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.”

colorado accountability

Test results can spell relief or gloom for state’s lowest performing schools and districts

File photo of sixth-grade students at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

All three school Colorado districts under the gun to improve their academics showed some gains on test results released Thursday — but the numbers may not be enough to save one, Adams 14, from facing increased state intervention.

Of the three districts, only the Commerce City-based Adams 14 faces a fall deadline to bump up its state ratings. If the district doesn’t move up on the five-step scale, the state could close schools, merge Adams 14 with a higher-performing neighbor, or order other shake-ups.

The school district of Westminster and the Aguilar school district, also on state-ordered improvement plans, have until 2019 to boost their state ratings.

The ratings, expected in a few weeks, are compiled largely from the scores released Thursday which are based on spring tests.

District officials in Adams 14 celebrated gains at some individual schools, but as a district, achievement remained mostly dismal.

“We continue to see a positive trend in both English language arts and math, but we still have work to do,” said Jamie Ball, manager of accountability and assessment for Adams 14.

The district’s high school, Adams City High School, which has its own state order to improve its ratings by this fall, posted some declines in student achievement.

District officials said they are digging into their data in anticipation of another hearing before the State Board of Education soon.

In a turn likely to invite higher scrutiny, district schools that have been working with an outside firm, Beyond Textbooks, showed larger declines in student progress.

In part, Ball said that was because Beyond Textbooks wasn’t fully up and running until last school year’s second semester. Still, the district renewed its contract with the Arizona-based firm and expanded it to include more schools.

“Its a learning curve,” said Superintendent Javier Abrego. “People have to get comfortable and familiar with it.”

For state ratings of districts and high schools, about 40 percent will be based on the district’s growth scores — that’s a state measurement of how much students improved year-over-year, when compared with students with a similar test history. A score of 50 is generally considered an average year’s growth. Schools and districts with many struggling students must post high growth scores for them to get students to grade level.

In the case of Adams 14, although growth scores rose in both math and English, the district failed to reach the average of 50.

Credit: Sam Park
PARCC, district on state plans
Credit: Sam Park

Westminster district officials, meanwhile, said that while they often criticize the state’s accountability system, this year they were excited to look at their test data and look forward to seeing their coming ratings.

The district has long committed to a model called competency-based education, despite modest gains in achievement. The model does away with grade levels. Students progress through classes based on when they can prove they learned the content, rather than moving up each year. District officials have often said the state’s method of testing students doesn’t recognize the district’s leaning model.

“It’s clear to us 2017-18 was a successful year,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “This is the third year we have had upward progress. We believe competency-based education is working.”

The district posted gains in most tests and categories — although the scores show the extent of its challenge. Fewer than one in five — 19.6 percent of its third graders — met or exceeded expectations in literacy exams, up from 15.9 percent last year.

Students in Westminster also made strong improvements in literacy as the district posted a growth score of 55, surpassing the state average.

Westminster officials also highlighted gains for particular groups of students. Gaps in growth among students are narrowing.

Schools still on state ordered plans for improvement, and deadline for improvement

  • Bessemer Elementary, Pueblo, 2018
  • Heroes Middle, Pueblo, 2018
  • Risley International Academy, Pueblo, 2018
  • HOPE Online Elementary, Douglas 2019
  • HOPE Online Middle, Douglas, 2019
  • Prairie heights Middle, Greeley, 2019
  • Manaugh Elementary, Montezuma, 2019
  • Martinez Elementary, Greeley, 2019

Look up school results here.

One significant gap that narrowed in Westminster was between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty, and those who don’t. In the math tests given to elementary and middle school students, the difference in growth scores between the two groups narrowed to three points from 10 points the year before, with scores hovering around 50.

Results in individual schools that are on state plans for improvement were more mixed. Three schools in Pueblo, for instance, all saw decreases in literacy growth, but increases in math. One middle school in Greeley, Prairie Heights Middle School, had significant gains in literacy growth.

The Aurora school district managed to get off the state’s watchlist last year, but one of its high schools is already on a state plan for improvement. Aurora Central High School has until 2019 to earn a higher state rating or face further state interventions.

Aurora Central High’s math gains on the SAT test exceeded last year’s, but improvement on the SAT’s literacy slowed. The school’s growth scores in both subjects still remain well below 50.

