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.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.