ratings and consequences

Five low-performing Colorado school districts on track for sanctions after state releases quality ratings

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Five Colorado school districts face the unprecedented prospect of state sanctions and three were spared that fate according to final state school district quality ratings released Thursday.

The ratings from the Colorado Department of Education are the first since the state made a switch in assessments designed to measure student learning in English and math. The ratings are also the first to be released since a growing number of families began opting their children out of the tests, driving down many districts’ participation rates and complicating state officials’ efforts to rate them.

The five districts that failed to improve student learning enough during the last six years and now face state action are a mix of suburban and rural: Westminster Public Schools, Adams 14 School District, Aguilar Reorganized, Montezuma-Cortez and Julesburg RE-1.

Those districts have one more chance to appeal to the State Board of Education for a higher rating, which could halt the sanction process. Such an appeal has never been granted.

The sanctions could come as soon as February. Among the state board’s options for the five school districts: close schools, turn some over to a charter authorizer, or direct the district to reorganize and turn over some operations such as teacher training to a third party.

Both Adams 14 and Westminster asked for the state to reconsider their ratings before finalizing them. But both those bids fell short. State officials concluded that Adams 14 neither improved enough nor provided sufficient data, and district officials say they will not appeal.

In Westminster’s case, the state said the district could claim some promising data but not enough to lift its rating. District officials also contended the state accountability system doesn’t adequately take into account the way it groups students not by age but by what they know. District officials told Chalkbeat they plan to appeal.

The three districts that beat the state’s so-called “accountability clock” and escaped sanctions were Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and Ignacio. The three districts learned they had made enough improvement earlier this fall, and the final ratings make it official.

Overall, more than two-thirds of the state’s districts were awarded one of the state’s top two ratings. Another five districts ranked in the bottom two.

More than half of the state’s 184 school districts and other agencies that get ratings — including the Charter School Institute, the state’s charter school authorizer — have similar ratings compared to 2014, when the ratings were last issued. Forty districts saw a rating increase, while 33 districts dropped at least one level.

Meanwhile, 13 mostly small rural districts effectively have no rating because too few students in those districts took the state’s tests.

The ratings come almost four months since the state released the second round of results from PARCC exams.

The ratings rely heavily on results from the PARCC English and math tests students in grades three through nine take each spring. Other factors that contribute to a district’s rating include how well high school juniors scored on the ACT and how many students graduate or drop out.

Under the system, which was created by the General Assembly in 2009, districts that fall in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face sanctions. This year marks the first year the State Board of Education must take action on districts that have crossed that threshold.

In the past, the department has issued districts one of five ratings: “distinction” being the highest and “turnaround” being the lowest. This year, in response to the state’s growing movement of parents opting their students out of state standardized tests, the department developed a sixth rating: “insufficient state data, low participation.”

The department is also clearly labeling districts that had enough data to get ranked but fewer than 95 percent of students take the PARCC exams.

State and federal law require schools to test 95 percent of their students in an effort to ensure schools don’t exclude groups of students such as English language learners or students with special needs.

However, state lawmakers, reacting to pressure from parents and activists, tweaked the law in 2015: Students who are excused from the tests aren’t counted as either participants or nonparticipants. As a result, the state changed the way it calculates a district’s participation rate so districts are only held responsible for testing students who are not excused by their parents.

The resistance to standardized testing and the changes to the law “created some interesting situations,” said Alyssa Pearson, the department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

“We need direction from policy makers,” Pearson said, noting the state’s rating system was created in 2009, a time when nearly every student took the state’s standardized tests. “This year, we did what made sense to us.”

When the state released its preliminary ratings earlier this fall, dozens of districts had their ratings lowered manually by the department because they failed to meet the 95 percent participation rate and did not provide evidence that parents had pulled their kids from testing.

The department received a record number of requests from districts to up their ratings. Mosts of those requests were granted because data coding errors led to a lower preliminary rating.

Ultimately, three districts had a rating lowered due to low participation — the first time the state has made such a move. Another 89 districts did not have their ratings lowered but were flagged for low participation.

