tick tock

How Colorado education officials have quietly helped struggling schools improve

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

Wary of repeating past mistakes, Colorado education department officials have spent the last year and $650,000 in federal tax money helping a group of struggling schools that face state-ordered changes turn things around.

The State Board of Education on Thursday will begin a months-long process of determining what changes a dozen schools and five school districts should make to boost student learning.

The department, wanting to avoid a breakdown between schools and the state board, created a grant program that provided money and training to schools to create their own improvement plans. Department officials hope the schools will create high-quality plans and that the board will approve them instead of imposing changes on districts.

“The philosophy we’ve had as a department is that districts that help choose their own path will have the highest chance of success,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, an accountability coordinator for the education department.

Under state law, the state board can direct school districts to close schools or turn them over to charter operators, among other options. The board must consult with the department and a third-party review committee that visited each school on the accountability watch list.

But the final decision rests with the seven-member State Board of Education.

Eleven schools districts — including Montezuma-Cortez, the first school district the state board will meet with Thursday — participated in the grant program.

The 2,800-student district in southwest Colorado used some of the $101,628 it received to travel to Denver to meet with department officials to chart a course for the district. The money also paid for travel to tour high-performing schools.

But the majority of money is going to hiring a third party to help improve the school district — one of options under the state’s accountability law.

The plan, which the district will present to the board on Thursday, calls for the district to enroll in a three-year school improvement program offered by the University of Virginia.

The Cortez district — as well as several others in the state — have worked with the university before. Part of the university’s training teaches schools how to focus on smaller, targeted 90-day goals to increase student learning.

District officials say the training has shown positive results in two of the district’s elementary schools, and the hope is to expand the training to the middle and high school.

Part of the program includes routine visits from university staff and regular updates on progress that will be submitted to the Cortez school board and state board, said Lori Haukeness, Montezuma-Cortez’s superintendent.

“We’re continuing work that we know is proven nationally and is already seeing results in our districts,” she said.

The grant program helped another school district choose a similar pathway — even as it had spent a year working toward another.

Officials at the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City were strongly considering asking the state for innovation status, which would give their schools waivers from some district policy and state law.

But after using the $97,000 to hire a consultant to help them write their plan, the district officials decided to change course.

“When we started working with CDE, we tried to focus on what we really need,” said the district’s new superintendent, Javier Abrego. “Our need was a rigorous curriculum, we needed assessments, and we needed consistency throughout our schools.”

That led school districts students officials to change course and seek additional outside help with curriculum development and new tests to monitor student learning.

They’ll be working with the Arizona-based firm Beyond Textbooks to develop curriculum guides for teachers that are aligned to the state’s academic standards and tests to ensure students are meeting them.

State board members have expressed a desire to work with school districts, not against them. But they’ve also pledged to not allow any school to skate by — and they’ve been especially critical of schools seeking innovation status.

“It’s very risky for the board to recommend a dramatic differently pathway than what’s presented to us — unless it’s just garbage,” said board chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat. “We want success for kids. If we deeply believe what’s being proposed won’t be helpful, then we have to have a conversation.”

Haukeness, the Cortez school chief, said she sees Thursday’s meeting as a continuation of work her district has been doing for several years with the help of education department. Her district has participated in other education department-provided training.

“I can’t say CDE all of the sudden was there to support us during this pathway work, because CDE has worked closely with us during the last three years,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to presenting on Thursday and moving forward.”

progress report

Slow progress, many challenges: How Colorado schools on improvement plans are doing

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A new report on Colorado schools operating under state-approved improvement plans shows mixed academic results and slow progress getting all the necessary pieces in place.

State education department officials on Wednesday briefed the State Board of Education on schools and districts halfway through their first year on the plans.

State staff praised Aurora Central High School, noting that leadership in Aurora’s innovation zone and the consultant hired to help are providing good feedback to teachers as they focus in on improvements to the school. The data also show Aurora Central is making “small increases” in academic progress and more significant progress in attendance numbers.

The report also highlights problems that have come up in other schools or districts working on their plans. One example: Administrators in the Aguilar school district realized their language arts curriculum was not aligned to state standards. The report, however, noted that the district “moved immediately to work to adopt new materials,” mid-year with help from its consultant.

Colorado Department of Education

Adams 14 and its high school, Adams City High School, along with three schools from Pueblo City Schools, will be required to return to the state board for an evaluation if they do not earn an “improvement” rating or higher this year. The preliminary ratings will be available in August and finalized later in the fall.

Other schools and districts that were put on state-approved improvement plans last year, including the Westminster district and Aurora Central High School, have until 2019 to show improvements.

State officials are monitoring the progress of the schools and districts through site visits, data reviews, and grants. The state board next will be updated when the preliminary ratings are available.

Officials report that schools and districts are seeing a slower rollout of their plans than expected. In many cases, officials say, schools or districts have not built out the infrastructure and routines required to make their plans work. In other cases, other community issues are distracting educators from the work of the improvement plans.

