepped down last month. The school board is expected to name finalists next Monday and make a hire by Dec. 10.

The board has kept mum about how many finalists it is choosing. When member Lisa Flores gave a public update on the search last week, she was careful to say “finalist/finalists.”

She did, however, provide a window into the search by revealing that the board interviewed seven candidates. They included two superintendents, two deputy superintendents, one state superintendent, and two non-traditional candidates, Flores said.

Any national search would likely extend to leaders of urban school districts with similar philosophies and student populations, such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and San Antonio. Here in Colorado, the administration of two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper is coming to an end in early January, and many top state administrators are likely looking for new jobs.

Cordova has said she’s interested in leading the district. She grew up in a Mexican-American family in Denver, graduated from high school here, returned after college to teach in the district, and worked her way up to principal, administrator, and now deputy superintendent. She served as acting superintendent for six months in 2016 while Boasberg was on sabbatical.

Thirty-five district principals, assistant principals, and program directors wrote a letter to school board members last week, urging them to choose Cordova. The school leaders called her “a hometown and homegrown exemplar” who has made the city proud and who “understands the nuances and complexities of our unique organization.”

“Her presence is calm and warm, yet urgent and motivating,” the letter says. “She understands the political climate of public education and is a fierce advocate for every child in Denver.”

Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, an elementary school in west Denver, was one of the school leaders who signed the letter.

“While we don’t know all the people (in the) running, we just wanted to voice our support for her to take the helm,” he wrote in an email to Chalkbeat.

Throughout August, September, and early October, the school board collected feedback from more than 4,500 people about the characteristics the next superintendent should have. In many ways, Cordova fits the bill. She is a person of color with both teaching and administrative experience, and a deep knowledge about the challenges facing Denver’s public schools.

She also has experience tackling those challenges, including the pervasive and persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and students from wealthier families.

But her long track record is precisely why some people who are disillusioned with the district don’t want to see her promoted. They see the district’s failure to significantly close those gaps — or to hire more teachers of color, for instance — as her failures, too.

“Susana Cordova, I know you’re in here,” Montbello football coach Gabe Lindsay said at last week’s school board meeting during public comment. “We think you are going to be the next superintendent of DPS, which is concerning because Ms. Cordova does not have a track record of closing achievement gaps. She has the track record that this previous administration has.”

He cited a statistic that while 72 percent of white students were reading and writing on grade level last year, as determined by the state literacy test, just 28 percent of black students were.

If Cordova is selected, Lindsay said she needs to “come to the table with a plan to fix this district’s mindset that it is OK to leave students behind.”

Parents of students who attend charter schools have repeatedly said they’d like the next superintendent to be someone who values school choice — that is, making it easy for students to choose to attend a school that is not their assigned boundary school, such as a charter.

Other parents have railed against charter schools for draining students and money from traditional district-run schools. The teachers union has been critical, too, even trying to negotiate a moratorium on the publicly funded yet privately run schools into its latest contract.

Cordova’s entire teaching and administrative experience has been in district-run schools, but she hasn’t given any indication that she’d get rid of charter schools or the ability for families to use a single application to apply to any district-run or charter school.

“I’ve got kids in the district as well,” Cordova told Chalkbeat in 2016. “Frequently, as I’m talking with friends who are parents or people in the neighborhood, they say, ‘It’s so much harder now. It was so much easier when you just went [to the school down the street].’ But the upsides are so much higher than any of the downsides, particularly when you get into the right fit for your kid.”

The school board is planning opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to meet the finalist or finalists and provide their input, though not many details have been announced besides the dates: Dec. 4 and 5. That’s less than week before the board is set to make its final decision.