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.”

 

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.