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.”

Some improvements

Aurora Public Schools improves enough to dodge state action, mixed results elsewhere in new preliminary state ratings

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has improved enough to pull itself off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance, according to preliminary state ratings made public Wednesday.

The district of about 40,000 students was staring at state intervention if it didn’t move the needle enough. Last year marked the first time Colorado schools and districts faced such a fate under the current accountability law, and Aurora would have been the largest district on a state-ordered plan.

The district saved itself by earning a state rating of “improvement,” no longer in the bottom two categories of performance.

“We’re excited about our momentum,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Colorado Department of Education

Improvements to Aurora’s state test scores and its high school graduation rate helped move the district’s rating up. Munn credited work in the district helping teachers align their instruction to state standards, and focusing on individual students.

“It’s the culture that says we need to make sure we recognize and identify where our kids are,” Munn said.

No district faces state sanctions for too many consecutive years of low ratings, but a handful of schools might based on the preliminary ratings. Some of the schools are alternative education schools, which won’t get their preliminary ratings until next month.

Schools that may face state intervention if preliminary ratings don’t change

  • Martinez Elementary School, Greeley
  • Manaugh Elementary School, Montezuma-Cortez
  • EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School, Douglas

Last year, five districts and a dozen schools were the first to reach the end of the rope and faced state action in the spring. State officials could have closed schools, turned them over to charters or merged districts. But they used a lighter hand, working with local educators to create improvement plans.

Those districts and schools are now on two- and three-year deadlines to improve or face possible additional consequences.

Their performance in year one, based on Wednesday’s preliminary ratings, was mixed. One district, Julesburg, already improved as much as it needed to under its state plan.

“People are doing the work, and it takes time to do the work,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

The Commerce City-based school district Adams 14 is already celebrating a step in the right direction toward meeting its improvement goal on time.

Adams 14 moved up one level in rating categories from “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, to “turnaround on priority improvement.” Ten of its 11 schools saw improved ratings from last year. One school, Kearney Middle School, is now the first in the district with a “performance” rating — the highest rating possible for a school.

“We’re just very happy and motivated,” Superintendent Javier Abrego said.

Kearney’s principal told students at a celebration Wednesday morning that they now have to work even harder and asked students to listen to their teachers.

“You know what’s harder than getting to the top?” Principal Veronica Jeffers asked. “It’s staying there.”

Westminster Public Schools as a district made small improvements, earning 41.5 percent of points this year, up from 40 percent last year. That was not quite enough to move up in ratings, but just a few points away from an improvement rating that is the the district’s goal in its state-ordered plan.

Districts have until Oct. 16 to contest the preliminary ratings. State officials will consider whether the concerns are valid and whether new evidence of performance is convincing before finalizing ratings later this fall.

Some of the requests to reconsider will be based on low test participation. In some cases, the state lowered ratings if not enough students took state tests, reasoning that it was hard to know whether the scores were representative of an entire school. Westminster and Aurora officials already have said they will ask for ratings to be reconsidered because of the participation issue.

Aurora Central High School, a school that ran out of time on the accountability clock last year and is now under a state plan, would have earned enough points to improve its rating from turnaround to priority improvement based on its scores.

But because of low test participation on one key test — just 84.9 percent of sophomores took the PSAT — the preliminary rating was knocked back down to turnaround.

Aurora superintendent Munn said the district likely will ask the state to reconsider that decision.

After the ratings are final, hearings will be scheduled in the spring for the state board to make final determinations on the fate of the low-performing schools.

Schools and districts may provide the state with additional information to boost their ratings before they’re finalized later this year. In previous years, only a few dozen schools would request a rating increase. However, since some schools have seen participation in testing plummet, more schools are asking the state to take a second look.

More than 200 schools and 40 districts requested a higher rating last year.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia contributed information to this report. 

looking inside

Adams 14 district to keep closer eye on each school as part of state improvement plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

As part of an improvement plan negotiated with the state, the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City has developed a new system for monitoring progress at schools meant to more quickly arm leaders with information about what’s working and what isn’t.

The system, developed with guidance from the state, includes regular walkthroughs at schools by district leaders, data tracking, and new staff and student surveys.

Such diligent tracking of school performance is more common at larger districts, and could be seen as a burden for districts with fewer resources. But Adams 14 officials say they are welcoming the opportunity and are optimistic about the benefits.

“What doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic officer for the 7,500-student district. “…. We know we need to be data-driven.”

The process will kick into gear starting next month, when district leaders begin weekly walkthroughs of all 11 schools and an early learning center. Different leaders are assigned different schools, and those in the mix include Superintendent Javier Abrego, the chief academic officer, director of English language development and director of educator effectiveness.

Three of the visits will be brief — checking on whether the school feels welcoming, safe and whether students are engaged.

Then, once a month, the school visit will be more formal. District leaders will follow a sort of rubric that is being finalized with the state to determine if teachers are doing good work and if students seem to be learning.

Several other districts on state improvement plans are in the process of creating similar plans. Adams 14 was among the schools and districts that faced state intervention because of more than five years of low performance, based in part on an increasing drop-out rate and low growth scores on state tests.

Without a system of its own, Adams 14 would be reliant on school ratings provided by the state, which are based mostly on state test scores and are not as timely.

Among larger districts that track their own schools’ performance, Denver Public Schools has a more elaborate system that includes giving each school a rating that takes more factors into account than the state ratings.

The same system wouldn’t necessarily be feasible for a district the size of Adams 14, district officials have said.

The point of any system, however, is for district officials to be engaged with what’s happening in schools, and knowing how they’re performing early on, rather than waiting for a state rating.

Eventually, the monitoring plan should improve school performance if district leaders are able to detect problems early on and respond quickly to fix them. It should also create a record of what has been tried and what has worked that could help if district officials want to contest a state rating of their schools or district in the future.

“The first bar is really, ‘Did you design something?’ and second is, ‘Are you implementing it?’” said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the state. Medler has worked with Adams 14 officials to design their school monitoring process.

The Colorado Department of Education is thinking about how to create a template for district-level school monitoring, Medler said. But the benefit of each district working on its own plan is that it’s tailored to the district’s own goals and resources, especially since the requirement to create the plan doesn’t come with funding for it. (Adams 14 officials said its new school monitoring system does not carry any additional costs).

“It’s really built on their context,” Medler said. “It’s taking advantage of whatever assessment tools, like interim or benchmark tools they have already.”

To make tracking data easier, all seven elementary schools are now using the same district-level periodic tests to measure growth rather than getting to pick their own. And to make sure the information is used, teachers now have built-in common planning time for about an hour a week.

Once a month, when district leaders visit schools for the longer walkthrough, they’ll also sit down with school leadership to look at test and attendance data. The monitoring plan has target goals for how many students are on reading plans, for attendance rates and growth scores on interim tests.

If the district leaders see a school isn’t meeting those targets throughout the year, they could order teachers to do an online training course or they could ask a coach to work with them.

When district leaders find a teacher doing great work, the district will record that teacher in action and make it available online for the other district teachers to learn from.

“We want to be supportive,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the director of educator effectiveness and director of secondary education. She started some school observations last year working with a consultant and more narrowly looking at work in classrooms.

From that experience, Trinidad-Sheahan said she knows the classroom and school monitoring needs to create ongoing conversations to be successful.

The new process already has made the district’s leadership team more effective at working together, officials say.

“It’s a lot of energy for us because we’re such a small community,” Burgos said. “Now that we’ve come together as a cohesive group, that’s important and we’re feeling very confident.”