tracking progress

Can Westminster’s different approach to learning get a fair shot under Colorado’s accountability system?

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

Leaders of the largest school district in Colorado facing possible state intervention next year are contending that the current system for rating schools is not capturing progress their students are making under an approach to learning that is one-of-a-kind in Colorado.

In 2009, Westminster Public Schools began phasing in competency-based learning, which is based on grouping kids together based on what they know instead of their age.

“Our system is at odds with the traditional accountability model,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools. He added that the district is showing growth and closing achievement gaps separating students of different backgrounds.

The state’s preliminary rating for the district is priority improvement, the second lowest rating on the scale, and the same as in previous years. The state is required to take action after a school or district earns five consecutive low ratings. Westminster Public Schools has reached that limit and if the newest preliminary rating is finalized they will face intervention. Among its options, the state can choose to shut down schools or require the district to merge with another.

Westminster Public Schools in the fall of 2009 began to phase-in what is now called a competency based system. Through it, the district did away with traditional grade-level assignments and grades. Instead, students in Westminster schools are assigned to classrooms based on their proficiency in each subject and they move up through the levels when they show they learned the content, not necessarily after a year of sitting in that class.

While other districts are experimenting with competency-based models in some schools, none have moved to do it district-wide like Westminster did by the 2013-14 school year. Westminster district leaders say it’s still evolving.

“One thing that has evolved over time is our tracking of our student data so we are as flexible as we can to move students when they’re ready to move,” said Pam Swanson, the district’s superintendent. “The other thing is we can never do too much communication.”

Part of the model is dependent on students understanding that when they learn the content, they can ask to prove it on a test so they can move to another level. Students accelerate more when they understand how the system works, officials say.

The district said it also can point to evidence that it is executing the model well. Last school year the district paid AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to review the model. The group accredited the district as a result and shared recommendations to improve the system, which the district is working on now.

Part of the conflict with the state’s accountability system, officials say, is that students have to be assigned a traditional grade level when they take state tests. A student may be assigned to a grade level based on their age, even if they have not had exposure to that grade level content yet.

District officials call the required grouping artificial, and say that the once-a-year tests don’t reflect the growth students make.

“We would love to be able to comply with state testing but to do it in a way that’s real time,” Swanson said. “If we could do it as we’re moving kids through their levels, that would make so much more sense.”

Maria Worthen, vice president of federal and state policy for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said competency is not at odds with accountability rooted in the idea that kids should know a certain amount by a certain age.

“When we talk about competency-based education, it’s about meeting students where they are and giving them all of the supports they need,” Worthen said. “We’re not talking about computer-based training. It’s not about everyone at their own pace. It’s about flexible pace. It’s about letting kids try again.”

Based on data from state tests, the most recent indicator of growth showed students in Westminster were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state. In English language arts tests, Westminster’s growth score was 47. That means Westminster students showed improvements, on average, better than 47 percent of Colorado kids who had similar scores last year. In math, Westminster’s growth score was 42.

Worthen said the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides more opportunities for states to create systems that better account for how kids learn in competency-based systems.

State officials say federal law requires students take tests based on a grade level because it allows officials to make sure students are keeping up with their peers and not being discriminated against. But Colorado is in the early stages of considering requesting flexibility from the federal government for a new state testing and accountability model.

That could involve a system that is more suited for competency-based teaching, or one that also allows for testing throughout the year instead of once.

“There’s not consensus across the state when it comes to what we should prioritize,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment at the state Department of Education. “One thing to keep in mind is that in the end, so, long term, the expectation is that the entire state will move to the same model.”

Worthen said that accountability systems don’t have to be exclusively built around competency. She said that one possibility could be basing accountability on multiple assessments over a period of time instead of one single test given in the spring.

“From an accountability point of view, we do want to know that no student is falling through the cracks,” Worthen said.

Educators across the state have raised issues with Colorado’s accountability system for a variety of reasons. While in Westminster it revolves around the competency-based approach, teachers elsewhere have said that students who are English language learners or who have special education needs are also unprepared for the tests they are forced to take.

Sharyl Kay Lawson, a special education teacher in Brighton, said that she has had students that blow through state tests in less than 20 minutes because they don’t know the material.

