Turnaround Talks

Struggling districts share success with state board

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen listens to Haslam's agenda for the state. Haslam said he would raise teacher salaries, the topic of discussion in Monday's subcommittee.

Culture shifts, districtwide cooperation, and new leadership are all necessary ingredients to improve student achievement, school leaders from three of the Colorado’s lowest performing school districts told the state school board Thursday.

Staff and elected representatives from the Adams 14, Pueblo City, and Karval school districts met with the board  as part of an ongoing conversation between the board and those districts that are nearing the end of the state’s so-called “accountability clock.”

Since 2010, the state has linked its 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.

Eleven districts, including the three that met with the board Thursday, have been dubbed low-performing for either four or five years. The aim of the conversations between the state and local districts is to foster an understanding between them, as the state board may soon have to strip the local districts of their accreditation and make a series of recommendations on how the districts regain their standing.

No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. In October, staff from the Colorado Department of Education outlined what might happen if a district ran out the clock before making the necessary changes to improve student achievement.

“Our goal is to improve from ‘priority improvement’ to ‘distinction,'” said Kandy Steel, assistant superintendent for Adams 14, referencing the state’s accreditation rating. “People are talking about going from worst to first. Our people are determined.”

Steel, like Superintendent Pat Sanchez, joined the district 18 months ago. Since then, the district has entered a 20-month program run by the University of Virginia that works with struggling school districts to transform them through data-driven decisions, developed a series of standard-based interim assessments and aligned their school’s courses to provide multiple pathways for students.

The district’s results from 2013 state standardized tests were the best anyone had seen since 2007, district officials said.

But none of the gains would have been possible, Sanchez said, if the culture of the district, which is northeast of Denver, hadn’t changed.

“We’ve been embracing the conversation — not just about high expectations and rigorous expectations — but also equity,” he said. “The goal is to end the predictability of low income kids and kids of color.”

Members of the state board applauded the district’s efforts but wondered if the district, which self-admittedly has much more room to improve, would beat the clock.

“We’ll be sliding in sideways,” said Sanchez, who has been a vocal critic of state’s accountability clock.

He asked the board if they were confident the department of education would be able to rank schools because so much of the annual review depends upon student growth, or how students improve year over year on standardized tests, data.

Next year, the state will be using a new assessment known as the PARCC, short for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.

Department staff said they were confident they’ll be able to determine student growth and will rely on districts to provide supplemental data if necessary.

Meanwhile, the state board was curious whether a leadership transition would postpone Pueblo City Schools from beating the clock.

Pueblo’s superintendent, Maggie Lopez, is retiring at the end of the school year, but that won’t cost Pueblo it’s accreditation rating, said Kathy DeNiro, the district’s board president.

“Maggie has been great,” DeNiro said. “She’s led us, however, we’re insistent on moving forward. … We can’t miss a beat, for our children’s sake.”

Lopez — and 10 district staff that joined — her spoke of the district’s commitment to building districtwide structure that was not dependent on one program.

“What we know is we’re going to have to build infrastructure,” she said. “[We can] not be program or people dependent.”

Pueblo, about 100 miles south of Denver, was once the darling of the Colorado education community. In the mid-2000s low-income students there posted some of the best literacy rates in the state. The district’s success also garnered national attention. But after the district’s superintendent moved on and the district could no longer afford its literacy program those trends began to reverse.

“We have to be very serious about [sustainability and consistency] to move forward,” DeNiro said. “If we are 3.1 percent points away from improvement [accreditation], going backward is not an option.”

While Pueblo is losing its superintendent, the Karval school district has just gained a new one: Todd Werner. And with his new leadership has come a renewed partnership with the department of education.

The small rural district, which has just 28 students in its brick and mortar schools, has also developed its own interim-assessments and for the first time using them online.

CDE Commissioner Robert Hammond pointed out if Karval was to close it’s online school the achievement at its physical school was enough to beat clock. But that would spell financial doom for the district’s spreadsheets, state officials recogonize.

“In the past, CDE was not a welcome partner in turnaround practices,” said Cari Micala a member of the district’s online school. “Under new leadership, CDE has not only been an active partner but a welcome one.”

The board, president Kenny Yoder said, is 100 percent behind Werner and his collaboration with CDE.

— Kate Schimel contributed to this report. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed comments to Karval school leaders. It was state officials who recognized the school district could see financial troubles if the district’s online school closed.  


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.