Steel City Turnaround: Part 1

As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Julianne Williamson spreads out her children's academic awards from the Bessemer Academy in her living room in Pueblo. With her are her children Trinity, who will enter kindergarten this upcoming school year, Jacob, a third grader, and Ryane.

PUEBLO — There’s little carpet visible in the modest living room of the row house in the shadow of Pueblo’s steel mill after Julianne Williamson spreads out all of her children’s academic awards.

“My daughter is so smart,” said Williamson, the mother of a sixth-grade daughter and third-grade son at the city’s Bessemer Academy. “She’s going to be outsmarting me soon. My son, he reads like an adult.”

But recently, Williamson’s children haven’t been bringing home awards as often, and she’s worried that the school’s chaotic environment might be hurting their learning. The list of questions she has for Pueblo’s school officials is growing long:

Why has Bessemer Academy had three principals in as many years? Why was her son shuffled between two different teachers this school year? Why can’t the adults in the building control the students’ behavior?

She also has questions that reach beyond Bessemer’s four walls:

What are Pueblo officials doing about the school’s state designation as a “turnaround” school, a marker that gives Bessemer two more years to improve or face state intervention? What happens if the school doesn’t make the deadline?

“What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked.

Turnaround tension

Williamson’s question is shared by many parents in Pueblo. A third of the public schools in the city are failing, according to state ratings.

And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, Pueblo could pose the first big test of Colorado’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions.

The district, which enrolls nearly 18,000 students, is the largest in the state to near the end of that timeline. Unless Pueblo’s most recent test scores — which will be released later this week — reflect significant gains, officials will have just a year to get the district into the state’s safe zone.

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If they fall short, the next steps are uncertain, fueling the anxiety of educators and parents like Williamson. Colorado law requires state officials to strip the district of its accreditation, which could leave graduating students ineligible for college scholarships. The district could also lose significant amounts of federal funding.

Individual schools that don’t improve in time may be asked to replace their principal and teaching staff, be turned over to a charter operator, or be closed altogether.

But some observers question whether the state has the political will or the capacity to enact dramatic changes in districts like Pueblo — and nearly a dozen others — that are close to the deadline.

In Denver, questions about the state’s ability to impose changes come mostly from people who want to see the state step in. But in Pueblo, those questions come from a deep-seated skepticism of outsiders and a belief that local problems call for local solutions.

Even as a small but influential group of Pueblo community leaders have recognized the scale of the challenge and are doing what they can outside of school walls to improve student achievement, they remain resistant to seeing the state get involved. In fact, they are skeptical that the state’s intervention would bring any improvements.

“If the state has all the answers, why are they waiting for five years?” Rod Slyhoff, president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, asked. “Why didn’t they just come in year one?”

District officials and city leaders claim they’re on the right path to beat the clock. And state officials agree that beating the clock is possible. Pueblo has already climbed the state’s rankings for two consecutive years.

“It is within striking distance,” said Keith Owen, the state’s deputy commissioner of education and a former Pueblo elementary school principal.

But following the retirement of the district’s superintendent in June, many in Pueblo fear that a leadership transition might trigger a backward slide just as the state’s deadline closes in.

This spring and summer, to better understand how a school system that primarily serves low-income and Latino students and its city are affected by and driven to improve under immense pressure of a ticking clock, Chalkbeat interviewed dozens of students, teachers, parents, district leaders, and observers in Pueblo. We also reviewed dozens of public documents and district data that detail the conditions of the city’s neediest schools.

Over the next three days, we will explore the bureaucracy still struggling with change revealed in those interviews and documents. While Pueblo’s school improvement efforts have been undertaken by a group of well-intentioned individuals fighting against the odds of high poverty and shrinking budgets, not everyone is on the same page.

District officials and teachers are both mentally and physically worn.

And several of the district’s neediest schools still lack consistent quality instruction and the robust school culture that turnaround experts believe is necessary to drive student achievement.

As Bessemer goes, so goes the city

The academic rise and fall of Bessemer Academy parallels that of the Pueblo City Schools system as whole.

In the early 2000s, Bessemer, a kindergarten through 8 public school in one of the poorest parts of this Southern Colorado town, was nothing short of a modern education reform miracle, observers said.

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Results from the state’s first-ever round of third-grade reading exams found, in 1997, barely one in 10 students was reading at grade level. But by 2000, the percentage of students that passed the fourth-grade test had increased; seven in 10 students tested at grade level.

The school headed into the new century either meeting or beating the state’s average on its standardized tests. And everyone from Gov. Bill Owens to President George W. Bush was paying attention to the little Southern Colorado school district that could — and did.

As Bessemer held its significant academic gains and other schools’ scores also rose, district officials were invited to Denver and Washington, D.C., to share the secret to their formula.

Then-superintendent Joyce Bales told the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education in 2002 that Pueblo’s success was based on its focused mission and high quality teachers. She also cited teachers’ professional development tools, organizational systems, and their use of data to inform their instruction. The district also used a literacy program called Lindamood-Bell, a renowned and expensive phonics-based program.