Look up high school test results here.

leading a district

Adams 14 is restructuring leadership team after yearlong exodus of top staff

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District, speaks to parents at a forum April 17, 2018. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A stream of top-level departures in Adams 14 has left teachers uncertain about the school district’s direction and has some blaming a culture lacking respect and cooperation.

Just four of the 11 directors who started the 2017-18 year remain with the district today. Superintendent Javier Abrego, who was hired in 2016, has restructured his team and made new hires — changes a new communications team describes as a long-sought strategic shake-up to better align salaries and skills to people’s jobs.

Regardless of the reasons, the turnover has rattled district employees, including teachers who say there is constant uncertainty about where the district is headed.

“It’s about how you make the people around you feel,” said teacher Deborah Figueroa. “I have no faith in the administrative team the superintendent has pulled together right now. You want to be inspired.”

It particularly matters to Adams 14, which has struggled to raise the academic achievement of many students, as it approaches a possible state decision to mandate changes if state ratings due out this fall don’t improve.

“In practice, superintendents, they set the tone of the debate for what reform is going to look like,” said Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “In that way they can inspire people or they can really undermine that goodwill.”

Throughout the school year, as cabinet leaders left, some positions were eliminated, other staff members shifted positions or took on more roles, and other jobs were left vacant.

Barb McDowell, a district teacher and union president, said teachers often don’t know who to call if they need administrative help. Making matters worse, she said, at one point, the superintendent cut off communications with her over their disagreements.

“Some people think collaboration is agreeing all the time,” McDowell said. “I think it’s having different voices at the table. But nobody is working with us on anything. Our voices aren’t being heard or even asked for.”

Jochim said throughout her research, she believes one of the most important things for superintendents pushing reform is their ability to work with the community and with politicians to gain support for changes.

The superintendent turned down several requests for an interview for this story.

“I was hired to turn this district around, which requires that we make strategic changes and tough decisions, especially in the areas where our practices are not producing the results that we want and need,” Abrego said in written statement. “We can’t expect different results if we don’t make the appropriate changes to central office and in our schools.”

One example of a change was an administrator who was shifted from a human resources position, for which she had no prior experience, into an executive director position overseeing instruction, for which she does have some qualifications.

But researchers say that although turnover is inevitable when districts are in the middle of reform, the timing of the turnover in Adams 14 could suggest staff have lost confidence in a plan they first bought in to, or that necessary changes were delayed.

“And that would be quite worrying,” Jochim said.

Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the district’s former director of secondary schools and most recently director of educator effectiveness, said she felt a disregard for her opinions which she said were based on her experience doing turnaround work.

“You’re supposed to be collaborating with other leaders,” said Trinidad-Sheahan, who resigned in May. “What it came down to is, they want those who are just going to do what they ask. They don’t want to be questioned.”

Adams 14 has always had problems with retaining staff. According to state data, turnover rates for its administrators are often higher than in districts with similar-sized administration teams, or in other metro-area districts. Last year’s turnover rate in Adams 14 was about 26 percent.

That instability, in turn, could be affecting principals. The turnover rate among principals in Adams 14, which was 52 percent last year according to state records, is much higher than in similar-sized districts or than other metro area districts.

Recent turnover has heightened anxiety for some students, parents, and teachers watching the clock runs down for the state to see improvement.

Just last year, Adams City High School students took to the streets to protest the inconsistency in their school leadership. The school has had six principals in as many years.

This year there were also organized protests by teachers who said there were too many teachers who were losing their jobs, while they felt that incompetent principals and administrators remained in place.

And the district’s school board hasn’t been immune from instability. Last month, the school board’s president suddenly resigned more than a year before his term ended.

Candidates who were looking to fill the board position expressed concern about a lack of leadership in the district.

“Leadership starts with this board and the superintendent, and at times we have appeared to be lacking in that area,” Joseph Dreiling told the board during his interview.

In the end, Sen. Dominick Moreno, a popular figure in the area, was selected for the role. Board members said they believed he could help them work together, and mend relationships with the community.

One important question for the board, and one on which the members have not had consensus, is on how they should manage the superintendent. He has not had a written evaluation during his tenure.

