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.”

community input

Group studying Adams 14 recess recommends 20 minutes, training, and new equipment

Adams 14 must prioritize making time for at least 20 minutes of recess, and also should invest in more play equipment and train its staff in developing policies for the unstructured time, a committee has reported.

A group of parents, teachers, and staff convened to research the issue of student play time, urged the school board to provide more play time for children. The advisory group was named after an uproar earlier this year when the district reduced recess times to add more instructional time.

“One of the questions that was asked several times was, ‘Where is the time going to come from?’” said committee member and grandmother, Connie Bonnell. “Well, the time has always been there. Recess has always been a part of school.”

The team was made up of three parents, a grandparent, two teachers, and an administrative assistant. They met weekly in April to talk about the issue and to craft the recommendations.

The group told the school board at a meeting Tuesday that they felt recess was important enough to schedule daily, so that students can expend energy and return to class ready to learn. The committee said the district could still benefit by learning from experts on the topic and asked the district to seek a partner to plan recess and train staff.

The group added that their discussions often focused on safety concerns.

“If you have 500 kids on a playground that’s only equipped for 200, you have a problem,” Bonnell said.

In complaining about the cuts to recess, teachers had reported that classroom behavior problems increased after kids were denied free time to play. Parents also complained that recess for students with disabilities was often even shorter because they sometimes take more time getting through a lunch line.

School board members asked the committee a handful of clarifying questions, including whether the group had looked into whether a 20-minute block was better than splitting the time into two segments.

Committee members said they did like the idea of scheduling two 10-minute breaks, but still wrote the recommendation simply asking the district to provide “at least 20 minutes of recess (non-academic physical activity) during the school hours.”

Superintendent Javier Abrego released a statement applauding the recommendations work and said they would “be the foundation for constructive changes benefitting our children and staff.”

“I am pleased to share that through the advisory committees efforts, the curriculum and instruction team has reviewed the elementary school instructional day and have developed options for how to incorporate recess/physical activity time without compromising instructional time, which we plan to implement for the 2018-19 school year,” he said in the statement.

The group’s last recommendation was to have the District Wellness Committee evaluate how recess might relate to social-emotional learning policies and then monitor the district’s progress on the recommendations. Abrego’s statement said he would ask the wellness committee to “review and operationalize” the recommendations.

Note: The story was updated with the statement from the superintendent. 



Momentum

Sheridan school district picks new leader in split decision

Pat Sandos talks with board members Daniel Stange (left) and Karla Najera. (Courtesy of Sheridan School District)

A newly seated fifth member cast a deciding vote in Sheridan on Tuesday, as the school board selected an inside candidate to lead the tiny metro district – breaking more than a month of indecision by what was previously a four-member board.

Pat Sandos, one of three finalists named in March, will become superintendent in July. He currently leads work around security and mental health for the district as executive director of schools services and student behavioral and emotional supports. He is also the son of the first Denver Hispanic City Councilman, Sam Sandos.

New board member Juanita Camacho, who had a few weeks to review the candidates, cast the decisive vote, along with board members Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle.

Finding a replacement for current superintendent Michael Clough has been a contentious process, that has included shouting at board meetings, and emotional community backing for Antonio Esquibel, a Denver administrator who was called “inspirational,” and seen as more likely to introduce needed changes. Some parents, students, teachers, and community members have complained that the district ignores them and isn’t doing enough to improve school performance.

Some also pointed to Esquibel’s Hispanic background to say he might also be a better advocate for Sheridan children, 88 percent of them children of color, up from 81.9 percent in 2010.

Sheridan, a district of about 1,400 students, improved enough on state ratings in 2016 to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low performance and to avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still below state averages.

Some board members said that Sheridan has been improving and said they favored an internal candidate because they didn’t want to stop the district’s momentum.

“Because I’ve built relationships in the district, we can hit the ground running,” Sandos told the school board at his interview last month.

The board initially named three finalists in late March and wanted to name a new superintendent by mid-April, but deadlocked right away.

On April 11, the board president appointed Camacho, who acted Tuesday as a tie-breaker. That board seat had been empty for more than 12 years as no one in the outlined neighborhood corresponding to the seat had expressed interest.

The Sheridan board will vote on a proposed contract for Sandos at a later meeting. The job listing stated that the starting salary would be a minimum of $150,000 plus benefits.

Clough, who had moved to part-time years ago, has a contract with an annual salary of $63,654 for 140 days of work.

Sandos acknowledged the controversy in the process after the vote.

“Without question, Sheridan has made major strides of late — but we all know there is plenty of work ahead,” Sandos said in a news release. “The process brought some strong opinions to the table, and I certainly hope we can tap that passionate support for Sheridan students and turn it into positive momentum.”