Tell Me Why

State board, struggling districts to talk turnaround efforts next week as clock runs short

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Adams 50 Superintendent Pamela Swanson, right, in her office with the district's spokesman Steve Saunders. Adams 50 officials will meet with the State Board of Education next week to discuss its accreditation rating.

WESTMINSTER — When Pam Swanson learned the State Board of Education was interested in hearing directly from leaders of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, she volunteered to go first.

“We have some promising things to share,” said the superintendent of the Adams 50 school district.

So at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Swanson, her board of education president and other district officials will have a chat with the state board about Westminster schools’ successes and struggles as the northwest metro school district enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock.

Since 2010, the state has linked the accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

The conversation, scheduled for 40 minutes, will be the first of many for the state board. The seven member panel has plans to meet each of the 11 school districts nearing the end of the clock between now and June.

No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. What could happen if and when a district hits the end of the clock is still open to debate. The state board of education heard a list of possible consequences and remedies from the Colorado Department of Education in November, which spurred the idea for the forthcoming conversations.

The aim of these meetings, as well as other supports the state has offered the districts, is to help forestall those interventions. However, the state board is also trying to tease out what sort of ramifications these interventions would have on school districts.

State board chairman Paul Lundeen hopes these meetings will provide the governing body, which is responsible for approving a school district’s accreditation, more context about each individual school district’s rating and provide feedback on how the state can better assist the state’s neediest schools.

“It’s more than window dressing,” Lundeen said. “We really hope to seek out the nuances so we can be helpful.”

A qualitative view

The first thing the State Board of Education wants to hear from district leaders during their turnaround conversations is what’s working.

In the four years since the state began rating schools and districts, Adams 50 schools have done an almost entirely about-face.

During the 2009-2010 school year, nearly 75 percent of Adams 50 schools were ranked among the bottom two categories — “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” Today, none of the Adams 50’s schools are classified as “turnaround.” And less than 25 percent of its schools are considered “priority improvement.”

In fact, the Westminster school district has a smaller percentage of low performing schools than Denver Public Schools, which last year was rated as an improving school district and no longer has to fear state intervention.

Swanson, who was appointed to lead the district in 2012 after serving as interim-superintendent since April 2011, points to a systematic overhaul and consistency as key components of the district’s success.

In 2009, Adams 50 abandoned the traditional grade-level approach and adopted a competency-based system. The district has kept teacher and leadership turnover low. There’s a new online program and an innovation school. Parent-teacher conferences have also been overhauled in partnership with the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. And this year the district adopted a new math program that allows teachers to analyze proficiency in real time.

Swanson’s presentation will kick off with a seven-minute video highlighting several of these changes with the hope it will give the state board a qualitative view of the district’s efforts, she said.

These changes, she said, take a long term commitment. “Probably longer than the five years the state’s accountability clock suggests,” she said.

Holding the momentum

Holding the momentum and staying focused is perhaps Adams 50’s greatest challenge, Swanson said.

And there are several obstacles the district will have to overcome to continue on its path toward better student achievement, she said.

First, the district is still tinkering with its districtwide model of competency-based learning. There’s a continued effort to streamline and benchmark its standards to the Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core State Standards. There’s also a greater need for better data management, which can be overwhelming to teachers and students alike.

The district is also expected to trim its budget as school improvement grant money runs out. Adams 50 did ask voters to approve a mill levy in the fall, but that effort failed.

“No matter how you slice it, it’s going to cost more money to educate students in poverty,” Swanson said. Adams 50 students overwhelmingly qualify for free- or reduced-lunch.

And there’s the matter of state- and federally-mandated tests. Swanson would like to reverse the trend of districts needing to plan instruction around assessments, not the other way around.

“We used to have an assessment window,” Swanson said. “Now we have an instructional window.”

Because nearly 50 percent of Westminster students are identified as English language learners, instructors are finding themselves having to administer more tests. More than 700 students at Westminster High School alone were required to take an individual oral exam in January.

Those assessments, coupled with other mandated tests, devour instructional time, Swanson said.

“We know the students who need the most instruction time have the least of it [because of the number of hours devoted to assessments],” she said.