One of those districts that was flagged for low participation was Boulder Valley, which had a “distinction” rating in 2014 but earned an “accredited with low participation” rating this year. An epicenter for the opt-out movement, Boulder had not a single grade meet the 95 percent participation requirement.

Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent, said the district’s performance is not being accurately captured because so many students opted out.

“I’m not pleased that accreditation would be impacted by the participation rate,” said Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent. “We have a conflict in the state of Colorado over the relationship between accreditation and participation. That needs to be resolved, and I’m sure it will be over time.”

“We have no reason to believe the performance on the test, on those that were reported, reflect our school district,” he added. “Statistically there is no way anyone could jump to that conclusion.”

The state’s third largest school district and another opt-out hotbed, the Douglas County School District, also saw its rating drop since 2014 and was flagged for low participation. However, leaders there seem unfazed.

“We recognize the impact that low participation rates in state-mandated assessments have on accreditation ratings,” Interim Superintendent Erin Kane said in a statement. “However, we honor parental choice and will continue to do so.”

The state is expected to release school ratings at the state board’s January meeting.

Changes

Far northeast Denver gets campus upgrades, but not the traditional high school some want

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A seventh-grade biology class at the Montbello campus in Denver in 2017.

Denver students who return this fall to the five small schools on the Montbello campus will find a refurbished library with a dedicated librarian — something they didn’t have this past year.

New stadium lights will mean high school athletes no longer have their after-school practices cut short by the setting sun. Students at the two high schools on the campus will be able to take elective courses at either school, widening their academic possibilities.

These changes will create something closer to a traditional high school experience for students in far northeast Denver. Some residents have been asking for the return of a comprehensive high school in the region. It hasn’t had one since the school board voted in 2010 to close low-performing Montbello High and replace it with smaller schools that share facilities.

The five schools on the Montbello campus are:
  • DCIS Montbello Middle School
  • DCIS Montbello High School
  • Noel Community Arts Middle School
  • Noel Community Arts High School
  • STRIVE Prep Montbello Middle School

The three middle and two high schools on the Montbello campus served nearly 1,800 students this past school year. Nearly all of them were students of color, and 88 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

District officials point to higher test scores and rising graduation rates as proof the small schools are working. But some community members disagree, in part because they say shared campus arrangements have created other academic and social inequities. In the past year, parents, athletic coaches, and students have been increasingly vocal in demanding change.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district heard the feedback “loud and clear.” The library renovation and other changes will “bring some real, tangible, and meaningful benefits to our students in the far northeast,” he said.

Community members said they’re a start.

“We like to say we acknowledge what the DPS has done in response to all of this community agitation,” said Brandon Pryor, a Denver parent and football coach who has emerged as one of the strongest advocates for change. “We want to stay away from thanking them because the things they’re doing are the things they should have been doing already.”

School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents the area, wants to help the community continue its advocacy. She is working to form a committee of parents, students, teachers, and other residents to come up with a vision for what public education should look like in the far northeast — and, perhaps, a model for future new schools in the region.

“You can’t just dangle low-hanging fruit and believe that’s enough,” Bacon said of the district’s efforts to address the concerns. However, she added, “you have to also start somewhere. The fact that we are means that a point was made, and it was received.”

The changes the district is making for the 2018-19 school year stop well short of reopening a traditional high school. Superintendent Boasberg said that while he hears that desire, “our first priority is to invest in the schools that we have.”

The changes include:

Providing “open access to a high-functioning library” for the schools on the Montbello campus, “including a dedicated librarian, for research and study time,” according to a letter Boasberg sent to families after touring the campus alongside community advocates.

All five schools will share a single library and librarian.

This past school year, one of the schools on the campus, DCIS Montbello, used the library as a math classroom during the fall semester, district officials said. When the library reopened during the spring semester, there was no librarian and no computers there. (Students have access to computers in their classrooms, and some schools issue students their own, officials said.)

The library renovation will add itechnology, and update the paint, flooring, furniture, and book selection, district officials said. It will be funded through a variety of sources, including a tax increase voters approved in 2016. Funding for the librarian position will come out of the district’s central budget, not individual school budgets, officials said.

