collaboration not confrontation

Colorado shied from taking aggressive action to fix its lowest performing schools. Will it be enough?

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

At historic Aurora Central High School, the last few years have been a trial.

Students have described widespread fights, high truancy rates and a heavy police presence. Academic performance has suffered, with fewer than half of all students graduating on time.

The clock finally ran out on the city’s oldest school this year. After six years of academic struggles, it was time for state education officials to intervene with a plan of action.

State officials could have closed Aurora Central or handed it over to a charter school.

But instead, they chose a far more lenient path — allowing the 2,100-student high school to continue a plan that began a year ago that gives the school more flexibility from the district’s school schedule, curriculum and hiring practices. The school was required to hire a consultant to help execute the plan.

This kind of approach — relatively cautious, devised in close collaboration with local school districts and reliant on outside consultants — sums up Colorado’s strategy this year for trying to turn around five districts and a dozen schools that have persistently struggled since 2010.

This was the first year under Colorado’s current school accountability system that required the state to take such action. The strategy of working collaboratively with school leaders reflects both the power of local control in Colorado and the philosophy of a department that has evolved in recent years from one that is less strong-armed regulatory enforcer and more partner.

Colorado’s approach is part of a growing trend away from aggressive state takeovers that produced mixed results in states such as Tennessee, New Jersey and Michigan.

“States have increasingly recognized that the work of school improvement is hard,” said Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

State takeover of districts and schools was not on the table in Colorado. That’s because Colorado’s constitution puts ultimate control of schools in the hands of local school boards.

State and district officials explained in some cases why more aggressive steps — such as school closure or charter school takeover — weren’t feasible given the circumstances.

But concerns have arisen — including from some members of the State Board of Education, which had the final say on the plans — that Colorado’s efforts may not be drastic enough.

“Will this program work?” Republican board member Steve Durham asked while discussing the plan to improve Westminster Public Schools, a district with more than 9,000 students northwest of Denver. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, said the state gave the schools and districts a pass.

“Nobody is losing their job, no one is forced to hand over a building,” he said. “I just think it’s outrageous and systemic. There were a lot of options — and the state board and CDE decided not to take them.”

No ‘silver bullet’

The 2009 law that created Colorado’s current accountability system gave the state board four options. It could direct schools be closed; turned over to a charter operator; redesigned under the state’s innovation law, which would give the school some flexibility from state law and district policies; or be managed in part or completely by an education management company.

The state also had the option to order a school district with too many low-performing schools to merge with a nearby district with higher test scores — a step officials did not take.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes acknowledged the challenges of choosing a course.

“What kept me up at night was that these are high-stakes decisions that affect real students and teachers and educators in these systems,” she said. “The toughest decision was making a decision, because you know there isn’t one silver bullet and there isn’t one right answer.”

As the state prepared to intervene, it appeared the favored course would be to allow districts and schools to radically redesign under the innovation law. The law allows for freedom in curriculum decisions, different school calendars, and makes it easier to hire and fire teachers.

But state board members and department officials grew worried the struggling schools were in no position to manage those responsibilities on their own.

In three cases, the state board approved a school’s innovation plan on the condition it also contract with a management partner to help put it in place. The state also directed six schools and districts not seeking innovation waivers to contract with an outside group for assistance.

“The state board found (innovation) as a strong option, as there would be some dramatic change,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, a state education department official who helped shepherd this year’s accountability hearings. “But we also want to make sure” the schools had strong leadership and necessary help putting the plans in place, she said.

While state officials may believe the combination of innovation status and external help could prove fruitful, one observer cautioned that the strategy poses risks.

“Schools often adopt a million different strategies, not recognizing that some of those are incompatible with each other,” said Lorrie Shepard, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “New leaders sometimes want a million of those things. Incoherence is bad, and only adds to the churn and the chaos in schools.”

The amount of authority each management partner will have varies from school to school. The Aguilar School District turned over considerable decision-making power to its partner, Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit organization that works in Denver and New York.

Westminster’s partnership with AdvancED will involve a more traditional consultant role, in which the outside officials will review and make recommendations to the district on how to better see through its unique approach to learning. AdvancEd has accredited the district, and officials told the state they will pull that accreditation if the district doesn’t meet their standards.

In some cases, like with Pueblo City Schools and the Adams 14 School District, the state board pushed for management companies to have more authority than the districts had envisioned.

During the process, department officials said that some options were just not viable.