“Something’s not right”

No one from Team Westminster plans to critique the state’s accountability rating system. But if the issue comes up, they’ll be prepared to share their concerns.

“Something’s not right” in the accountability system, Swanson said.

Swanson — along with officials in many other school districts — is concerned about the different measurements the state uses to hold individual schools and districts accountable. Another widely held criticism is that the accountability measurements are a “one-size fits all” approach in a local control state where school districts’ needs and challenges vary widely. And now, officials are concerned that a proposed bill that would freeze a portion of the state accountability framework for two years will make it more difficult for them to prove to the state that they are making progress.

Board chairman Lundeen said while the intent of the conversations isn’t to rewrite the law governing school accountability, he thinks districts meeting with the state board should air their concerns about the frameworks, which he said can be challenging.

He hopes to learn through the next three months how district-specific nuances are bouncing-off state mandates and measurements.

“There are some minimum lines — thresholds — we do not want to cross,” he said. But, if school districts are proving consistent achievement, he’d entertain certain “earned flexibility.”

Regardless of the merits of the school accountability framework, Swanson said she’s looking forward to going beyond the data with the state board. 

“We’re ready to share our story and get input from the board on how we can improve outcomes faster,” Swanson said.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26th? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.

 

 

 

middle management

On the eve of the nation’s next teacher strike, Oakland principals balance loyalties to students and teachers

PHOTO: Sara Stillman / Oakland International High School
A student at Oakland International High School works on a strike-related art project, part of a lesson in the February 2019 run-up to a planned teachers strike in the Oakland Unified School District.

Eyana Spencer, the child of a union activist and a former Black Panther organizer, grew up with a mantra: Never cross a picket line, no matter whose it is.

Now the principal of Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Spencer is mapping out how she and one assistant principal can keep the elementary campus running when Oakland Unified teachers strike on Thursday. She’s dreading having to walk past her picketing staff.

“It’s very hard,” she said. “It makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable in my heart. It’s something we don’t do in my family.”

As Spencer and dozens of fellow principals in the Oakland Unified School District plan for the unknown — How many students and staff will show up at school? How do we teach without teachers? How do we preserve our school’s camaraderie? — they’re also grappling with their own convictions, mixed feelings, and myriad worries. Before they became principals, several were teachers union leaders themselves. All sympathize with teachers, who are demanding higher salaries, smaller classes, and more specialists like counselors and nurses.

Teacher salaries in Oakland range from $46,600 to $83,700, some of the lowest in the area, at a time when a tech-fueled real estate boom has priced out even middle-income workers. The district has offered a retroactive 5 percent raise over three years; the Oakland Education Association wants 12 percent over the same period.

Oakland also faces financial challenges confronting many school districts in California and beyond. School enrollment is shrinking, largely because of competition from charter schools, as pension obligations grow. The district underwent a state takeover and financial bailout, but it now faces a $22 million deficit. Another state bailout requires school closures and other cuts, sparking more opposition from educators and families.

Energized by recent strikes from Los Angeles to Denver, the union has drummed up support with rallies and its signature “Red for Ed” T-shirts. The labor-friendly East Bay community has responded enthusiastically.

All of that has conspired to place new demands on the district’s more than 80 principals. As middle managers, principals are used to scrambling to fill the gap between what district administrators want and what parents, students, and teachers expect — a sometimes huge chasm in Oakland. The impending strike has ratcheted up pressure from all sides, multiplied principals’ duties, and positioned them in the unwelcome role of adversary to the people they still work to support.

“Everybody is trying to figure it out. It’s a tricky space to be in,” said Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High School.

The district plans to keep schools open, according to a spokesman. But many parents have pledged to keep their children home, as the union wants. Meanwhile, principals have strategized about how to teach those who show up on campus.

“I feel very strongly that if a parent sends a child to school, our doors need to be open for that child,” said Reyes, in her 12th year as principal. She’s planning for contingencies.

“I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D,” she said.

While the school’s 25 teachers will likely walk out, it’s unclear what another 25 support staffers — custodians, food service workers, aides — plus others like coaches, tutors, and parent educators will do.

