just in time

Off the list: Two Colorado school districts improve enough to spare themselves from state sanctions

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Sheridan High School English teacher Molly Gold, center, meets with students during class time.

Two small Colorado school districts have improved their schools enough to avoid the drastic scenario of the state stepping in to force changes, Chalkbeat has confirmed.

Both the 1,300-student Sheridan School District southwest of Denver and the 790-student Ignacio School District in southwestern Colorado were notified by the state education department last week that they have dropped off the state’s watch list for chronic low academic performance.

“We’re very excited, and we were unbelievably elated when we got the news,” said Michael Clough, Sheridan’s superintendent.

Schools and districts that spend five straight years on the watch list face state sanctions that run the gamut from school closure to takeover by charter school organizations. Going into this school year, eight districts and 30 schools were staring at that prospect.

The legislature put the accountability clock on hold last year because of a switch in state assessments. Now that Colorado has results from the second year of PARCC testing in math and English, among other measures, schools and districts are learning their fates.

Last week, state department of education officials began calling schools and districts to share the news. Sheridan officials celebrated their milestone at a school board meeting last week, and the Ignacio superintendent confirmed his district’s status in an interview.

Thornton Elementary School in the Adams 12 Five Star school district also improved its rating and will not face sanctions, a spokesman for the district said.

State education department officials confirmed the districts and schools improved enough to move off the watch list, citing the fact that local officials had shared the news.

The education department declined to identify other districts or schools that improved their ratings. The department said doing so would also identify those that did not improve, and those districts and schools still have time to appeal for a higher rating.

District leaders with schools on the list that were contacted by Chalkbeat were either unavailable to comment or declined to discuss their ratings until after sharing them with their school boards and staff.

The state is expected to formally release preliminary ratings and their reasoning to all schools and districts this week.

The state’s school rating system uses results from the state’s standardized tests and other factors such as graduation rates to determine the quality of schools and districts. Schools and districts that earn the state’s two lowest ratings — “turnaround” or “priority improvement” — have five years to improve or the state steps in.

Schools and districts that object to their preliminary rating have a small window to challenge the department’s findings before the ratings are made public. In some instances, districts may provide data from local assessments to demonstrate that students are growing academically.

The final ratings are expected to be made public in the winter.

After the results are final, the State Board of Education will begin doling out sanctions to schools that have not improved since 2010, when the system was created by the legislature.

Among the board’s options: direct schools to be closed or be turned over to charter schools, or direct a school district to turn over all or a portion of its operations to a third-party manager. The state board may also direct schools or districts to apply for innovation status, which would free schools from some state laws and district policies.

Districts that do not comply with the state board may lose accreditation, which has never happened.

Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of the Ignacio school district, said he and his teachers breathed a deep sigh of relief after learning the district is no longer on the watch list.

He credited a new district-created curriculum based on the state’s academic standards, focusing on data and better planning by teachers across grade levels and subjects.

“It wasn’t easy some days,” Fuschetto said. “We had teachers crying some days. But we stayed focused on the hard work to get us where we wanted to be.”

Both Clough and Fuschetto said the news also means their respective districts can begin to shake off the stigma that often comes with a failing rating.

“We cannot stop here,” Fuschetto said. “It’s been a long, long road to get here. Hopefully by doing this, we’ll change the stigma and we’re going to continue getting better. We’re not going to let up.”

new faces

State Sen. Dominick Moreno among candidates for Adams 14 board vacancy

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

A state senator is one of five candidates seeking to fill a vacancy on the school board for the troubled Adams 14 school district.

Dominick Moreno, a Democratic state senator whose district includes most of Adams 14, will be among the candidates the board will interview for the position on July 9.

Moreno said he got a legal opinion from legislative services that states he can serve on a local school board while maintaining his seat as a state senator.

The other candidates include:

The vacancy was created two weeks ago when then-board president Timio Archuleta abruptly resigned, citing the need for new voices and opinions on the board.

Many parents and advocates celebrated the resignation, saying it brought hope that the district, which has had made several unpopular decisions in the last year, would listen to the community and change. Adams 14 is facing state intervention after years of low performance and has experienced significant staff turnover in the last year.

The board, by law, has 60 days to fill the vacancy. The board is currently scheduled to vote on July 9 after the candidate interviews. The selected candidate will serve out Archuleta’s term until the next election in November 2019.

Moreno, who graduated from Adams City High School, has been a vocal supporter of the district throughout their turnaround process.

“Obviously the district is at a critical juncture on the accountability clock, and there’s been some unrest in the community,” Moreno said Thursday. “I believed we needed candidates who could come on to the school board and have the relationships and the experience needed to pull everybody together with a common vision.”

Moreno said he didn’t have any strong opinions on the controversial decisions the district has made this past year, including the pause of a biliteracy program, saying only that he would have a lot of homework to do if appointed and that every decision would be reviewed.

In the legislature, Moreno served on the influential Joint Budget Committee and sponsored legislation that required schools to serve breakfast to students from low-income families. He also supported a bill last year that created the opportunity for school districts to offer the seal of biliteracy, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas for students who could demonstrate fluency in two languages. Adams 14 was one of the first three districts to offer the seal, and it is still one of the components of its bilingual education program.

The school district posted the list of candidates Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, last week, the remaining four members of the district’s board voted to name Connie Quintana as the board’s president in a long process that included two failed attempts to reach a decision. Board member Bill Hyde criticized the process as a “circus.”

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.