tick tock

Here are the Colorado schools and districts most likely to face state intervention for poor performance

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

As many as five Colorado school districts and a dozen schools could face state intervention next year for persistent low performance on state tests.

That’s according to preliminary school quality ratings issued by the Colorado Department of Education this month and obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request.

Schools and districts can appeal the ratings, and some have already said they plan to do so.

When the ratings are finalized this winter, it will mark a significant milestone. For the first time since Colorado’s current school accountability system was created in 2009, the State Board of Education will force districts and schools that have failed to improve for five consecutive years to take action to boost student learning.

The state board has a list of directives it may issue to local school boards. Some are more drastic than others. Among the possibilities: close schools or turn them over to new management, apply for waivers from local and state policies, merge with a nearby high-performing school district, or turn over all or some operations to a third party.

The schools and districts facing sanctions are large and small, urban and rural, district-run and charters. The largest school is Aurora Central High with 2,172 students, most of whom are black or Latino. The smallest school district is Aguilar in southeastern Colorado with 124 students.

Still on the clock |
These districts and schools received a preliminary rating that if unchanged would mean the State Board of Education must take action:
• Westminster Public Schools
• Adams 14 School District
• Aguilar Reorganized
• Montezuma-Cortez
• Julesburg RE-1
• Adams City High
• Aurora Central High
• HOPE Online Learning Academy, elementary and middle schools
• Peakview School
• Aguilar Junior-Senior High
• Bessemer Elementary
• Heroes Middle School
• Risley International Academy of Innovation
• Destinations Career Academy of Innovation
• Franklin Middle School
• Prairie Heights Middle School

The largest school district to face intervention next year will likely be Westminster Public Schools, which serves about 10,000 students northwest of Denver in Adams County. The district has pledged to appeal its preliminary rating. Leaders there plan to point to multiple years of sustained academic growth, especially at schools that were among the first to be flagged by the state for poor test scores.

“This is not a district that has been sitting still for five years,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “If we get pushed back down the hill, we’ll just have to start climbing up again.”

The state’s accountability system rates schools and districts annually based on scores from English and math tests, and other factors such as graduation rates.

Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two ratings — turnaround or priority improvement — must improve within five years or face interventions.

The state’s current accountability system was created in 2010 but was put on pause last year due to a change in standardized tests. Now that the state has two years of test data, the state has turned the system, sometimes called the “accountability clock,” back on.

Another school district that plans to press the state for a higher rating is Adams 14 in Commerce City.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.
Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

The district believes results from its own standardized tests will demonstrate enough progress to bump Adams City High, one of the schools that could face sanctions next year, off the academic watch list.

“We own our performance and are accountable for our data,” new Superintendent Javier Abrego said in a statement. “That’s why it’s important to consider the preliminary nature of these data. This is a prime example of why the state has built into its process, the opportunity for local schools to illustrate student performance using local viable and credible test measures.”

Not every school is sure it will ask the state for a higher rating.

“We just received the results late last week and are in the process of evaluating them,” Heather O’Mara, CEO of the HOPE Online Learning Academy charter school, said in a statement. “At this time we have not decided if we will make a request to reconsider.”

Leaders of the charter school will meet with officials from its authorizer, the Douglas County School District, next week to discuss the school’s results.

Schools and districts have until Nov. 7 to ask the state for a higher rating.

Prior to the one-year timeout caused by the change in state tests, eight districts and 30 schools had been on the state’s watch list for five consecutive years.

School districts that jumped off the list in time to avoid meeting with the state board next year include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and the Ignacio School District. Schools that jumped off the list include four in Denver Public Schools and five rural schools.

One of those rural schools was Kemper Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez RE 1 school district in southwestern Colorado. While the school showed enough progress to exit the watch list, the district’s preliminary rating indicates the district as a whole might face sanctions.

The 2,782-student rural district also believes that local data will show greater improvement than results from the PARCC exams, especially given the large number of students who skipped the tests in 2016.

“We believe results from the PARCC test are not a fair representation of our student population,” said Superintendent Lori Haukeness, adding that 75 percent of ninth grade students and more than 35 percent of middle school students opted out.

In case the state rejects the district’s request for a higher rating, the district is beginning work on a plan to present to the state board next year.

“Hopefully we’re successful with our appeal,” Haukeness said, “and won’t need to identify a pathway.”

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

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)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.



On the Agenda

Adams 14 school board votes to give superintendent a raise with no prior notice

Adams 14 Superintendent Javier Abrego celebrates with teachers at Kearney Middle School during an event highlighting the school's rating in August 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The school board for Adams 14 approved a raise for Superintendent Javier Abrego Tuesday after amending their agenda during their meeting. The surprise vote came in a year when the district’s progress has been tested.

Abrego took over the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district in 2016 and has a contract running through June 2019. The addendum, approved on a 3-2 vote, raised his salary to $169,125, up from $165,000, and will be retroactive to the start of this school year. The board also gave Abrego a $25,000 contribution for his retirement account.

The board’s decision comes while the district is in the middle of a state-ordered improvement plan. While the district began the year celebrating that it had earned a higher rating, bringing it one step closer to coming off the state’s plan, the board recently also heard from state officials that the district is struggling to comply with data requirements and is not meeting goals.

The district this year has also been attacked by community members upset with many changes, including cuts to recess, elimination of scheduled parent-teacher conference days, and changes to a biliteracy program.

Colorado’s open meeting laws generally require that the public have 24-hour notice before elected officials discuss something. There are certain exceptions that give school boards some flexibility to add items to their agenda.

But experts say that in this case, Adams 14’s board should have given the public notice — before the meeting — that they were going to vote on the superintendent’s contract.

“That’s not the intention of the sunshine law,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Essentially if they know they’re going to do this, it should be on the agenda. The public should have a good idea of what’s coming up. There are emergency things that come up, but this doesn’t sound like an emergency.”

In describing the contract addendum the board was about to vote on, Adams 14’s board president, Timio Archuleta, said that all administrative staff in the district had received a 2.5 percent step increase, and that the superintendent should have also received that.

“It was thought that this was taken care of last fall, but the addendum had not been finalized for approval, so I’m asking the board for approval tonight,” Archuleta said.

The signed document describes the $25,000 payout as a “one-time compensation for services rendered to the district under this contract during the 2016-17 school year.”

The board members did not discuss the salary increase in the open meeting before voting.

Board member Bill Hyde attempted to abstain from the vote, but the board’s attorney said that would require the board president’s approval. Archuleta did not allow Hyde to abstain. Hyde and board member Harvest Thomas voted against the salary increase.

Hyde did not say why he wanted to abstain from the vote.

Before the meeting started, the school board also had a study session where, in part, they discussed with a consultant whether and how they should evaluate the superintendent.

Although Abrego’s contract states that the board shall evaluate the superintendent every year, officials say it hasn’t happened.

According to the contract, the board “shall evaluate and assess in writing” the superintendent’s progress toward meeting goals each year. But the contract also states, “at a minimum, this evaluation shall include a meeting between superintendent and the board.”

Hyde pushed the board to commit to scheduling a discussion to pick between three superintendent evaluation tools that Adams 14 can begin to use.

The consultant pushed the board not to focus on the “tool” for evaluation so much as the practice of doing so.