Some board members said that taking community complaints to the superintendent and asking him to fix them would be micromanaging. Other board members say they should be better informed about what the district is doing, and not be caught off guard every time a community member explains an issue new to them.

Top-level decision-making represented the only more specific question the board had when seeking to fill its vacancy — asking candidates to describe what the board’s role should be relative to the superintendent.

Moreno told the board that the superintendent should be held accountable.

“The superintendent is the only employee that the board actually has oversight over,” Moreno said. “This is the policymaking body and you evaluate your employee according to their ability to carry out the policies you set forward.”

Some community members have also talked to the board about turmoil and the superintendent’s leadership. So much so that the board has created new guidance for speakers at meetings, asking them not to use names of district staff, and asking them not to “attack” any specific people.

Among the administrative changes that will be evident this coming school year is the elimination of “chiefs” as part of any title. Sanchez, the district’s new manager of strategic communications, said part of the reason for reorganizing titles and roles was to bring more consistency to people’s salaries, and to have a more organized hierarchy of responsibilities.

For instance, the former chief financial officer, Sandy Rotella, had a contract directly with the board which started at $150,000 three years ago. As a comparison, the superintendent was hired in 2016 at a salary of $165,000.

Rotella retired in November, and her position was restructured and filled in the spring. Now, the executive director of budget, operations, and construction, who oversees Rotella’s and another eliminated position’s work, has a base salary of $128,546.

This year, six people will report directly to the superintendent, with some people who were previously directors now taking on new lower-level titles under the executive team. There are also some new lower-level positions.

In one example, the district’s director of English language development, Edilberto Cano, was placed on leave in December after a community uproar over changes to the biliteracy program. The district was rolling out a K-5 program to foster biliteracy in part by teaching students to read in their native language first, which can strengthen their English later. But the district decided to stop the changeover for now.

Then, as the superintendent cut off ties to the university that was helping with biliteracy instruction, Cano’s position was eliminated. The new position overseeing services for English learners is no longer a director, but rather a “culture and language development manager,” several steps removed from the superintendent.

Biliteracy program changes were the hardest on teachers, they say, because guidance changed throughout the year.

Figueroa, the middle school teacher, will also have a new principal this year. Principals are often key in how much administrative changes impact teachers, McDowell said.

So this summer, some said they are anxious, waiting to see how the latest changes will play out.

The superintendent, in his statement, said he expects changes to continue to “strengthen our climate and culture as an organization.”

“I’m completely not looking forward to the school year,” Figueroa said. “It’s a negative impact on the grown-ups, therefore, a negative impact on our kids.”

2017 Position Responsibilities 2018 Position
Shelagh Burke, Director of Federal Programs and Interim Director of Education Technology Federal funding and IT Shelagh Burke, Executive Director of Federal Programs and Interventions, and Technology
Sandy Rotella, Chief Financial Operations Officer
Retired
Budget and finance Sean Milner, Executive Director of Budget, Operations and Construction
Eddie Storz, Director of Finance, reporting to Sandy Rotella Budget and finance Eddie Storz, Director of Finance, reporting to Sean Milner
Gionni Thompson, Chief Operating Officer
Relieved of duties
Facilities and operations Duties absorbed by Sean Milner’s position
Robert Frantum-Allen, Director of Student Support Services
Resigned
Special education, gifted and talented, mental health supports Shay Lynn Carter, Director of Student Support Services
Janelle Asmus, Public Engagement Officer
Resigned
Communications Alex Sanchez, Manager of Strategic Communications
Jeanette Patterson, Director of Human Resources Staff recruitment and retention Darci Mohr, Executive Director of Human Resources and Legal
No equivalent position Staff recruitment and retention Vacant, Director of HR, reporting to Darci Mohr
Matt Schwartz, Director of Secondary Education Secondary schools Matt Schwartz, + one vacancy, Directors of Teaching and Learning (2 positions)
Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, Director of Educator Effectiveness
Resigned
Teacher training and evaluation Mark Langston, Educator Effectiveness Manager
Edilberto Cano, Director of English Language Development
No longer employed, details unclear
English Language Learner services and biliteracy Tonia Lopez, Culture and Language Development Manager
Ruben Chacon, Director of Teaching and Learning for Climate and Culture English Language Learner services and biliteracy Ruben Chacon, Student Intervention Officer

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)