Supervision and attention to detail are paramount in the school of 400 students, all refugees and new immigrants. Many of them have endured trauma, are medically fragile, or are tenuously settling into this country. For a large number, Oakland International serves as family, providing critical mooring and support.

In the run-up to the strike, Reyes has been convening groups and putting details into shared Google documents, charting what people plan, and what they know, and what they fear. She’s held more than 50 one-on-one chats.

“I haven’t done my normal job for two weeks,” she said.

To an already burdened corps of managers, the potential conflicts and the uncertainty can feel overwhelming.

“The only way to make it through something like this is to have close relationships with other principals,” said Amie Lamontagne, principal of Korematsu Discovery Academy, a K-5 school in East Oakland. “We’re leaning heavily on each other.”

They’re sharing information and lesson plans, some seizing on a teachable moment to focus on unions, strikes, and advocacy. They’re making lesson packets for reading, math, and art.

But they don’t know how many students will attend, especially if the strike stretches beyond this week. Attendance will likely vary by neighborhood.

Parents at Crocker Highlands Elementary — where just 1 percent of the students are English learners — in the Oakland Hills are busy arranging to share care and transportation, and are likely to keep their children out of school.

In contrast, families at the International Community Elementary School, where 91 percent live in poverty in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, have less leeway to arrange impromptu childcare. Principal Eleanor Alderman has reached out to parents of the 300 students — about 80 percent of whom speak Spanish, while 15 percent speak Mam, a Guatemalan Mayan language, and another 5 percent Arabic, Dari, Farsi, or Tagalog.

While she doesn’t know how many children she’ll have to teach, she does know she can count on only a few adults Thursday: “Just me, the custodian, security guard, nutrition aide, and two from central office.”

In terms of concerns, managing school logistics pales in comparison to the potential fallout from a strike.

“My biggest concern is the impact on the community afterward,” Lamontagne of Korematsu said. She doesn’t know what students will feel crossing a picket line. And, she said, “I don’t know how adults are going to feel about each other.”

The aftermath could bring more tension — as schools in Denver, where teachers struck for three days last week, are now addressing. The district has indicated it will fund teacher raises in part by cutting central office staff, which will trigger “bumping” by senior employees displacing junior workers. The practice could stir anger and resentment among lower-paid support staff toward higher-paid teachers.

District veterans recall the bitterness that festered for years after a five-week strike in 1996. Even a one-day strike a decade later took a toll.

“I was on the picket line in 2010,” said Alderman, who was a teacher at the time. “My relationship with my principal was ruined that year. And it never recovered.”

Now a principal, she’s made a point of telling her staff that she’s been in their shoes, and will do everything she can to support them on strike. She plans to bring coffee and donuts, and let picketers use the school restrooms.

The best outcome, said Joci Kelleher, principal of Crocker Highlands Elementary, will be if the district awards teachers a livable wage and also remains solvent.

Even that may not produce a net win for schools and students, principals privately fear.

“Principals know 100 percent if we do end up providing a raise, that that money is going to get taken out of the site budgets for next year,” Alderman said. That would slash social workers, teacher leaders and other critical support for students and staff.

With attention focused on their district, Oakland principals have seized the opportunity to write an op-ed piece, signed by 75 of them, pressing California to boost education spending.

“I worry about the fact that we can’t keep teachers in Oakland because the pay is abysmal,” Kelleher said. Annual teacher turnover is about 18 percent.

On Wednesday, more than 30 principals are traveling to Sacramento to lobby legislators to raise state funding for schools, and especially to forgive Oakland Unified’s $36 million debt left from a 2003 bailout.

“No current students were even in school in 2003 when the debt was incurred,” said Principal Clifford Hong of Roosevelt Middle School. “Most weren’t even born.”

At stake, some realize, not only are the independence of their district and the jobs of Oakland teachers, but also their own jobs.

“Our working conditions are not sustainable. I’m afraid we will see a big turnover in next year or two years,” said Spencer, now in her 13th year at Manzanita elementary. “We have people who deeply love and care about their school communities — but also have to care for their families.”