State documents outlining recommendations for changes to schools and districts said that closing schools was not a good idea, in many cases because a better alternative was not available nearby. Other schools could not absorb such a large number of displaced students.

Turning over schools to charter operators was a nonstarter for many school districts, according to district officials.

Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of the Greeley school district, told the state board during a hearing that high-performing charter networks were not interested in taking over her schools.

Pilch said the former superintendent approached at least one high-performing charter network and was told Greeley’s low student funding wouldn’t support its model. Greeley voters have never approved local property tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, for school funding.

“They are not coming,” said Pilch, whose district does have seven existing charter schools. “So you know what? The work is on us. It is our job to take care of our kids.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, challenged that contention.

“We’ve got charter schools operating all across the state in different districts and they make it work,” Schaller said. He added that “the real question” is whether school districts are willing to share available money with all schools or hold some back from charters.

Board member Durham, at one hearing, cited a lack of time as a barrier to charter schools playing a greater role. He said that by the time the board reviewed options, it was too late to suggest a charter school take over a school program in just a matter of months.

Schaller agreed, and added that charter school operators in Colorado are interested in playing a larger role in the turnaround of low-performing schools.

“It just has to be a much longer-term conversation,” he said.

The education department is considering options to make charter schools part of the mix moving forward. Charters receive tax dollars but are run independently of school districts.

One possibility is the state requesting proposals months in advance from charter groups that would volunteer to take over one or more schools in a certain region.

Working together — and the trouble that brings

In 2010, the Colorado Department of Education began a philosophical shift under the direction of then-commissioner Robert Hammond. The department would be less focused on making sure schools and districts are complying with state law and more focused on supporting their efforts.

That’s a philosophical approach Anthes, the current commissioner, continues to embrace.

“This is a human relationship-driven, complex endeavor,” Anthes said. “I find interacting positively, working toward a common goal, will bring us to a higher quality outcome faster. And that’s my North Star: higher quality outcomes the fastest way possible.”

In an effort to support schools — and avoid the political and emotional conflict typical of school improvement efforts — the department created a grant program for schools and districts to develop their own plan that the state board could endorse.

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14, called the state’s approach a wise decision that his community appreciated.

“Allowing us to choose our own pathway, I thought that was a very important strategy,” Abrego said. “It gave us ownership. They didn’t mandate anything.”

Other states, including Massachusetts and Tennessee, are experimenting with similar approaches, hoping that better involving communities into the school improvement process will yield better results than more heavy-handed takeovers. In both states, however, the education department has considerably more sway over how schools are run compared to Colorado.

The dual role Colorado plays in holding schools accountable and supporting school improvement efforts brings a host of problems, said Jochim, the Washington state-based researcher.

“When you’re charged with holding people accountable, can you also take responsibility for guiding the improvement process?” she said. “It’s tough to tell schools what to do, and when (they) fail you sanction them.”

Anthes said she sees the roles as complementary. She said the education department’s role is to provide guidance and expertise to help school districts complete the work.

“I do have confidence in the process and the plans that were put forward,” she said. “I’m not going to say they’re perfect. But I don’t think any intervention is the perfect solution.”

preliminary

Adams 14 falls short in its upward climb. Now the state could step in.

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

The Adams 14 school district will likely face more state intervention, after the struggling district failed to meet its goals to raise achievement in various areas, including state tests.

Preliminary state ratings released by the Colorado Department of Education Monday morning showed some bright spots in the district’s performance, but overall, it was not enough to add up to a better rating in the state’s five-tier system.

Despite that, district officials spent the day celebrating at three schools that earned the state’s highest rating. Out of the district’s 11 schools, three is the most the district has ever had in the top tier.

“Everyone should be proud of the progress being made at these schools, which is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our students, families and staff,” read a statement from Superintendent Javier Abrego. “While it is important to celebrate these successes, we must also take ownership of the unacceptable and insufficient growth and pace of improvement across the district. Adams 14 will work alongside the state to determine the best outcome for students, staff and families.”

Districts can appeal before the state finalizes the preliminary ratings. Adams 14 officials said they will file appeals for at least three school ratings. If successful, the state could also change the district’s rating.

The 7,500-student district north of Denver has suffered instability and low performance for years. Current Superintendent Javier Abrego joined the district in 2016, making bold promises that he would help the district improve within two years — and telling the community they should hold him to it.

Colorado Department of Education

Monday, Abrego said he has kept his word, but said he will look to reach the goal of having no schools in the bottom two categories of ratings by 2019.

