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.  

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.