End of the line

Time’s up: 12 Colorado schools will face state intervention for not improving

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school's future in a leadership class. The high school is one of the state's lowest-performing schools.

A dozen Colorado schools face drastic changes after they failed to boost student learning enough during the last six years.

School quality ratings approved Thursday by the State Board of Education mean the schools face options that include closure, conversion to a charter school or a different direction under the state’s school innovation law. 

The ratings are the first since the state switched in 2015 to the PARCC tests, which are designed to measure student learning in English and math. The ratings are also the first to be released since more families began opting their children out of the tests, driving down participation rates and complicating state officials’ efforts to determine the quality of schools.

The schools that failed to improve and now face state action are a mix of urban, suburban and rural. The schools are in communities ranging from Pueblo to Aurora to Aguilar.

Unlike school districts that have one more chance to appeal to the state board for a higher rating, schools are out of options.

The state board is expected to begin handing out sanctions in March. The least drastic option at the board’s disposal: to direct the district to apply for “innovation status,” which would give schools charter-like waivers from district policy and state law.

One of the first schools to appear before the board will be the multi-district online charter school, HOPE Online. This year, it earned the state’s second lowest rating.

“We’re pleased that we moved from the bottom, where we’ve been stuck since 2010,” said Heather O’Mara, the school’s leader. “We made really big changes in 2015 and 2016 and I think we saw the impact of that in this year’s data. The trends are positive.” But we continue to have to focus and improve.”

More than two-thirds of all Colorado schools received the state’s highest ratings.

Some 50 schools received no rating at all because there was not enough data available to assign a rating. Most of those schools saw large numbers of parents excuse their children from the test.

The ratings rely mostly on results from the PARCC English and math tests students in grades three through nine take each year. Other factors that contribute to a high school’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 state lawmakers in 2009, schools that fall in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face sanctions. Because the change in assessments caused a gap in data, the state did not release ratings in 2015.

Schools that will face state intervention

  • Risley International Academy of Innovation, Pueblo
  • Bessemer Elementary, Pueblo
  • Heroes Middle School, Pueblo
  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aguilar Junior-Senior High School
  • HOPE Online Learning Elementary School, Douglas County
  • HOPE Online Learning Middle School, Douglas County
  • Franklin Middle School, Greeley
  • Prairie Heights Middle School, Greeley
  • Peakview School, Huerfano
  • Destinations Career Academy, Julesburg
  • Adams City High School, Adams 14 School District

This year marks the first year the State Board of Education must take action on schools that have not improved.

In previous years, the board has issued schools one of four ratings: “performance” 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 state is also labeling schools that had enough data to get ranked, but had fewer than 95 percent of students take the PARCC tests.

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 board approved the ratings on a 5-1 vote. Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, was absent.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat, did not accept the ratings because the state lowered the ratings of 50 schools at the request of Denver Public Schools. The school district has its own rating system and wanted the state’s ratings to match the district’s.

“What does that do to the state’s accountability system when a district does that?” she said. “They have a right; I understand that. But is it fair, especially in a district that tends to close schools?”

Find your school’s rating


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration were: Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.