Less than a decade later, Bales was gone and, according to present-day Pueblo officials, so were all of her systems and the Lindamood-Bell program.

New leadership and budget cuts forced Pueblo City Schools to abandon the literacy program and instead chase instructional grants haphazardly.

Today, 46 percent of the district’s students are reading on grade level and 28 percent write proficiently, according to the state’s literacy exams. (Comparatively, the state averages about 70 percent of students reading at grade level and 55 percent of student writing at grade level.)

It’s a big improvement from the late 1990s, when only 12 percent of its fourth grade students were reading at grade-level and just 2 percent could write on that level. But it’s also a big drop from Bales’ heyday.

And neither Bessemer nor the district — which has not experienced any radical demographic shifts since the early 2000s — are meeting the state’s expectation for student growth, the measure of how much a student learned from year to year compared to his or her academic peers.

The most conservative interpretation is that growth is flat. Students who have been designated as below proficient on state tests are staying behind. And those who are considered proficient are barely hanging on.

At Bessemer, while some classes of students are posting slow but steady growth, others fluctuate every year, moving between minimal and fairly large gains.

So close, yet so far away

Right now, Pueblo is just three points shy of the 52 points out of 100 on the state’s annual school review scoring system to get itself off the state’s accountability watch list.

Pueblo City Schools board members Mike Colucci, left, and Kathy DeNiro and Superintendent Maggie Lopez recite the school district's mission before a school board meeting in April. School officials are confident they're on the right path to beat the state's accountability clock.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Pueblo City Schools board members Mike Colucci, left, and Kathy DeNiro and Superintendent Maggie Lopez recite the school district’s mission before a school board meeting in April. School officials are confident they’re on the right path to beat the state’s accountability clock.

And Pueblo officials are confident their efforts have been enough to push the district across that threshold, if not this year, by 2015.

“We’ve flown through some turbulence — but we continue to fly,” Superintendent Maggie Lopez, who retired at the end of June, told State Board of Education members in April. “Achievement is beginning to take a turn.”

The district, officials told the State Board, has aligned their standards and created a single instructional roadmap for all of its schools. They’ve instituted interim assessments to monitor student progress. Principals are now trained to be leaders, not managers. Teachers are working together in communities, not isolated in their classrooms. And a team of district administrators has been created to respond directly to individual classroom needs.

“As a district we are far more timely and responsive to meeting the schools’ needs than we have ever been,” said Brenda Krage, then the assistant superintendent of learning services.

The district has also put an emphasis on school choice. It’s closed some low-performing schools — mostly for budgetary, not academic, reasons. And it has created a path for students on the city’s East side to access the International Baccalaureate curriculum at each grade.

District leaders have also elected to provide more autonomy to three of Pueblo’s most troubled middle schools by designating them “innovation schools.”

A 2008 state law created the innovation schools designation. Schools granted innovation status are freed from many central administration policies such as budget rules, curriculum mandates, and teacher contracts. Architects of the law believed that granting such freedoms could accelerate academic achievement.

But early anecdotal reports from those schools — the Roncalli STEM Academy, Risley International Innovation Academy, and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts (formerly known as Pitts Middle School) — suggest that results are mixed.

And if third grade reading scores from last spring’s standardized tests are any indication on whether Pueblo’s efforts have paid off — and, depending on who you ask, they are or are not — the news isn’t good for Pueblo. As a whole, the district saw its scores drop by more than 3 percentage points, while the state remained relatively flat.

At Bessemer Academy there was a double digit drop.

According to reading scores released in May, just one in three of the kids at the school can read at grade level.

Watching, waiting

With those dismal academic results and increasing discipline and leadership issues at Bessemer, the Williamson family’s frustration is rising.

This year, the school is getting its fifth new principal since 2007. At the last awards assembly she and her husband attended, Williamson said, it took 20 minutes for the teachers and administrators to gain the student’s attention. And there appears to be no clear discipline protocol. As punishment for acting out, one teacher made students make her coffee, missing valuable lessons.

Williamson would consider sending her children to a different — better — school. But with only one car for her family of five, that’s not possible.

And Jacob, the third grader, would be devastated, she said. He thinks the test scores don’t reflect how hard the kids are working.

“They think the school is dumb,” he said. “But if they were to watch a class for a full day, they’d see how much we learn and pay attention.”

Like the local leaders who want to keep the solutions local, Jacob believes that his and his classmate’s hard work will eventually be clear. But Williamson is more worried about the work that school officials are doing — and, like the state officials who are watching Pueblo closely, she is anxiously waiting to see whether the work will pay off.

“I know there has been a lot of turnover as far as the staff and principal goes,” Williamson said. But she doesn’t think those reasons are excuses for the school’s struggles. “I can’t think of anything that could justify it.”

 

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.