State releases latest school, district ratings

A second annual release of ratings for Colorado schools and districts under the state’s latest accountability law shows three-quarters maintained the same rating in 2011 as in 2010, though there were some changes at the very top and bottom.

State Board of Education members on Tuesday signed off on ratings for more than 1,600 schools, essentially declaring nearly 88 percent are making adequate progress and can continue without additional oversight.

That leaves 202 schools that must show improvement over the next three to four years or face sanctions, including closure.

The ratings dictate the annual plans that all schools must file with the Colorado Department of Education to demonstrate they’re on a path to continuous improvement.

Here’s the school ratings breakdown for 2011:

  • Performance – Assigned to 69.5% or 1,144 Colorado schools. This is the top rating and while a performance school must file an improvement plan, it will receive little state oversight.
  • Improvement – Assigned to 18.3% or 301 schools. The second-highest rating also means little state oversight.
  • Priority improvement – Assigned to 8.9% or 147 schools. This rating, along with the lowest rating of turnaround, requires a school to file an improvement plan that will be reviewed by a state panel and is subject to approval by the state education commissioner.
  • Turnaround – Assigned to 3.3% or 55 Colorado schools. The lowest rating. Both priority improvement and turnaround schools have five years to progress to a higher rating. Today’s release shows 122 schools are on priority improvement or turnaround status for a second year.

Overall, the number of schools receiving the top rating increased by 2 percent this year or by 52 schools, but 36 of those were new schools during 2010-11 and received the rating by default. The number of schools facing possible sanctions also increased slightly in 2011, from 197 to 202 or by another five schools.

The latest accountability system, based on the Education Accountability Act of 2009, replaces the School Accountability Reports. Like the SARs, it relies heavily on results of the Colorado Student Assessment Program or CSAP.

How school ratings are calculated

But the new system differs from the SARs in placing greater weight on student academic growth, considering the extent of achievement gaps among students and factoring in graduation rates, dropout rates and ACT scores for high schools.

For example, elementary and middle schools are judged by:

  • Academic achievement – 25 possible points
  • Academic growth – 50 possible points
  • Academic growth gaps – 25 possible points

For high schools, the mix is slightly different:

  • Academic achievement – 15 points
  • Academic growth – 35 points
  • Academic growth gaps – 15 points
  • Postsecondary and workforce readiness – 35 points

Schools are labeled as Exceeds, Meets, Approaching or Does Not Meet on each performance indicator.

State officials have said the new system is intended to be “a floor” rather than “a ceiling” after some concerns that the system sets too low a bar. Schools need not score particularly high on the performance indicators to be named Performance schools. Earning 60 percent or above of the possible 100 points – a D in many classrooms – nets the top rating.

To receive the lowest rating of Turnaround, a school must achieve less than 33 percent of possible points.

Sanctions facing low-performing schools

All schools must submit improvement plans, which are publicly available online, but only those designated Turnaround or Priority Improvement are subject to extra state scrutiny.

A state review panel reviews the plans and evaluates the school’s leadership and staff before making recommendations to the education commissioner, who has final approval.

If a Turnaround or Priority Improvement school does not progress to a higher rating after five years, the commissioner then asks the panel to review it and recommend one of a series of sanctions:

  • Management by a private or public entity other than the school district
  • Conversion to a charter school, if not a charter
  • Change in status to an innovation school
  • Closure of school or revocation of charter

The State Board of Education has final say on which sanctions would be imposed.

District ratings also little changed

The state also released ratings today for Colorado’s 181 school districts. Here’s the final breakdown:

  • 9.9%, or 18 districts, received the highest rating of Accredited with Distinction. These districts meet or exceed statewide performance indicators. The list includes Academy District 20, Aspen, Cheyenne Mountain 12 and Littleton, the only metro area district to make the cut.
  • 51.6%, or 94 districts, received the next highest rating of Accredited, meaning they meet statewide performance indicators. This includes Jefferson County, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder, Fort Collins and St. Vrain.
  • 24.7%, or 45 districts, received the rating of Accredited with Improvement, meaning they must complete a plan to improve but those plans aren’t subject to approval by the Colorado Department of Education. This includes Adams 12 Five Star, Colorado Springs D-11, Greeley 6 and Mesa 51 Grand Junction.
  • 9.9%, or 18 districts, are rated Accredited with Priority improvement, meaning they must file improvement plans for CDE review and approval. This includes the Aurora, the Charter School Institute, Denver, Englewood and Mapleton.
  • 4%, or 7 districts, received the lowest rating of Accredited with Turnaround and also are to CDE approval for improvement plans. Districts with this rating include Adams 14 Commerce City, Pueblo City, Sheridan and Adams 50 Westminster.

Districts were evaluated on four performance indicators:

  • Academic achievement on state exams, a possible 15 of 100 points
  • Academic growth on state exams, a possible 35 of 100 points
  • Closing achievement gaps among student groups on state exams, a possible 15 of 100 points
  • Post-secondary and workforce readiness as determined by performance on the Colorado ACT, dropout rate and graduation rate, a possible 35 of 100 points

On each indicator, a district was determined to be either an Exceeds, Meets, Approaching or Does Not Meet on the criteria set by the state.

So how tough was it to be Accredited with Distinction? Districts had to achieve at least 80 percent of points possible. Districts received the lowest rating of Turnaround for scoring below 42 percent of possible points.

Overall, the number of school districts received the highest rating increased by four in 2011, with several small rural districts such as Agate – which reported fewer than 30 students in 2010-11 – joining the distinguished list. Those facing possible sanctions increased by one district, growing from 24 to 25.

There was some movement in the very bottom tier, with Englewood moving up from Turnaround to Priority Improvement and Pueblo City Schools dropping from Priority Improvement to Turnaround. But districts have to leave both those ratings behind in five years if they don’t want to face the possibility of losing state accreditation.

