On Close watch

State’s lowest performing schools and districts taking hard look at this year’s test data

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.

Testing data for Colorado’s longest-struggling schools and districts show mixed trends.

Results released Thursday are from exams students took last spring, before the State Board of Education approved corrective action plans for the five districts and a dozen schools that had run out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock.

The Pueblo City 60 district saw a decline across many tests and grade levels while Westminster Public Schools showed improvements in 10 of 14 English and math tests.

Those districts, like other districts and schools facing state intervention this past school year, were already making changes before their state improvement plans were finalized. Much of that work is incorporated into the plans.

Thursday’s test data will be used toward a new state rating, one which these districts and schools must improve soon. The state plans gave most schools and districts until 2019 to earn a higher quality rating for face potential consequencs. But some, including the Adams County School District 14 and Adams City High School in Commerce City, must have a higher rating by 2018.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

The district of almost 7,500 students saw some improvements, but still is posting very low scores. For instance, 9.3 percent of fifth-grade students met the state’s learning goals in math, up from 7.9 percent last year. In that area, the district did better than the state, as fewer fifth graders did well on math tests statewide than last year.

At Adams City High School, growth scores, which represent how much students learned in a year compared to similar-performing students, decreased for both math and English. The school had an interim principal for much of the school year, which led to a student walkout in the spring.

Overall, Adams 14’s proficiency numbers are still lower than state averages.

Of these low-performing districts, the Pueblo City 60 district, which faced state action only for some of its schools but not as a district, was the only one that had decreases in growth scores for both English and math tests.

In English, the growth score was 43, down from 47 last year. That means students this year scored on average better than just 43 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores last year.

The Pueblo district saw an increase in how many students met or exceeded expectations in eighth-grade English. One possible reason officials pointed to: innovation schools granted flexibility from some rules and state laws.

Dalton Sprouse, a district spokesman, said district officials are relatively pleased with the improvements they see in the data, especially when broken down by school.

“Given that there’s just two years of growth data, some of the fluctuation could be expected,” Sprouse said. “We see this as we’re maintaining the progress we made last year.”

Sprouse noted that two of the three schools that faced the state board earlier this year for low performance saw big increases in the number of students meeting math expectations.

“Some progress is starting to take place,” Sprouse said. “The assessment office is already working with principals to really dig into that data.”

Westminster Public Schools, another district that faced state action this year and is now on a three-year improvement plan, saw more improvements than the other districts on the state watchlist.

“We are pleased to see our focus on high expectations and personalized learning for all students is paying off,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said in a statement.

The Westminster district, however, was also one of the only districts in the metro area where English language learners had worse growth scores than native English speakers in both math and English. Last year, there was no gap in growth on English tests.

Last year, about 40 percent of students in Westminster schools were English language learners.

In Adams 14 schools, where about 46 percent of students are English language learners, those students posted higher growth scores than native English speaking students.

Westminster did increase their overall rate of growth according to median growth scores, and reached above 50 for English language arts.

Aurora Public Schools, the only district at risk of state action next year, posted increases and also got one growth score above 50, which is critical to catch students up when they are behind grade level.

Here’s how districts that ran out of time on Colorado’s accountability clock — or districts that had schools that did — compared:

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.”