Failure to launch

Freeing failing schools from bureaucracy hasn’t worked as hoped. So why is Colorado still doing it?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Colorado’s effort to boost student learning by allowing low-performing district-run schools additional freedoms from state and local bureaucracy appears not to be working as well as hoped.

Since 2010, only three of the 18 failing schools granted “innovation status” under a 2008 Colorado law have improved student results on annual standardized tests enough to jump off the state’s accountability watch list, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Education and additional state data reviewed by Chalkbeat.

The report and Chalkbeat analysis come as the State Board of Education is preparing to grant more failing schools innovation status in an effort to boost student achievement.

In July, the state’s school accountability clock turns back on after a one-year pause due to a change in the tests used to rate the quality of schools.

These schools, many of which serve some of the state’s poorest students, have been the lowest performing schools in the state for six years running. And despite previous efforts and millions of dollars in investments from the state and federal governments, the schools have failed to rally.

Some 30 schools that serve 13,000 students from every corner of the state are expected to face sanctions next year if they do not improve. Those sanctions could include being turned over to a charter school operator or closed.

But according to a committee of education experts commissioned by the state, most of the schools shouldn’t be shut or converted to charters. Instead, the group urged, they should be allowed to remain under district management with innovation status. That would allow the schools increased decision-making authority over curriculum, teacher hiring and firing, and budgeting.

Some schools — including the Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo — already have innovation status.

“I’m very wary of using innovation as a turnaround strategy,” said Robin Lake, executive director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington. “If a school has gotten to the point of being in the lowest 5 percent, usually there is something going on that is very hard to repair.”

Because so few chronically low-performing schools with innovation status have made meaningful improvement, some education reform activists, state officials and State Board of Education members are concerned the state is about to do more harm than good.

“This is not OK,” said Angelika Schroeder, a state board member and Boulder Democrat who has raised questions for several months now about innovation status as a turnaround effort.

A history in innovation

In 2008, Colorado became the first state in the nation to codify in state statute school-level autonomy for district-controlled schools. The law, which passed with bipartisan support, was celebrated as a major education reform victory.

Manual High School teacher Olivia Jones reviews classwork with a student in 2013.
PHOTO: M. Piscotty
Manual High School teacher Olivia Jones reviews classwork with a student in 2013.

Since then, other states such as Tennessee and cities including Boston have taken steps to provide schools with some flexibility from state regulations.

But Colorado’s law goes further than most, Lake said.

The state’s new innovation law quickly became a go-to school improvement strategy in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. No other district has more innovation schools than Denver.

The results are mixed. The only three schools to improve in the entire state — Ashley, Green Valley and McGlone elementary schools — are in Denver. But Denver still has another dozen innovation schools on the state’s accountability clock.

Not all innovation schools in Colorado use the law for school improvement efforts. Ten Falcon 49 District schools in El Paso County use the innovation law to create education programs with specific focuses such as STEM or international studies that stretch from kindergarten through graduation.

A tale of two schools

There’s no explicit reason why some innovation schools have seen improved student learning while others have not. But researchers and state officials have a few good guesses.

It comes down to the quality of the plan, how the school is using its waivers from rules, leadership and the relationship between the school and the district.

“Sometimes autonomy and a chance to innovate can be a good thing for a school that needs a fresh start,” Lake said. “But the test should be, ‘Does the school have a convincing plan that will result in something for kids very soon?’ When you’re dealing with low-performing schools, that’s not the time you just start pulling ideas out of a hat.”

Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.

Green Valley Elementary School in Denver’s far northeast corner is one of only three Colorado schools to use innovation status as a turnaround effort and succeed.

“You can’t leave anything up to chance. That opens the door to failure,” said TJ McManus, the school’s principal. “You can’t plan too much.”

McManus started at Green Valley five years ago as its assistant principal. She was part of a new team to reboot the school using the state’s innovation laws. The principal at the time had a year to plan a vision for his school, hire a new staff, and develop the curriculum and instructional methods those teachers would use to boost test scores.

Within three years, the school climbed from the state’s lowest school rating to the highest.

McManus credits a consistent leadership team, hard-working teachers and methodical planning.

That’s not to say Green Valley has not evolved since it relaunched in 2010, McManus said. Both the school’s curriculum and discipline code are drastically different compared to when the school first opened.

“We look a lot different, but we’re very intentional about what we do,” McManus said.

Marci Imes, principal of the Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo, agrees planning is paramount. But she had to learn that the hard way, she said.

Roncalli was the state’s lowest performing middle school in 2014, the last year data for which data is available. It is also one of the state’s innovation schools that has not improved academically.

“Year one was crazy,” said Imes, who served as the school’s assistant principal at the time. “Although it was a great plan, it wasn’t laid out clearly. … We tried to do it all at once. We quickly realized that couldn’t happen.”

When Imes took control of the school in 2014, she scaled back the school’s ambitions and focused on just a few efforts including the school’s culture and its instructional approach. This year, school officials focused on increasing the complexity of reading and math assignments.

“Like every school, you learn what you need to tweak each year,” she said.

Imes said her school’s innovation status has allowed her to better train teachers to focus on building relationships with students and understanding the state’s academic standards. It’s also allowed for more tutoring.

Retaining teachers is still a struggle for Imes, but she hopes when new testing data is released this summer Roncalli will have moved the needle.

“What I do know, with everything we put in place this year, the kids really, really felt more comfortable going into the assessment,” she said.

Pushing innovation as turnaround

For months, the Colorado Department of Education, the State Board and some school superintendents have debated whether the state’s school innovation and accountability laws work in harmony or are in conflict.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn has been a leading voice in that conversation.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

Last summer, the State Board gave Munn its blessing — with caveats — to pursue innovation status for a cluster of failing schools in the Denver suburb. As Aurora developed its plans, it became unclear whether the State Board would accept the school redesigns as a turnaround plan, flustering Munn.

Under the innovation law, the State Board of Education must approve any plan forwarded to it so long as board members believe the plans won’t decrease student achievement and are fiscally responsible.

Some believe that’s too low of a bar for the state’s most challenging schools.

State Board of Education Chairman Steve Durham said not all innovation plans are created equally. He said he might advocate for a change in the law to allow the State Board more authority to reign in poorly executed innovation plans.

“I think districts are looking at them as panacea and they certainly are not,” he said.

In March, Munn sent a letter to Education Commissioner Rich Crandall posing dozens of questions about how the state plans to navigate the two laws, especially where they conflict.

Among his questions: what law will the State Board use to approve innovation plans, which education department office will vet Aurora’s plans, and what is the criteria for a turnaround plan under the state’s school accountability law.

Only some of Munn’s questions have been answered.

At the State Board’s May meeting, Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the State Board that it has the authority under the state’s accountability law to reject innovation plans that it believes would not improve student achievement and could add stipulations to existing innovation plans like those just approved for Aurora.

A higher bar

In an effort to ensure innovation plans the State Board approves under the accountability law can make a difference, the state’s school improvement office will review the plans for quality.

The evaluation will focus on a variety of issues including school leadership, instructional changes and data systems, said Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer. Whether the schools will take his office’s advice is unclear.

Sherman’s office has already provided feedback to Aurora and Pueblo City Schools, which also hopes to create its own innovation zone to improve six schools that have run out of time. Three schools — Roncalli and Risley middle schools and the Pueblo Academy of Arts — already have innovation status and are among those that have failed to improve.

Superintendent Constance Jones, in her second year leading the Pueblo school system, said she hopes the schools working more closely together, coupled with an additional $2.5 million in staff and resources, will be able to drive changes through the district.

“We don’t see these schools or collection of schools working in isolation, but working closely with the total district,” she said. “I feel very solid about what we have in place in able to move our schools forward.”

Perhaps the most important unanswered question is whether the State Board will have the political will to compel schools and districts to make drastic changes in a state with strong local control laws.

Some school leaders have already threatened lawsuits if they believe the State Board violates their constitutionally protected local control of schools.

“It remains to be seen,” Schroeder said, “what we have the courage to do.”

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.