Who Is In Charge

Clock ticking faster for struggling schools

Colorado needs to prepare quickly for the challenge of fixing schools that haven’t improved within the five-year window allowed by state law, the authors of a new study told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

“The state board and the department have a huge opportunity to change the lives of 82,000 students in struggling schools,” said former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, the current head of Get Smart Schools, one of the groups behind the report.

The study, titled “Turnarounds in Colorado: Partnering for Innovative Reform in a Local Control State,” was prepared by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver.

The document is intended to offer guidance to the state board and the Department of Education as they look ahead to a tough assignment – possible closures or conversions of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

A 2009 law established an accreditation and rating system for districts and schools. That system requires the state board to impose consequences on districts and schools that remain stuck in the two lowest rating categories for five consecutive years. Those two categories are “priority improvement” and “turnaround.”

Struggling schools
  • 60 schools are starting their third consecutive year of subpar performance and could be eligible for intervention in July 2016
  • 24 of 178 districts are rated as priority improvement or turnaround, including Aurora, Commerce City, Denver, Englewood, Mapleton, Sheridan and Westminster in the metro area
  • 82,000 kids are in the lowest-rated schools, primarily in the Denver metro area, Pueblo, Greeley and in statewide online schools
  • 64 of 178 districts have priority improvement and turnaround schools
  • Those include 81 elementary schools, 20 elementary/middle schools, 33 middle schools, 14 middle/high schools, 32 high schools and 11 K-12 schools

Consequences include replacement of school leadership, conversion to a charter school, designation as an innovation school or closure. The system enters its fourth year starting July 1, which means the clock is ticking for some schools stuck at the bottom. In the case of failing districts, the board could order reorganization or consolidation.

The board also can intervene earlier for some schools that are stuck in turnaround status.

“This is going to be coming pretty fast and furious for you,” said Kelly Hupfeld, one of the CU researchers who prepared the report.

A central conclusion of the report is that failing schools need “tough love” (in the words of a CU news release), not incremental attempts at improvement.

“Turnaround is substantially different from thinking about school improvement generally,” Hupfeld told the board, saying the kind of incremental steps that can improve student achievement at most schools don’t work at turnaround schools.

“Turnaround schools can be best understood as dysfunctional organizations,” she said. “It really takes dramatic action. Turnaround is very hard.”

The report analyzed Colorado’s capacity to deal with turnaround schools. The study listed a credible accountability system, a good balance between state and local responsibilities and appropriate timelines as strengths.

But, the report said, the Colorado system doesn’t offer appropriate autonomy for turnaround leaders, has cumbersome processes for district consolidation, lacks funding, doesn’t have pipelines for developing turnaround leadership and lacks processes for finding outside operators to take schools over. The state also needs a way to set priorities for which schools and districts to focus on, and there is a wide variation in district capacity and willingness to handle changes.

Teacher of the year honored

The board Wednesday honored Amanda Westenberg of Rangeview High School in Aurora, the 2013 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Westenberg has been in education for eight years and serves as the social studies department chair at Rangeview. According to a CDE document prepared for the board, Westenberg “feels her mission is to enable students to become literate thinkers with the skills to succeed in their post-secondary pursuits. Westenberg believes education must be rigorous, relevant and engaging. She has developed a supportive classroom community grounded in positive teacher-student relationships. She feels it is teachers’ obligation to students, parents, and society to provide the highest quality education.”

Senate Bill 10-191 update

Near the end of a long agenda, board members got an update on implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the law that created a new evaluation system for principals and teachers.

The system is being pilot tested in a couple of dozen districts this school year. Next year all districts will evaluate their staff under the terms of the law, which requires that 50 percent of evaluations be based on student academic growth. Evaluations in 2013-14 will not count against teachers in terms of losing tenure. That doesn’t happen until 2014-15.

Board members asked if the first set of evaluations might show that a very high percentage are proficient, as has happened in other states that have rolled out new evaluation systems. (See this EdWeek story for details on that phenomenon in Michigan and Florida.)

Katy Anthes, the lead CDE executive on teacher effectiveness, said, “I think we are going to see a skew toward proficiency” when the first teacher evaluations are released.

Jill Hawley, another top department official, told the board that the first statewide teacher evaluation data won’t be available until the spring of 2015. “We expect those will look wacky,” she said. Both Anthes and Hawley said they expect the evaluation system will balance out over time and yield more realistic data about teacher effectiveness.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.