Career readiness

Four things to know about the Colorado school Hillary Clinton is visiting on Wednesday

PHOTO: Denver Post
Secretary Hillary Clinton visited Galvanize in Denver.

Leading presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, in the midst of a bus tour of political swing states, is making a stop at a Colorado high school Wednesday.

The Democratic presidential nominee is expected to talk about her jobs proposal at Adams City High School in the heart of Commerce City, a heavily Latino and working-class inner suburb just north of Denver.

While the speech Clinton will give Wednesday isn’t expected to delve deep into education policies — it will largely expand on the economic promises she outlined in her nomination acceptance speech last week — we thought you might like to know a little more about the school and the challenges it faces.

Adams City High is one of the state’s lowest-performing schools and is facing an uncertain future.

Last year, not a single student at Adams City High was considered “college-ready” based on their scores on the state’s new English test. Only 3 percent of students passed the state’s algebra exam.

Those results aren’t the first time Adams City High students didn’t meet state benchmarks on standardized tests. The school has been considered low-performing for the last six years. Those results, coupled with a low graduation rate and ACT average score, mean that the state could intervene next year if scores this year don’t go up.

Colorado law gives the state and district three options: close the school, turn it over to a charter school or another management company, or redesign it as an “innovation” school.

School leaders say they expect higher scores. But they have a backup plan.

Principal Gionni Thompson said he expects to see impressive gains when the state releases its latest round of test scores later this month. If the school does well enough, the state would halt an intervention.

But in the case the scores don’t rise, Adams City High is preparing to seek innovation status, which would allow it to act more like a charter school.

Innovation status would provide the high school with waivers from district and state policies, like those charter schools receive. Schools seeking innovation status usually ask to create their own calendar, set their own curriculum, and hire and fire teachers outside of a union contract.

Thompson said the most important waiver his school will seek is the ability to set its own curriculum. The district, he said, is providing the school with money to get a head start.

One change Thompson hopes to make right away is ending a keyboarding class requirement to graduate.

“Kids are way beyond that,” he said. “They’re already programming, they’re coding.”

Federal investigators criticized the way Adams City treated Latino students.

In 2010, a teacher at the high school kicked a group of Hispanic students out of class because the students were speaking in Spanish. A riot in the class nearly followed.

That’s just one example from a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that found administrators across the Adams 14 school district had created a hostile environment for Latino students and teachers.

Since the report was made public, Adams City High and the district have been operating under an agreement reached with federal officials to improve the culture of local schools. Among the changes: frequent training on racial and ethnic bias for school administrators and teachers, and student focus groups to discuss race relations.

One byproduct of the changes, Thompson said, is a more welcoming school environment for parents. “We’re bringing the school back to the community,” he said.

The high school has been a fixture on the Democratic campaign trail since 2004.

Clinton’s visit on Wednesday will not be the first time Adams City High has gotten attention from a national presidential campaign. But officials believe it is the first time a presidential nominee will visit the school.

In 2004, then-vice presidential nominee John Edwards visited. In 2008, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden stopped by. In 2012, former President Bill Clinton campaigned for President Barack Obama’s successful re-election.

It’s unclear why the high school has become a favorite stop for Democrats. But for Thompson, the visit is larger than just another stop on the campaign trail.

“This visit is something our community needs,” Thompson said. “It gives our community that boost. We’re being recognized nationally. We’re going to be part of history.”

progress report

Slow progress, many challenges: How Colorado schools on improvement plans are doing

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A new report on Colorado schools operating under state-approved improvement plans shows mixed academic results and slow progress getting all the necessary pieces in place.

State education department officials on Wednesday briefed the State Board of Education on schools and districts halfway through their first year on the plans.

State staff praised Aurora Central High School, noting that leadership in Aurora’s innovation zone and the consultant hired to help are providing good feedback to teachers as they focus in on improvements to the school. The data also show Aurora Central is making “small increases” in academic progress and more significant progress in attendance numbers.

The report also highlights problems that have come up in other schools or districts working on their plans. One example: Administrators in the Aguilar school district realized their language arts curriculum was not aligned to state standards. The report, however, noted that the district “moved immediately to work to adopt new materials,” mid-year with help from its consultant.

Colorado Department of Education

Adams 14 and its high school, Adams City High School, along with three schools from Pueblo City Schools, will be required to return to the state board for an evaluation if they do not earn an “improvement” rating or higher this year. The preliminary ratings will be available in August and finalized later in the fall.

Other schools and districts that were put on state-approved improvement plans last year, including the Westminster district and Aurora Central High School, have until 2019 to show improvements.

State officials are monitoring the progress of the schools and districts through site visits, data reviews, and grants. The state board next will be updated when the preliminary ratings are available.

Officials report that schools and districts are seeing a slower rollout of their plans than expected. In many cases, officials say, schools or districts have not built out the infrastructure and routines required to make their plans work. In other cases, other community issues are distracting educators from the work of the improvement plans.

“There’s some common themes,” Alyssa Pearson, an associate education commissioner, said during the presentation to the board. “But how it plays out… it’s different everywhere.”

