Turnaround Talks

Struggling districts share success with state board

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.  

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.

Test Results

Newark’s PARCC scores inch up, setting baseline for new superintendent

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

Newark students made process on the state English tests this spring, while growth stalled on the math tests, according to results released by the district. The results provide a new baseline that the district, which is back under local control after decades of state oversight, will likely be judged against in coming years.

Just over 34 percent of Newark students who took the 2018 PARCC English tests met or exceeded state expectations — a 3.1 percentage point increase over the previous year. Students in grades 3 to 11 took the computerized tests; every grade except for fifth and eighth made gains in English.

In math, 23.2 percent of students hit the state’s benchmark. That is 0.6 percentage points higher than in 2017 — a smaller growth rate than in previous years. The results were uneven: While some grades made gains, students in grades 3, 6, and 8 saw declines, as did students who took the geometry test.

Statewide, 55 percent of students met grade-level expectations in English and 42 percent did so in math. Students must score at a level 4 or above on a 1-5 scale to be considered performing on grade level.

In February, after 22 years of state control, Newark’s local school board was put back in charge of the district, just weeks before students sat for the tests. The results will now become the yardstick against which observers will measure student progress under local control and assess the new superintendent, Roger León, a veteran Newark education who took over in July.

“We have a lot of work to do,” León said at a board meeting in August where officials shared some highlights from the results. (Chalkbeat filed a public-records request to get the district-wide pass rates.)

In a recent public radio interview, León added that the test scores show that teaching needs to improve.

“The instruction in the classroom can’t be the same,” as it has been, he said on WBGO. “Because our student achievement data is suggesting that that’s not really good.”

State policymakers are currently debating the future of the PARCC tests, which students first took in 2015. Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to replace the controversial tests, but some lawmakers have expressed concerns about his plan.

The state sent this year’s PARCC results to districts, which have shared them with families, but it has not yet posted them online. Last year, they were available to the public on Sept. 28. A state education department spokesman said Wednesday that he expects the school and district-level results to be posted “in a matter of days.”

After the results were published last year, Newark sent out a press release touting the district’s progress. The release noted that Newark made larger gains in math and English than the state overall. This year, the district’s gains were larger than the state’s in English but smaller than the state’s in math.

Newark’s test scores have become the site of a proxy battle between critics and defenders of the controversial policies that transformed the district in recent years. Under former state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, some neighborhood schools were shuttered, more charter schools were opened, and a new teachers contract that tied teacher pay partly to student test scores.

Last year, a team of Harvard researchers tried to measure the impact of those changes. They found that Newark students’ annual growth on the state tests initially declined after the reforms kicked off in 2011. By 2016, however, students were making greater gains in English than they had before the reforms. In math, their growth was no better or worse than before the changes.

Whatever factors drove Newark’s test scores to where they are today, Superintendent León will now be expected to move them higher. Indeed, along with perfect attendance, León has set a goal of every student passing the state tests — an impossibly high bar that no large urban district has ever cleared.

As León tries to boost scores, he must contend with wide achievement gaps between groups of students. For instance, on the English tests, white students outperformed black students by 26 percentage points, general-education students outperformed special-education students by 29 points, and English-proficient students outperformed those still learning the language by 26 points.

“We actually have a strategy on how to reduce the gap and improve achievement,” León said at the Aug. 28 board meeting. “We’re not afraid of the data.”

Graphics by Sam Park.