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

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”

Indiana A-F grades

Indiana looks to ditch two A-F grades. Here’s how the feds would measure schools instead

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
First-grade students on the first day of school this year.

Confused by your school’s two letter grades? Some Indiana education officials are trying to change that.

Officials are proposing that the state scrap one of its two school A-F grades, a move they say will clarify for educators, parents, and community members how a school has performed.

“It was causing a lot of confusion,” said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “I think schools will be pleased.”

The Indiana Department of Education will instead ask federal officials to approve an updated school rating system under its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which relies on four categories — exceeds, meets, approaches, and does not meet expectations — rather than letter grades. The state, however, will continue to assign A-F grades to schools as part of its own grading system.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

The changes to the grades represent an attempt to get past the limited scope grades offer, McCormick said. It’s also an acknowledgement that Indiana lawmakers and state board of education members have opposed combining the state and federal grading model into one, despite urging from McCormick and other educators and experts.

“I over-assumed and underestimated the desire to take ESSA as seriously as we were,” McCormick said. “Our goal was not to have two (school grades), but we can control that obviously easier on our end.”

While the revisions would mean that schools across the state would get one grade, there would still be two yardsticks against which their test scores and other achievement data will be measured — one that meets federal law, and one that meets state law. The two ratings have different consequences for schools. The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention, and the federal rating would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding.

An education department spokesman said the state is submitting its revisions to the federal government in January and hopes to hear a response by April or May. If approved, the new model would be used for 2019 ratings, typically released in the fall.

In addition to removing the A-F grade labels, the federal plan would also change the components of the rating. Currently, federal grades are based on data from five areas — six for high schools, which report graduation rate — that still draw mainly from test scores. New to Indiana are factors that measure the fluency of students learning English as a new language and chronic absenteeism. Those aren’t included in state grades, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

The updated version would keep most of the above factors, but remove data on course and credential completion and add a component measuring the share of students who graduate with the state’s Core 40 diploma, as well as another that focuses on test score gaps between students from different backgrounds.

Although the new ratings would still be based mostly on test scores — a requirement of federal law — they would involve more information that educators say offers a better and more fair picture of how schools are doing.

“I absolutely love it,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “The letter grades have run their course — they are truly not an accurate description of what’s happening in a school.”

Baker said that unlike grades, the ratings aren’t as punitive and might not emphasize as starkly the disparities between schools in more affluent communities and those that serve more students from low-income families.

Also, different ratings could give parents more insight when choosing schools, he said. Just knowing that an “A” school is rated higher than a “B” school, without understanding what plays into those grades — which stem mainly from test scores and have been criticized for not including enough students or accounting for gaps between students from different backgrounds — isn’t going far enough, he said.

Baker said he hopes lawmakers and state board of education members consider working the ESSA changes into the state’s grading system, which after a delay, is currently under review by the state board of education.

McCormick was less confident other state leaders would lend their support. Although the education department is the state’s liaison with federal officials and doesn’t need approval to make changes to its ESSA plan, it can be helpful to have broader support, she said.

“It’s time for us to start working together,” Baker said. “Not being on the same page does not help the students of Indiana.”