Both are true in Adams 14. Community members have criticized the district for changes to recess, parent-teacher conferences, and more. The district has also been slow to learn to use its new school monitoring systems, the report said.

“While progress monitoring data is being collected, it is not routinely analyzed and discussed by school staff,” the state’s report notes. “For example, elementary data meetings are scheduled after school and staff attend on an optional basis.”

The mid-year report also notes that the Adams 14 data does not show the district meeting targets in math or literacy, although the middle schools were noted to be showing the “most consistent growth.”

At Adams City High School, a “lack of a valid interim assessment makes it difficult for the school, district and state to determine overall academic progress in the school” is a problem, the report concludes. According to the report, the district and school “have agreed” to use a valid interim assessment next year.

Read the mid-year progress summaries here:

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that officials in the Aguilar school district discovered the problem with their language arts curriculum on their own, rather than state officials notifying them.

learning curve

Westminster school will reopen as a Marzano lab school ‘to take on problems we haven’t solved yet’

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

An extended day and school year, new extracurricular activities including martial arts and lacrosse, and new uniforms are all part of what students can expect at a new Westminster school this fall.

The district plans to close Flynn Elementary School in north Westminster and re-open it as a Marzano Academy, only the second school in the country designed by local education researcher Robert Marzano. This is part of the district’s improvement plan approved by the state last year as it tries to change years of low performance.

The board of education for Westminster Public Schools Tuesday night approved the closure of Flynn Elementary along with an innovation plan to reopen the school as a Marzano Academy.

Flynn Elementary, near the corner of 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, currently serves about 275 students of which 75 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. The school’s teachers will lose their jobs, but students will automatically be re-enrolled to stay in the building when the school reopens in the fall.

The Marzano Academy model will be used to help the school’s teachers — and others across the district — improve their use of the district’s competency-based learning model. It’s an approach that calls for students to be grouped and to advance based on what they have proved they learned, not based on their age or how long they’ve been in one grade level.

Westminster schools have been using the model for about seven years, but the majority of the district’s students have not performed well on annual state ratings. District officials have argued that the state’s way of testing students isn’t fairly tracking their progress, but state officials haven’t excused the district. Now after years of low ratings from the state, the district is on a timeline to show students making improvements, or it could face more action from the state.

District officials worked with Marzano this year to write the school’s innovation plan which details a five-level framework for high quality that starts with creating a safe culture.

The plan was not made public until after the board vote Tuesday night. In it, there are details about the school’s plan to personalize learning, including requiring that every student complete a project every year. There are also specifics about teacher coaching and evaluation.

The Marzano Academy will be run as a lab school where teachers will be coached on using the best strategies to teach students so they can then model those strategies for other educators in the district or across the country. Marzano said being a lab school also means studying problems.

“The lab part is to take on problems we haven’t solved yet such as how do you teach kids at a developmentally appropriate level but make sure on some external test they are performing well,” Marzano said. “There’s no easy answer to that. There will be some very interesting things to discover.”

The school will open as a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school, just as it is now, and will expand to include sixth through eighth grades, or levels as they are called in the district, in fall of 2019. This fall, all students currently at Flynn will be automatically enrolled to stay at the school when it opens as the Marzano Academy, but in the future, the school will no longer be a neighborhood-boundary school.

Principal Brian Kosena said that even though the school will become an open enrollment school without boundaries, students will not be hand-picked, although there will be caps on the number of students accepted each year.

“The idea of these research-based practices are that they should make a difference no matter what school or student population you serve,” Kosena said. “It benefits us, and it benefits Marzano if the school represents the neighborhood that the school is in. We want to maintain a neighborhood feel.”

The school is seeking to open as an innovation school to allow it to be free from laws and rules created for the traditional education model, according to the plan. The status must next be approved by the State Board of Education.

“Currently, local policies limiting the length of the school year, the school day, and school choice are all barriers to realizing the full potential of the plan,” the document states. “State regulations and policies regarding teacher qualifications currently prohibit or limit the use of otherwise competent individuals in the teaching process.”

Colorado’s innovation law, which grants schools flexibility from state laws, and district or union rules, states that as part of the process to convert a school into an innovation school, staff must vote and a majority must approve the plan. But in this case, because the current school — Flynn Elementary — will close, and because the Marzano Academy will open in the fall as a new school, no staff vote will be required.

Denver Public Schools followed a similar process between 2010 and 2012. The local teachers union sued the district, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and stated that the process was allowed.

All teachers currently at Flynn Elementary will be out of a job at the end of this school year. Those who want to work at the school when it reopens as a Marzano Academy must apply for positions. District officials say the current Flynn teachers will be guaranteed an interview, but will not have any other preference in the hiring process.

Asked if teachers will be placed in other district schools if they aren’t hired at Marzano, Kirk Leday, the district’s chief of staff and human resources director said in a statement, “We are confident that all of our non-probationary teachers will secure a position in our district for next year.”

Read the full innovation plan: