Another try

Adams 14 school improvement plan is back — with revisions — for key State Board of Education vote

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

Officials with the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City will return to the State Board of Education on Thursday with a revised school improvement plan meant to address concerns that the initial proposal wouldn’t do enough.

The board is expected to make a final decision on the plan, which calls for an out-of-state nonprofit group to help improve teaching and make recommendations about possible management changes.

The nearly 8,000-student district is one of several facing state sanctions this year for consistent low performance. For the past several months, the state board has been considering improvement plans drafted by the districts and state officials working collaboratively.

At its meeting last month, the state board asked Commerce City district officials for more clarity around the plan and the role of the nonprofit group, Arizona-based Beyond Textbooks.

State board members encouraged the district to give the nonprofit more management authority, although Beyond Textbooks said that wasn’t how it typically works with districts.

The nonprofit will work with the district at three of Adams 14’s 11 schools the first year, providing teachers a guide to teaching the state standards, helping them track whether students learned the material and training them to help students who don’t get it the first time.

Beyond Textbooks will work with 9th and 10th grade teachers at Adams City High School, which is facing state sanctions of its own for chronic low performance. The school has had six principals in the last six years. Earlier this year, students walked out asking for better leadership and for a voice in the improvement process.

In one new addition to the plan, the district will hire a Beyond Textbooks district liaison and ask the company to provide management recommendations.

The three schools that Beyond Textbooks will work with will have autonomy from some district policies around school day schedules, annual calendars as well as curriculum and district assessments. The company will be asked to make recommendations for those areas and the district liaison, which the district hopes to hire in August, will be in charge of monitoring the work.

District officials report some progress at Adams City High School: After a lengthy process, the district hired a new principal and four of five assistant principals. The new principal, Gabriella Maldonado, has no experience as a principal but has been an assistant principal for several years at Abraham Lincoln High School and most recently at the West Leadership Academy school, both in Denver.

Neither school scores well on Denver’s school rating system. Lincoln’s rate of students who graduate and need remedial education in college is nearly as high as Adams City High School’s.

West Leadership Academy, one of the schools that replaced the now closed West High School, graduated its first class of students in 2016. The school can cite progress: it says 95 percent of students in the graduating class of 2017 were accepted to a post-secondary school.

Maldonado was one of the original applicants for the principal position, but had not been named a finalist among earlier pools of finalists that had been considered.

While the leadership positions are filled at Adams City High School — which was a concern from state officials considering the district’s improvement plan — the district is also experiencing staff turnover including two key district leaders who have resigned this month.

Teresa Hernandez, who worked on the improvement plan as the district’s director of assessment and technology, is leaving the district for a position with the Gilcrest-based Weld County School District RE-1.

Daniel Archuleta, ‎manager of strategy and accountability, is leaving the district at the end of the month to work with the Adams County Youth Initiative and his own consultant company. In a statement he made to the board, Archuleta said he was leaving the district because the district’s priorities have not lined up with his “expertise and skills.”

He left the board with three recommendations: that it create a flexible strategic plan that outlines the district’s goals and how to achieve them,  continue using a system Archuleta created for reviewing schools and tracking their improvement, and create an internal performance evaluation for schools and programs that considers more data than the state.

The system Archuleta referenced for expansion of reviewing schools was created in 2015, when Archuleta started, but has not been widely used recently, Archuleta said.

“A lot of it is just because of the change in administration,” Archuleta said. “There’s a lot to get done. A lot to be done. With the change in priorities, that system just wasn’t as high a priority. But all it requires is a renewed focus. The foundation is there. Everything is there for the district to continue to use and to advance that system.”

An internal performance evaluation of schools and programs, Archuleta said, could easily use existing data from attendance, student behavior, teacher performance or parent surveys to look at schools more broadly than the state does.

“We have all this data,” Archuleta said. “We’re just not using it currently in a holistic, triangulated way.”

Adams 14 superintendent Javier Abrego dismissed many of Achuleta’s concerns, saying that systems for evaluating schools already exist, and that the district’s practice is to map out plans year by year. He said the board will gather at a retreat in July for strategic planning.

good news bad news

New York City is sending fewer latecomer students to Renewal schools, but questions remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

New York City is sending significantly fewer latecomer students — typically among the most difficult to serve — to schools in its flagship turnaround program.

Over the past three years, the number of students sent to schools in the city’s Renewal program outside the normal admissions process has declined 19 percent, according to new data from the education department, outpacing a 10 percent decrease in schools citywide over the same period.

The reduction suggests that schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has stuck to her promise to stem the tide of latecomer students — often newly arriving immigrants, students with special needs, and those who struggle with homelessness — to some of the city’s most struggling schools.

But it’s unclear if that policy change is making a significant difference on the ground.

For one thing, since Renewal schools have been losing students, the proportion of latecomer students has essentially gone unchanged. Even though the city has sent a smaller number of latecomer students to these schools, roughly one in five students at Renewal schools were over-the-counter last year, just slightly less than three years ago.

“It’s a good start,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who authored a report that found the city disproportionately sends those students to low-performing high schools. But “one out of every five is a tough challenge for schools that are already challenged,” Fruchter added. “I would have hoped for a reduction in the percentage.”