“There’s some common themes,” Alyssa Pearson, an associate education commissioner, said during the presentation to the board. “But how it plays out… it’s different everywhere.”

Both are true in Adams 14. Community members have criticized the district for changes to recess, parent-teacher conferences, and more. The district has also been slow to learn to use its new school monitoring systems, the report said.

“While progress monitoring data is being collected, it is not routinely analyzed and discussed by school staff,” the state’s report notes. “For example, elementary data meetings are scheduled after school and staff attend on an optional basis.”

The mid-year report also notes that the Adams 14 data does not show the district meeting targets in math or literacy, although the middle schools were noted to be showing the “most consistent growth.”

At Adams City High School, a “lack of a valid interim assessment makes it difficult for the school, district and state to determine overall academic progress in the school” is a problem, the report concludes. According to the report, the district and school “have agreed” to use a valid interim assessment next year.

Read the mid-year progress summaries here:

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that officials in the Aguilar school district discovered the problem with their language arts curriculum on their own, rather than state officials notifying them.

learning curve

Westminster school will reopen as a Marzano lab school ‘to take on problems we haven’t solved yet’

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

An extended day and school year, new extracurricular activities including martial arts and lacrosse, and new uniforms are all part of what students can expect at a new Westminster school this fall.

The district plans to close Flynn Elementary School in north Westminster and re-open it as a Marzano Academy, only the second school in the country designed by local education researcher Robert Marzano. This is part of the district’s improvement plan approved by the state last year as it tries to change years of low performance.

The board of education for Westminster Public Schools Tuesday night approved the closure of Flynn Elementary along with an innovation plan to reopen the school as a Marzano Academy.

Flynn Elementary, near the corner of 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, currently serves about 275 students of which 75 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. The school’s teachers will lose their jobs, but students will automatically be re-enrolled to stay in the building when the school reopens in the fall.

The Marzano Academy model will be used to help the school’s teachers — and others across the district — improve their use of the district’s competency-based learning model. It’s an approach that calls for students to be grouped and to advance based on what they have proved they learned, not based on their age or how long they’ve been in one grade level.

Westminster schools have been using the model for about seven years, but the majority of the district’s students have not performed well on annual state ratings. District officials have argued that the state’s way of testing students isn’t fairly tracking their progress, but state officials haven’t excused the district. Now after years of low ratings from the state, the district is on a timeline to show students making improvements, or it could face more action from the state.

District officials worked with Marzano this year to write the school’s innovation plan which details a five-level framework for high quality that starts with creating a safe culture.

The plan was not made public until after the board vote Tuesday night. In it, there are details about the school’s plan to personalize learning, including requiring that every student complete a project every year. There are also specifics about teacher coaching and evaluation.

The Marzano Academy will be run as a lab school where teachers will be coached on using the best strategies to teach students so they can then model those strategies for other educators in the district or across the country. Marzano said being a lab school also means studying problems.

“The lab part is to take on problems we haven’t solved yet such as how do you teach kids at a developmentally appropriate level but make sure on some external test they are performing well,” Marzano said. “There’s no easy answer to that. There will be some very interesting things to discover.”

The school will open as a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school, just as it is now, and will expand to include sixth through eighth grades, or levels as they are called in the district, in fall of 2019. This fall, all students currently at Flynn will be automatically enrolled to stay at the school when it opens as the Marzano Academy, but in the future, the school will no longer be a neighborhood-boundary school.

Principal Brian Kosena said that even though the school will become an open enrollment school without boundaries, students will not be hand-picked, although there will be caps on the number of students accepted each year.

“The idea of these research-based practices are that they should make a difference no matter what school or student population you serve,” Kosena said. “It benefits us, and it benefits Marzano if the school represents the neighborhood that the school is in. We want to maintain a neighborhood feel.”

The school is seeking to open as an innovation school to allow it to be free from laws and rules created for the traditional education model, according to the plan. The status must next be approved by the State Board of Education.

“Currently, local policies limiting the length of the school year, the school day, and school choice are all barriers to realizing the full potential of the plan,” the document states. “State regulations and policies regarding teacher qualifications currently prohibit or limit the use of otherwise competent individuals in the teaching process.”

Colorado’s innovation law, which grants schools flexibility from state laws, and district or union rules, states that as part of the process to convert a school into an innovation school, staff must vote and a majority must approve the plan. But in this case, because the current school — Flynn Elementary — will close, and because the Marzano Academy will open in the fall as a new school, no staff vote will be required.

Denver Public Schools followed a similar process between 2010 and 2012. The local teachers union sued the district, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and stated that the process was allowed.

All teachers currently at Flynn Elementary will be out of a job at the end of this school year. Those who want to work at the school when it reopens as a Marzano Academy must apply for positions. District officials say the current Flynn teachers will be guaranteed an interview, but will not have any other preference in the hiring process.

Asked if teachers will be placed in other district schools if they aren’t hired at Marzano, Kirk Leday, the district’s chief of staff and human resources director said in a statement, “We are confident that all of our non-probationary teachers will secure a position in our district for next year.”

Read the full innovation plan: