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CDE, State Board sort through homework assignments

How would you feel if your teacher gave you nearly two-dozen homework assignments and then left school for the next seven months?

That’s kind of the spot the Department of Education and the State Board of Education are in with the work assigned to them by Colorado legislators, who finished their 2014 session more than a month ago and won’t be back at the Capitol until January.

The state board was briefed Wednesday on all those tasks, which range from significant policy work like writing new regulations for English language learner programs to little stuff like organizing a way to award trophies to high schools with high academic growth.

“It’s heavier relative to last year,” department lobbyist Jennifer Mello told Chalkbeat Colorado. She also said there’s a “big difference in the number of new programs [and] program expansions.”

The legislature “always puts a load on us,” said education Commissioner Robert Hammond, but he feels CDE can handle it. “I think we’re fine.”

The new laws provide about $6.6 million in new money to CDE – most of which will go out in grants to districts and payments to contractors – and authorize 6.2 new department positions, Mello told the board.

Board member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction commented that legislators like “pet projects.”

“I’m sure the school districts would have been very pleased to see a bigger reduction in the negative factor” rather than spending on special programs, she said.

Mello focused on the bills she said would “create the most work for the department.” They include:

  • The Student Success Act (House Bill 14-1292), primarily its provision that the state create a website containing information about district spending, broken out by school. “It’s going to take some work to get there,” said Mello, even though an outside vendor will be hired to gather data from districts and build the website. The department got $3 million for this project.
  • The portion of the School Finance Act (House Bill 14-1298) that overhauls state law on and CDE supervision of ELL programs. “There are a lot of changes the department has to make,” Mello said. The bill provided an additional $17.5 million for districts to run ELL programs. Among other tasks, the state board will have to approve two new sets of regulations for the program.
  • A $1.9 million measure (House Bill 14-1102) that requires CDE to review district plans for gifted an talented students and to run grant programs for districts that want to screen all students for G&T and hire qualified administrators to oversee their programs. CDE got an additional staff member out of this bill.

Depending on how one parses the new laws, CDE got assignments from 23 bills passed by the 2014 session, including 14 that include funding and provide new staff or money for contractors. Another nine legislative mandates for the most part require tinkering with existing laws and programs, without additional staff or funding. And the new laws will require CDE lawyers and the board to draft and deal with nine sets of rules and regulations.

(By the way, state bureaucrats aren’t unhappy when lawmakers go home for the year, just like kids don’t necessarily miss the teacher. Ask most anybody at CDE or any other state agency how they feel when the legislature adjourns, and the universal reaction is relief.)

See the full list of and details on CDE’s homework here.

Berman wants to make sure testing group has Dems

Another 2014 law, House Bill 14-1202, creates a 15-member task force to study testing issues (details in this story).

Members of the task force will be appointed by a variety of legislative officers and by SBE chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument who has three picks.

Elaine Gantz Berman, a Democrat from Denver, raised the issue with Lundeen during Wednesday’s meeting, saying, “I know you have not consulted with the board … it is my expectation that one of three would be a Democrat. I’d like to hear what your thinking is.” (The board has a 4-3 Republican majority.)

Lundeen said, “It’s early in the process” for the selections (even though the appointment deadline is July 1) and that “applications are coming in to the speaker’s office.” (The speaker of the House is coordinating the appointments and convening the task force.)

“It’s a foregone conclusion that it [the task force] will be Democrats and Republicans,” Lundeen said.

HB 14-1202 doesn’t specify party representation on the group, but it is highly proscriptive about the interest groups to be represented. The task force has to include three administrators, two school board members, two teachers, two charter school representatives, two parents, one student, two business people and a representative of the PARCC testing group. The usual interest groups suspects – Colorado Association of School Executives, Colorado Education Association, etc. – also are supposed to be represented by some of the members.

Neither Lundeen nor Berman – the board’s ideological polar opposites – will be around next year to receive the task force’s recommendations. Berman isn’t running for re-election from the 1st District, and Lundeen is running for the legislature in a heavily Republican House district. Once he’s elected he’ll have to resign from his 5th District seat on the state board.

New testing labels

For years Colorado students have borne the labels of “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory” based on their scores on CSAP and TCAP tests.

That – and a lot of other things – apparently will change after the new online CMAS tests (including multi-state PARCC tests in language arts and math) roll out in 2015.

“We’re looking at new labels,” state testing director Joyce Zurkowski told the state board Wednesday during a briefing on how the state’s new science and social studies tests will be scored.

The new labels could be “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.”

See Zurkowski’s presentation on science and social studies scoring here. Because those two tests were new this spring, a panel of teachers and testing experts still have to set the “cut points” that will determine whether a kid had “distinguished” or “limited” command. Those cut points will be developed this summer and considered by the board in August.

If the board approves the eventual plan, students and parents will get their scores in September, Zurkowski said.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.


School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.