Future of Schools

Colorado schools fare about the same year-over-year in accountability rankings

Most of Colorado’s K-12 schools saw little change in their annual rankings by the Colorado Department of Education, and if that trend continues as many as 40 schools and their districts could face consequences from the state’s education department by 2016.

In the classroom BigStock Photo

The results of the annual evaluations, or school performance frameworks, were approved by the State Board of Education and made public Tuesday afternoon.

Seventy percent of schools statewide are performing at the state’s highest level. Nearly 20 percent are ranked at the second level, 7 percent at the third level, and 3 percent at the lowest level.

Those results — which include charter, innovation and online schools — exclude designated alternative education campuses that serve high risk student populations.

Charter schools performed slightly better than the average: 75 percent were ranked in the top category, but about 10 percent were ranked in the bottom two categories, mirroring the statewide performance.

Innovation schools fared worse: 63 percent were classified among the best, while nearly 15 percent were ranked in the bottom two categories.

Online school outcomes were the most mixed and had the largest bloc of schools in the lowest categories: 21 percent were ranked above the rest while nearly half, or 48 percent, ranked in the bottom.

While there was also little year-over-year movement in alternative school rankings, the overall results were more mixed. About 40 percent of alternative education campuses were ranked on top, while nearly 13 percent were ranked at the bottom.

Schools — alternative or not — placed in the bottom two classifications, or “priority improvement” and “turnaround,” are placed on a five year watch, often referred to as the “accountability clock.” Schools must show significant growth or the school’s governing district maybe subject to a series of actions by the state’s school board, including having the district’s accreditation downgraded.

The state board does not accredit individual schools and the law which established the processes, the School Accountablity Act of 2009, restricts the authority of the state education department to mostly the district level.

A total of 190 schools are on the accountability clock. More than 80 found themselves there for the first time, and 40 are entering year four of the five year clock, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen told the state board.

Most of those 40 schools showed no improvement over last year.

“We want to see student outcomes improve quickly,” Owen said in a later interview with EdNews Colorado. “We don’t want them to wait. The hope is the clock puts pressure on these schools and districts. The outcomes that are happening are not acceptable to the state and these communities.”

Of the 40 schools entering year four on July 1, 2014, online schools make up a disproportionate amount of schools. Online schools account for 2 percent of all schools in Colorado, but 12.5 percent of online schools are entering year four.

The state may take action as early as July 1, 2016, if any of those schools don’t improve before then.

At that point a review panel will make recommendations to the state that the school be converted to a charter, awarded innovation status, be closed or managed by some entity other than the district. The state would direct the local district on the recommendations.

Schools and districts are allowed to appeal their ranking. This year 27 schools in 13 districts asked for their status to be upgraded. Thirteen schools appeals were approved, nine were denied and two rescinded their appeal.

Schools and districts that request appeals must provide the state with additional data demonstrating progress toward statewide performance indicators including achievement and college readiness, as well as evidence the institution successfully met its goals agreed to with the state the previous year.

Simultaneously, some districts, including Denver Public Schools, requested the state to lower rankings for 34 schools.

Owen told the board the requests were generally made to reflect the respective district’s own rankings.

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.


Top principal’s ambitious goal: 100 percent at grade level — and her school is close

PHOTO: Aisha Thomas
Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, won a national school leadership award.

In late September, Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, got a phone call from a student’s mother. The woman said her daughter had been telling everyone that she wanted to grow up to be a principal just like Thomas.

It was particularly heart-warming because the girl was multiethnic, just like Thomas.

“I have arrived,” Thomas recalled thinking at the time.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. In early October, Zach Elementary was one of five Colorado schools recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, and on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Thomas had won a prestigious leadership award.

Thomas is among 11 principals nationwide — all leaders of Blue Ribbon schools — selected for the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.

“I’m floored,” she said. “I just come to work and I do what I do, and I love kids and I love people.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Thomas, who’s in her sixth year at Zach and her 17th in the Poudre School District, steers the school using five-year plans, frequent classroom coaching visits, and an emphasis on teacher collaboration.

It’s critical to know “where you want to take your school and your staff,” Thomas said. And then to be patient.

“It does take five years of churning through the day-to-day and showing up for people,” she said. “It takes time.”

The school’s latest five-year plan includes a goal that 100 percent of students will meet grade-level academic and behavior expectations. The school, situated on the southeast side of Fort Collins, uses a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge sequence.

Close to 90 percent of Zach students already meet academic standards, Thomas said, but it’s not enough. Even if there’s only one child missing the mark, what if that one kid is yours, she asked.

Thomas said school leaders have always tracked serious behavior problems, but this year will begin monitoring smaller classroom disruptions and distractions that affect student learning. The school also recently hired a coordinator who runs student groups on social-emotional learning and coaches teachers on managing student behavior.

Before she came to Zach, Thomas was a middle school counselor and assistant principal in the district. Since then, she’s discovered she loves the elementary age group.

“I love how creative the kids are and they’re just sponges for new information,” she said. “They don’t take themselves too seriously and they’ll tell you if you’re having a bad hair day.”