“We’re happy with the progress,” Abrego said. “It’s never been done here. We’ve never had this kind of success.”

In the changes the state had already required, the district was to work with an outside partner to improve curriculum and teacher training. The district was also to create a better monitoring system for its schools so it could respond faster when things aren’t going well in a school. Some of those changes were slow to roll out.

State test scores released two weeks ago had given district officials an indication that the ratings wouldn’t be what they were hoping for, and officials had said at that time that they were starting to prepare for another hearing with the state.

The process will be new. State officials Monday said they don’t have the process mapped out yet, but will seek State Board of Education feedback next month.

In spring 2017, Colorado held its first hearings under new laws to come up with plans to improve schools and districts that had more than five successive years of low performance. For each one, the state set different timeframes and deadlines for improvement. Of the districts that had state hearings, Adams 14 is the first district to fail to sufficiently improve by its deadline.

The state now may take further action, which can include actions as drastic as ordering schools to be closed or merging a district with a higher-performing one.

State officials said Monday that the State Board of Education could choose to let the district continue rolling out its plans, make changes to those plans, or the state could direct some other intervention.

Besides the district, Adams City High School, which was under a separate state intervention plan, but with the same timeframe, will also have to face the state again. Although the school improved from the lowest rating to “priority improvement,” it failed to meet state goals.

Two schools on state plans in Pueblo 60 — Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy — also have preliminary ratings that would require them to have another state hearing this year so officials can review the plans.

Adams 14 faces an additional problem, with another of its schools that has reached its limit of low ratings. Central Elementary has a preliminary state rating of “priority improvement,” which if finalized, will mean it will be placed under a state improvement plan.

Central Elementary is one of the schools that was working with Beyond Textbooks, the partner that Adams 14 paid to work with low-performing schools as part of its state-ordered improvement plan.

out of the woods

With test scores nudging up, Westminster escapes state’s watchlist

Superintendent Pam Swanson and the Westminster school board celebrate their state ratings. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Public Schools)

Westminster Public Schools has improved enough to escape from the state’s crosshairs as a low-performing district, to the relief of school officials.

According to preliminary state ratings released Monday, the district has earned an “improvement” rating, or the middle rating on the state’s five-tier system for districts.

The district has been working under a state-ordered plan to raise student achievement and this year continued to post gradual but steady improvement in student growth across state test scores.

Colorado Department of Education

The district had just one more year to show that the plan was working, or else could have faced further state intervention. With the improvement this year, the district will no longer be under the state plan or timeline or face the threat of state action that could include closing schools or asking the district to merge with a higher-performing one.

But Westminster officials said their improvement plan will still be rolled out, because it was what the district intended to do anyway.

“Regardless, that’s Westminster’s plan,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said Monday afternoon. “I believe we are going to continue to see progress. We have to double down to keep that up.”

When the district was facing state intervention for the first time, Westminster officials argued that the state’s rating system was unfair because of the district’s demographics and its education model.

For almost a decade, Westminster schools have been using a competency-based model where students aren’t placed in a class based on their age and corresponding grade level. Instead, students are grouped by their understanding of a certain subject, and can progress to another level as soon as they show that they’ve mastered that class content. The switch to the model caught national media attention when it was first announced. Despite its struggles, Westminster has steadfastly stood by its model, an innovation among public schools.

District officials say their improvement now is proof the model works.

“For many years we have asked the Colorado Department of Education to provide more flexibility in its accountability system to support innovation instead of focusing on high-stakes, once-a-year testing,” Swanson said in a press release. “The state resisted, but we pushed forward with our model and have now shown success, even by the traditional state standards. It’s very gratifying.”

One of the components of that plan was to work with education researcher Robert Marzano to create a school in the district to be used as a lab for teachers to develop their skills in using the competency-based model. The district closed the former Flynn Elementary School and reopened it this month as the Marzano School.

School-by-school ratings clearly show Westminster’s improvement.

This year only one school, Westminster High, fell into the bottom two tiers. The high school, however, did not start rolling out the district’s education model at the same time as the rest of the district, and when it did, did so one grade level at a time, district officials said.

Westminster had more schools in the top category than it had before — nine, more than twice as many as last year.

Besides its unique educational model, Westminster board President Ryan McCoy also credited increased student and parental engagement for the district’s improvement.

“Students have to own their work as well,” McCoy said.

But officials said that’s all part of getting better, or “going deeper” in using the competency-based model.