year in review

For Colorado’s lowest performing schools, 2016 was make-or-break

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Scott Carpenter principal Chadwick Anderson reads an inspirational quote during the morning announcements.

Improving chronically low-performing schools is one of the hardest jobs in education.

And for dozens of Colorado districts and schools, 2016 amounted to a make-or-break moment. That’s because after a one-year pause, the state’s “accountability clock” began ticking again.

Districts and schools that didn’t show enough improvement on this year’s English and math state exams faced possible sanctions from the State Board of Education.

Schools could be shut down, converted to a charter or redesigned as an innovation school. Schools awarded innovation status receive waivers from local policies and state law similar to charter schools. But they’re still governed by their district’s school board.

Districts could be asked to reorganize or hand over some of their operations to a third party.

The 18,000-student Pueblo City Schools was expected to be the biggest challenge facing the state. The district, as well as 12 schools, were considered chronically failing prior to preliminary quality ratings released in October. But nine schools boosted learning enough to be spared sanctions. The district was also taken off the state’s watch list.

Sheridan and Ignacio are among the districts that had languished on the state’s accountability watch list but bounced off at the last minute.

Thanks to an overhaul of the reading curriculum and other changes, Thornton Elementary School in the Adams 12 Five Star District also showed enough improvement to be spared sanctions.  

Two Westminster schools that were facing sanctions, including M. Scott Carpenter Middle School, moved off the list. However, eight new schools were put on the list, keeping the district’s accreditation in jeopardy. (Districts that fail to adhere to the state’s sanctions risk losing their seal of approval, potentially putting federal funding at risk.)

Five districts and as many as a dozen schools could end up facing some form of sanction from the state board. The state is expected to release school quality ratings in January.

There were numerous other efforts in 2016 to boost student learning at schools that were either not on the state’s accountability watch list or were not facing immediate sanctions. And early signs showed progress.

At Boston K-8 in Aurora, the school adopted a new writing curriculum and carved out new joint planning time for teachers. Those efforts led to some of the state’s best academic growth scores. Academic growth measures how much a student learns year-to-year compared to their academic peers.  

At one Jefferson County elementary school that serves a large population of English language learners, most students participating in an after-school reading club saw their literacy skills improve dramatically.

In Denver, officials in the state’s largest school district have found giving principals more time to plan school improvement efforts pays off. This year, the district gave principals tasked with turning around low-performing schools a “Year Zero” hoping it makes the work more doable and sustainable.

It's Friday. Just show a video.

How a push to save some of Indiana’s oldest trees taught this class about the power of speaking out

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students working at the School for Community Learning, a progressive Indianapolis private school that depends on vouchers.

Alayna Pierce was one of seven teachers who participated in story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

Pierce’s story is a letter she wrote to her second and third grade students at the School for Community Learning, a private school in Indianapolis. In it, she recounts how they came together as a class and as a community to save some of the state’s oldest trees.

Check out the video below to hear Pierce’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.

Charter appeals

Siding with local district, Tennessee State Board denies two Memphis charter appeals

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
B. Fielding Rolston, chairman of Tennessee State Board of Education

Tennessee’s education policymaking body is switching course this year to side with the state’s largest school district in denying two charter school applicants.

On Friday, the nine-member Tennessee State Board of Education unanimously rejected the appeals of two charters that sought to open all-girls schools in Memphis next fall. The charter applicants will now have to wait until next year and reapply with Shelby County Schools, which had rejected their applications this year, if they so choose.

The decision on Friday stands in contrast to the state board’s dramatic overruling of the local board last year that resulted in the first charter school authorization by the panel in Memphis. That essentially added another state-run district in the city, and the State Board of Education joins just one other state in the nation to also operate as a school district.

The board acted in accordance this year with recommendation from Sara Morrison, the executive director of the State Board of Education, in the denial of appeals by The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders.

The vote comes a month after the Shelby County Schools board turned down their applications,  along with nine others. After a charter applicant is denied by the local school district, they can appeal to the State Board of Education and be re-reviewed by a six person committee.

Morrison told board members that both charter applicants failed to meet requirements in their plans for school finances (Her analysis specified that one of the schools relied too heavily on philanthropic donations).

She added that the applications did not fully meet standards in the other two categories measured: operations and academics.

Board members accepted her recommendations on Friday without questions.