Ratings for Colorado’s six largest school districts and their schools

Jefferson County – District Rating: Accredited – Earned 72% of points possible

  • Schools with Performance rating – 77.3% or 123 of 159 schools – Led by Bradford Primary, Meiklejohn Elementary and Bradford Intermediate
  • Schools with Improvement rating – 12.5% or 20 schools
  • Schools with Priority Improvement rating – 1.88% or 3 schools – Molholm Elementary, Jefferson County Open Elementary and Alameda High School
  • Schools with Turnaround rating – Less than 1 percent or 1 school – Arvada K-8
  • Alternative Education Campuses – 7.54% or 12 schools
  • Fall 2010 – 83,025 students, 30.6% poverty rate

Denver – District Rating: Accredited with Priority Improvement – Earned 50.2% of points possible

  • Schools with Performance rating – 48.4% or 79 of 163 schools – Led by Cory, Polaris at Ebert and Steck elementaries
  • Schools with Improvement rating – 23.3% or 38 schools
  • Schools with Priority Improvement rating – 13.4% or 22 schools
  • Schools with Turnaround rating – 7.97% or 13 schools, including Math and Science Leadership Academy, Smith and Greenlee elementaries
  • Alternative Education Campuses – 6.74% or 11 schools
  • Fall 2010 – 73,787 students, 72.9% poverty rate

Douglas County – District Rating: Accredited – Earned 72.7% of points possible

  • Schools with Performance rating – 93.8% or 76 of 81 schools – Led by Northridge Elementary, Core Knowledge Charter and Redstone Elementary
  • Schools with Improvement rating – 1.23% or 1 school – Sagewood Middle
  • Schools with Priority Improvement rating – 3.7% or 3 schools – Hope Online, Eagle Academy and EDCSD:Colorado Cyberschool
  • Schools with Turnaround rating – 0
  • Alternative Education Campuses – 1.23% or 1 school – Daniel C. Oakes High School
  • Fall 2010 – 59,749 students, 10.9% poverty rate

Cherry Creek – District Rating: Accredited – Earned 71.3% of points possible

  • Schools with Performance rating – 94.7% or 54 of 57 schools – Led by Cherry Hills Village, Cottonwood and Dry Creek elementaries
  • Schools with Improvement rating – 5.26% or 3 schools – Village East Community Elementary, Overland High School, Highline Community Elementary
  • Schools with Priority Improvement rating – 0
  • Schools with Turnaround rating – 0
  • Alternative Education Campuses – 0
  • Fall 2010 – 50,504 students, 26.2% poverty rate

Adams 12 Five Star – District Rating: Accredited with Improvement – Earned 56.6% of points possible

  • Schools with Performance rating – 73.5% or 39 of 53 schools – Led by Meridian Elementary, Stargate Charter and Coyote Ridge Elementary
  • Schools with Improvement rating – 7.54% or 4 schools
  • Schools with Priority Improvement rating – 16.9% or 9, including Thornton Elementary, Colorado Virtual Academy and Coronado Hills Elementary
  • Schools with Turnaround rating – 0
  • Alternative Education Campuses – 1.88% or 1 school – Vantage Point
  • Fall 2010 – 41,202 students, 34% poverty rate

Aurora – District Rating: Accredited with Priority Improvement – Earned 45.8% of points possible

  • Schools with Performance rating – 37.9% or 22 of 58 schools – Led by Aurora Quest K-8, Side Creek Elementary and Options School
  • Schools with Improvement rating – 29.3% or 17 schools
  • Schools with Priority Improvement rating – 24.1% or 14 schools
  • Schools with Turnaround rating – 6.89% or 4 schools – APS Online, Fletcher Primary, Vista Peak P-8 and Mrachek Middle School
  • Alternative Education Campuses – 1.72% or 1 school – New America School
  • Fall 2010 – 37,130 students, 65.2% poverty rate

Highest and lowest-performing schools and districts statewide

Top five districts in state ratings system

  • Hinsdale County School District – Earned 95.4% of points possible – 96 students – 18.8% poverty rate
  • Aspen School District – Earned 89.6% of points possible – 1,727 students – 6.2% poverty rate
  • Frenchman RE-3 District (Logan County) – Earned 88.8% of points possible – 200 students – 45.9% poverty rate
  • Cheyenne Mountain 12 District – Earned 87.3% of points possible – 4,561 students – 14.3% poverty rate
  • Plateau RE-5 District (Logan County) – Earned 86.4% of points possible – 176 students – 46.3% poverty rate

Bottom five districts in state ratings system

  • Vilas RE-5 District (Baca County) – Earned 32.2% of points possible – 354 students – 53.7% poverty rate
  • Mountain BOCES – Earned 32.8% of points possible – 142 students – O poverty rate
  • Karval School District (Lincoln County) – Earned 38% of points possible – 235 students – 21.8% poverty rate
  • Adams 14 Commerce City District – Earned 38.6% of points possible – 7,549 students – 84.9% poverty rate
  • Adams 50 Westminster District – Earned 40.2% of points possible – 10,049 students – 79.1% poverty rate

Five school districts on third year of the state’s five-year sanctions clock

  • Vilas RE-5 District, Baca County in southeastern Colorado
  • Mountain BOCES, Leadville area
  • Karval School District, east of Colorado Springs
  • Huerfano School District, Walsenburg
  • Center School District, San Luis Valley

*Schools can only be on year 2 of the state’s improvement cycle and 105 schools are there. But districts can be on year 3 if they were issued a Notice of Support by the state in 2008-09. Districts face loss of state accreditation if they don’t improve their ratings within five years.

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.