“My kids come to me for reading because the classroom reading is way above their level,” Lawson said. “Then they’re expected to go back to class and take a regular assessment at their grade level.

Recently, some district leaders also have questioned the validity of data for comparison when large numbers of students opt-out of taking the tests.

Westminster district officials are writing a request asking the state to reconsider their latest rating before it is made official by January. If the request to reconsider is denied, district, officials said they would appeal to the state Board of Education.

District leaders want to present the state with other evidence they say shows their district is improving, but they’re still figuring out what data the state will consider.

They have also been talking to state officials about what flexibilities they wish they had in the accountability system to let them continue their competency based model while not facing intervention from the state.

“Everyone here is open to having a conversation about what it is the assessment system should look like long term,” Zurkowski said. “But it needs to be something that allows for us to ensure that all of our students are getting access to high quality education regardless of race or zip code. That’s the balance and I expect there will be lots of discussion about that.”

community input

A high-poverty Jeffco school is about to adopt a “community school” model. What does that mean?

Rhiannon Wenning leads a community forum at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

One of Jefferson County’s highest-need schools is about to undergo a transition, expanding efforts to not just teach kids but meet the many needs of families in the area.

As the academic year begins, Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater will begin the process of becoming a community school. That means the Jeffco Public school will act as a hub for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes, job training and medical care — to parents and families.

Community schools are an emerging trend in education, championed by teachers unions and others who believe tackling poverty, health and behavior challenges facing students and their families can help boost learning.

Although approaches to community schools differ nationwide, they share that holistic approach. One U.S. district heavily invested in the concept, New York City, has pumped millions of dollars into transforming more than 130 high-need schools into community schools over three years.

The community schools approach is also in harmony with the philosophy of new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass, who has prioritized addressing poverty and other student needs.

Jefferson teachers began leading the effort last summer, said Rhiannon Wenning, a Jefferson social studies teacher and the community school site coordinator. They hope to disrupt patterns such as the school-to-prison pipeline by better engaging parents and families in their child’s education.

Jefferson’s demographics make it a good fit for the community school model: The junior-senior high school serves students in the area from grades 7 to 12. Just over 90 percent of Jefferson students qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, and the school is 82 percent Latino.

Jefferson Principal Michael James said the school has had community partnerships and run family-focused programs for some time, but committing to a community school model will expand that effort.

It’s a reorganization for the better, for ensuring that we have good systems in place for our families,” James said. “It’s not a huge new thing. It’s really not.”

The biggest changes, Wenning said, come with operating the center and ascribing to the “six pillars” of community schools as defined by national organizations such as the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools. Local nonprofit Edgewater Collective is working to establish partnerships with local organizations and help staff the center.

Over the last four years we’ve been building a great group of community partners that really want to invest in our schools,” said Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective. “This is the logical next step to solidify the connection with our schools and bring partners into the school building.”

Wenning said those pillars, which include wraparound services, restorative discipline practices, community engagement and curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives fit neatly into some of Jeffco’s school expectations.

For Wenning, making sure students have support and find school materials engaging and relatable is the ideal result from the community school transition. Research into whether community schools move the needle academically, however, has shown uneven results.

“If I’m being a good teacher and a culturally relevant teacher, I’m gonna ensure (my curriculum) includes the history of my students,” Wenning said at a recent community forum.

James said the transition to community school will be gradual, as Jefferson is still seeking support to remain open beyond the school day and hoping for funding from national organizations that has not yet come to fruition. James said as of now, the school budget will have to swallow the cost of added resources.

Wenning said the principal had committed to funding her position as site coordinator part-time, and that she was pursuing other funding sources.

Even with funding uncertainties, Wenning has faith in the ultimate success of the model. She said she expects that after a few years, students and the surrounding community will see a drastic change.

“I want Jefferson to be a school Edgewater wants,” Wenning said in an interview. “If you don’t like something with your neighborhood school, then go into it and make it better… It’s the best use of not only taxpayer dollars, but it’s the best scenario for our kids.”

changing city

The thorny problem of segregated schools and Denver’s newest plan to address it

Denver schools are more racially segregated today than they were a decade ago, even with the district’s share of white students growing over that time.

