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.”

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.”