Every year, thousands of students enter city schools outside the normal admissions process, students who are generally harder to serve and can disrupt school schedules mid-year. But since New York City’s middle and high school admissions process is largely based on a choice process, less desirable and lower-performing schools tend to have more open seats for latecomers.

When the city designated an original 94 Renewal schools as low performing enough to merit an influx of extra resources, some school staffers wondered how they were supposed to stoke “fast and intense” improvements while the city continued to send them high-need students mid-year. That’s partly why Fariña announced two years ago those schools would receive fewer latecomers.

But sending fewer students to struggling schools can also create problems, and has sparked concern among some school leaders. Most Renewal schools have been shedding students for years, so limiting the number of latecomers may contribute to enrollment problems that can result in less funding or potentially even closure.

At Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, enrollment has dropped 44 percent over the past three years, a main reason principal Geralda Valcin is planning to ask the city to send more students over the counter — not fewer.

“Will it be harder with these kids coming on board? Absolutely,” Valcin said. “But with less kids I get less money” for teachers.

Education department officials emphasized that they work individually with schools, superintendents and families to find appropriate placements for latecomers, and said that enrollment declines at Renewal schools have started to level off.

“We’ve worked to support steady turnaround at Renewal schools by helping schools balance the need to grow enrollment with their ability to serve [over-the-counter] students,” Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, wrote in an email. He added that as Renewal schools see improvements, it might make sense to send them more latecomers.

Figuring out how to equitably place latecomer students has been a consistent challenge across administrations. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city often clustered students who arrived mid-year at struggling schools and those the city was in the process of closing. Some of those problems have not completely gone away: As Chalkbeat reported earlier this year, the city sent some latecomer students to Renewal schools it planned to close, and Renewal schools still enroll more latecomers than the 15 percent city average.

The statistics education officials provided for this story does not include school-level breakdowns, making it difficult to tell if the city is still clustering lots of latecomers at certain Renewal schools, or whether struggling schools outside the Renewal program have received fewer latecomers.

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they see the current distribution of late-arriving students as a problem. But at least one Renewal school leader said it’s important for the city to pay attention to how those students are distributed system-wide — not just whether one segment of struggling schools are seeing fewer of them.

“I think all schools should be receiving students over the counter in equal and fair ways,” said one Renewal school leader. “Renewal schools should not be treated differently than others.”

Rhode rage

New study deepens nation’s school turnaround mystery, finding little success in Rhode Island

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

The country’s smallest state tried to accomplish a big task in 2012: improve its struggling schools without firing principals or making other dramatic changes.

Instead, Rhode Island gave schools the option to do things like add common planning time for teachers, institute culturally appropriate instruction for students, and expand outreach to families.

A new study on those efforts says they didn’t help — and in some cases may have even hurt — student achievement.

It’s the latest in a string of research painting a grim picture of school turnaround efforts under the No Child Left Behind waivers the Obama administration granted to states. Recent studies show that those turnaround plans did not improve student achievement in Louisiana or Michigan, though they did have a positive effect in Kentucky.

The analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy, leaves states in a tough spot. Under the new federal education law, ESSA, they are still required to identify and intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. What to do, though, has perplexed education policymakers for years.

The Rhode Island study suggests one option that may not be effective, at least at raising test scores: simply letting struggling schools choose from a menu of broad changes.

The researchers, Shaun Dougherty and Jennie Weiner of the University of Connecticut, looked at two tiers of struggling schools in the state: “warning” and “focus” schools. Schools in both categories had to choose four changes to make. Focus schools, the lower-performing group, had to select from a prescribed list, while warning schools could also could come up with their own strategies.

“Almost none of the schools chose the most severe options because of none of them had to,” said Dougherty.

Based on two years of data, the results were largely discouraging. Turnaround schools did not boost reading or math scores more than comparable schools that didn’t have to make any changes. And the focus schools, which had to make even more changes, actually seemed to do worse than the turnaround schools that made fewer.

“More interventions might not always be better and may have unintended consequences that impact a school’s long term ability to improve,” write Dougherty and Weiner.

An important caveat for the studies in Rhode Island, Michigan, and Louisiana, which all used a similar method, is that it’s impossible to know how the accountability system affected schools that narrowly avoided being labeled low-performing and served as the comparison group for the turnaround schools. If those schools made extensive improvements for fear of facing turnaround in future years, that might mask gains in the turnaround schools.

Still, the latest research adds to the pile of studies showing the challenges of improving long-struggling schools.

Another Obama-era federal school turnaround program — School Improvement Grants — also showed disappointing results. Schools receiving those grants also had to implement a broad array of strategies, but had less power to choose which changes to make. The grants also came with additional federal money and in most cases required firing the principal.

There is some evidence that providing additional money and support, paired with a requirement that schools replace a significant share of staff, is a more promising approach. But this is challenging to implement in areas where teachers are scarce and can prompt fierce political and community pushback.

In fact, back in 2010, the Obama administration faced one of its first major rifts with national teachers unions after it backed the large-scale firing — consistent with federal turnaround rules — of teachers at a Central Falls, Rhode Island high school.

Few schools ended up implementing such a drastic approach, though. In Central Falls, the district ultimately agreed to rehire all of the fired teachers.