That finding, from the KIDS COUNT report released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign today, highlights a problem that has dogged officials in Denver and across the nation for decades and will soon draw the attention of a new Denver Public Schools committee charged with addressing school diversity in the gentrifying city.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he doesn’t necessarily agree that Denver schools are more segregated today, citing some city schools such as Skinner Middle School that are better integrated today than 10 years ago. Still, he acknowledged that race- and income-based segregation is a major challenge for the district.

“We have very significant housing separation and segregation in this city as we see in so many communities across the country … so then you also see that in our schools,” he said.

Data provided by the Colorado Children’s Campaign — but not included in the 2017 KIDS COUNT report — shows a slight downward trend in Denver Public Schools “segregation index” since the measure’s high-water mark in 2014-15. Even so, that index today is higher than it’s been in the district for most of the last 13 years and higher than in any other Colorado district.

Despite a surge in the city’s population, enrollment growth is slowing in DPS and low-income families are being pushed out. This year, about three-quarters of students districtwide are students of color and two-thirds are low-income — both lower figures than five years ago.

In Colorado, segregated schools aren’t unique to Denver. Suburban and rural districts, including St. Vrain Valley, Eagle County and Greeley, also have highly segregated schools, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

Highly segregated schools, where poor children of color are often concentrated, typically lack the financial resources and more experienced teachers that can be found in less segregated schools. The report also cites recent landmark research from Stanford University that shows segregation is a significant predictor of achievement gaps — differences in achievement levels associated with students’ race or socioeconomic status.

Boasberg said the district’s new “Citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods” committee, which will have about 30 members and kick off in June, will discuss possible changes to the district’s school boundary, enrollment and choice systems “to drive greater integration in our schools.”

He acknowledged that race, class and segregation can be highly sensitive topics.

“Will there be concerns on all sides? Yes,” he said. “Will there be any one set of proposals that will make everyone happy? No.”

Still, he noted that he hears both parents and students say they want to see Denver’s diversity reflected in their schools.

Plus, he said, “There’s lots of research that says integrated schools are win-win for all kids, for all economic backgrounds and races.”

Lisa Flores, a school board member who represents the rapidly gentrifying northwest Denver, said she hopes the committee will focus not just on crafting policy but also examining the public perceptions that accompany ideas like desegregation and integration.

“We have in many ways evolved as a community and in many ways face some of the cultural challenges that we faced 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “I’m hoping for some short-term wins and I’m aware that this is long haul work.”

The district has made some efforts to increase integration, including the use of enrollment zones. Students living in such zones are guaranteed enrollment at one of several schools within the zone’s boundaries but not necessarily the one closest to their home. The idea is to pull students from a larger, more diverse area, thereby lessening the effects of highly segregated neighborhoods. So far, the zones have had mixed success. 

Seven of the district’s 11 enrollment zones focus on middle schools and two on high schools. Two others, one encompassing the upscale Stapleton neighborhood, and a smaller one in far southeast Denver, target elementary schools.

Still, segregation at the elementary level can be stark. For example, the KIDS COUNT report highlights two schools with vastly different demographics: Valverde and Steele elementaries.

At Valverde, which has the lowest of five quality ratings, 95 percent of students are children of color and 96 percent qualify for free or discounted meals, a proxy for poverty. Two miles away in the pricey Washington Park neighborhood is Steele, which has the second highest quality rating. There, just 17 percent of students are children of color and 6 percent qualify for free or discounted meals.

But evening out such imbalances is a tricky proposition given the fraught history of integration efforts. In Denver, court-ordered busing in the 1970s sparked massive white flight to neighboring suburbs and more recently, enrollment zones have stirred worry among some parents. Contentious battles over integration are in full swing elsewhere, too, including in New York City where wealthy white parents have relentlessly fought school boundary changes that would lead to integration.

Despite the potential for acrimony, Flores draws optimism from her own experience as a Denver student during the era of court-ordered busing.

Her white, affluent classmates “were children of progressive parents who wanted to walk the talk around integration,” she said. “You will still find those parents today that share the value of socioeconomic and racial integration and want their children to experience that type of learning environment.”