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.”

 

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”