Adding lights to the athletic fields at the Montbello campus and the nearby Evie Dennis campus, which houses a mix of elementary, middle, and high schools. The district is also aligning bell schedules at all district-run high schools in the far northeast.

That will enable student athletes from the various schools who play as a single team under the banner of the Far Northeast Warriors to start practice earlier. Football coach Tony Lindsay said that this past year, the schools’ bell schedules were all over the place. The school with the earliest dismissal time let students out at 2:45 p.m.; the latest dismissed them at 4:15 p.m.

A bus went from school to school, collecting the athletes, who wouldn’t arrive at the field until 4:45 p.m., he said. That posed a major problem in the fall, when it gets dark by 5:15 p.m.

The district is paying for the lights at the Evie Dennis campus with money from the 2016 tax increase and using reserve funds to pay for the Montbello lights, officials said.

Hiring an athletic liaison to help students meet the academic eligibility requirements to play sports for Denver Public Schools and qualify for college scholarships.

When Lindsay coached football at a traditional high school in south Denver, he required his players to attend a 45-minute study hall before practice so they could keep up with their homework. But the disparate bell schedules and lack of field lights didn’t allow him to do the same in the far northeast. As a result, he said, some athletes fell behind. Others left for larger, more traditional high schools in other parts of Denver and in surrounding districts.

“They didn’t want this mess,” Lindsay said. “I don’t blame them, but I’m hurt by it. I live out there. That’s my community.”

The liaison will connect student athletes with tutoring and other academic support, officials said. The position will be funded by the district, not the schools.

Expanding the number of available electives for some students. High school students at DCIS Montbello and Noel Community Arts School will be able to take elective courses at either school. According to district officials, those could include Advanced Placement, college-level, and foreign language courses, as well as band, orchestra, dance, and theater.

Many of the changes for next year are related to athletics. That’s because some of the strongest advocacy has come from the football coaches and their players, who showed up at school board meetings this year to speak publicly about the needs in the far northeast.

Lindsay, Pryor and others also participated in a series of community meetings run by Denver Public Schools over the past year and a half. The meetings started as an effort to ask residents in the region what they want in their schools. They ended in a heated debate about whether to reopen a traditional high school. The idea prompted backlash from leaders of the small schools that replaced Montbello High, as they initially saw it as a threat to their existence.

That conflict seems to have cooled, but those who want a traditional high school aren’t relenting. Narcy Jackson, who also participated in the meetings and runs a mentoring program for student athletes, said the changes the district is making don’t go far enough to address inequities.

“They give, like, a crumb,” Jackson said. “That’s supposed to suffice.”

District officials argue that students in the far northeast are getting a better education now than they did before the phase-out of Montbello High, which began in 2011 and ended in 2014 when the last class graduated. In addition to the two small high schools on the Montbello campus, there are six other small high schools and three alternative high schools in the region. They are a mix of district-run and charter schools, and all but one have fewer than 600 students.

Average ACT scores in the far northeast increased from 15.7 point out of 36 in 2011 to 17.7 in 2016, district data shows. That number does not include scores from the alternative schools.

The five-year graduation rate rose from 69 percent to nearly 88 percent. The district prefers to use a five-year graduation rate, rather than a four-year rate, because officials believe in allowing students to stay longer to take free college courses or do apprenticeships.

In addition, high school enrollment in far northeast schools has nearly doubled, from 2,056 students in 2010 to 4,069 students in 2017, district data shows. Officials see that as a sign families are increasingly satisfied with their local schools.

Pryor, the parent and football coach, sees things differently. Test scores are increasing, but he said they’re still not where they should be. ACT scores lag behind the district average. At DCIS Montbello, only 11 percent of 9th graders met expectations on last year’s state literacy test. As for the graduation rate, “that’s not an indication of kids doing better,” Pryor said.

“They’re just passing them through,” he said, “creating an illusion that they’re serving our kids better, but they’re not.”

He’d like to work with other community members to design a brand-new high school. He hopes to start by visiting schools around the country that have been successful in educating black and Latino students. He said he appreciates that Bacon, the school board member, wants to keep the conversation going beyond the changes the district is making next year.

“We’ve identified problems,” Pryor said. Now, he added, “it’s time to work on solutions.”

Incentives

Aurora’s school district is testing out a stipend for hard to staff positions

Math teacher Kelly Hutchings, in her class at Boston K-8 school in Aurora on March 3, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district may experiment with paying some teachers and staff about $3,000, to see if the district can attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees.

The pilot plan has $1.8 million set aside for next school year to to attract and retain as many as 400 employees in hard-to-staff jobs. But in the long run, Superintendent Rico Munn said, the stipends could save Aurora money.

“This is a force multiplier,” Munn said. “If we can fill those positions ourselves, we can decrease our overall expenditures.”

Aurora’s stipends:
  • Nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists are eligible district-wide.
  • Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers are eligible at any of 20 targeted schools.
  • For employees who made an early commitment to return this fall: $3,000
  • For returning employees who don’t make an early commitment to return: $2,500
  • For new employees: $2,5000

Right now, when the district can’t fill certain critical positions, Munn said it must rely on contracting with agencies that help fill those jobs. There is an added cost paid to the agency.

The district’s school board is voting on the proposed budget on Tuesday. Officials say the money for the pilot program was set aside from a one-time increase of revenue the district received in the spring.

“We are really trying to be more strategic around how we recruit, retain, and develop our staff,” Munn said.

Over the past year, Aurora officials have focused on improving recruitment and retention. For instance, the next year’s budget proposal includes a request for about half a million dollars to send more principals through a University of Virginia training program.

This pilot, which the union opposed, would offer a stipend to all district nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers would be eligible if they work at any of 20 targeted schools.

The district selected schools that had higher turnover rates for these teachers than the district’s three-year average of 29 percent.

The stipend would be the same among jobs, but would vary if someone is a returning employee, or a new employee to the district.

In reviewing eligible positions, Munn said the district considered the number and length of existing vacancies, the number of applicants for those jobs, and how often the district had to seek help from an outside agency to fill them.

The district did not release detailed data on vacancies.

But in the case of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, Aurora officials said they resorted to an outside agency to fill 27 vacancies in the 2017-18 school year. That’s out of approximately 160 employees serving in those jobs that year.

Munn said that the district will track data on fill rates, number of applicants, and vacancies to see if the stipends make a difference.

“I think we’ll certainly have the data come August,” Munn said. “If it’s not successful then we stop talking about it. If it, is then we start looking at in what circumstances.”

Several other school districts in Colorado and across the country provide stipends for hard-to-staff positions. Denver schools, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses for various duties, including working in a hard-to-serve school through their ProComp model. Research findings on the model have been mixed.

National research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can attract more candidates and increase retention, but knowing whether quality candidates are the ones staying is harder to say.

Julia Wigert, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said stipends could be one way to attract more candidates, especially if they reward those who have additional credentials, but said there are other important factor that might help.

“We believe the most effective way… is to offer a competitive salary along with supporting a comprehensive role for school psychologists,” Wigert said.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union, said he is concerned that the program creates inequities “for people who do the same jobs in different buildings.” He added that union leadership has done surveys of teachers and staff in the past and has found that money is not one of the top considerations for choosing to take a job.

In the case of Aurora, the results of the pilot, if successful, could be one consideration in the district decision on whether to ask for a tax increase this fall, or could also affect district negotiations with the union to create a new plan for paying teachers.

While Munn said he isn’t planning to advocate for basing salaries on performance or positions, he added that nothing is off the table.

Wilcox had said he seeks a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on years of service and increases in education.

The list of 20 schools where some teachers will be eligible for stipends:

  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aurora Hills Middle School
  • Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
  • Boston P-8 School
  • Clyde Miller P-8 School
  • Columbia Middle School
  • Dalton Elementary School
  • Iowa Elementary School
  • Jamaica Child Development Center
  • Jewell Elementary School
  • Kenton Elementary School
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary School
  • Meadowood Child Development Center
  • North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus
  • Paris Elementary School
  • Sixth Avenue Elementary School
  • Tollgate Elementary School
  • Vaughn Elementary School
  • Vista PEAK Preparatory
  • Wheeling Elementary School