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More Colorado charter schools are using weighted lotteries. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When a highly sought-after charter school in the western Colorado town of Carbondale held its annual enrollment lottery last spring, 52 students were vying for just 14 kindergarten slots.

Seven youngsters, all siblings of students already enrolled at Carbondale Community School, got first dibs. Next up was a group that had never before gotten priority in the school’s 20-year history — kids from homes where English isn’t the primary language.

It was part of an effort by school leaders to help ensure the student body better mirrors the community, where nearly half of students come from Spanish-speaking homes. It also highlights a practice that’s gaining traction among charter schools seeking more diversity: the use of lottery systems that give extra weight to students from underrepresented groups.

Such efforts, both in Colorado and other states, often prioritize students eligible for free or discounted school meals, a measure of poverty. Some target English language learners, students with disabilities, or migrant, refugee or homeless students.

While notable exceptions exist, Colorado charter schools as a whole educate fewer poor, homeless and special needs students than schools statewide. They educate about the same proportion of English language learners.

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Experts say weighted lotteries can be effective in creating more integrated schools, but must go hand-in-hand with other efforts such as a thoughtful school design, strong recruitment and transportation assistance.

“Having a weighted lottery that actually builds diversity into admissions … is a huge tool,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation and a board member of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition. “It’s not perfect and has to be coupled with those other strategies and refined over time.”

Who’s doing it?

No state agency or advocacy group tracks the number of Colorado charters that use weighted lotteries to expand access for underrepresented groups. Chalkbeat counted at least 20 that do so or have recently cited plans to do so, using information provided by officials from the Colorado Department of Education, the Charter School Institute and Denver Public Schools.

(In Denver Public Schools, 17 district-run schools, many in the city’s affluent neighborhoods, use weighted lotteries to prioritize low-income students.)

Charter schools that use weighted lotteries are sometimes part of networks, as is the case for six schools within the Denver School of Science and Technology, or DSST, family.

Other times, they are single schools with themes such as performing arts or Montessori education. In addition to Carbondale and Denver, these schools can be found in Aurora, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Archuleta and Durango.

Experts note that some charter schools, because of their location, mission or other factors, already serve many students from historically underserved groups and don’t need weighted lotteries to get there.

Still, officials at the Colorado Department of Education say the number of charter schools using weighted lotteries has increased in recent years. It’s partly because of a 2014 federal rule change that opened the way for charters that get federally-funded charter school grants to use weighted lotteries to expand access for educationally disadvantaged students.

Colorado incentivized the approach by awarding extra points to charter schools that included weighted lotteries in their grant applications. Eight of 23 charter grant recipients in the last two years said they would use weighted lotteries.

Nationally, the use of weighted lotteries to foster diversity is also gaining steam.

One factor, Potter said, is the growing national recognition that diverse school settings benefit kids and that charters have a role to play in school integration. She also said that some leaders are moving away from the concept of charter schools that serve almost exclusively at-risk students — in favor of a more integrated look.

State charter school laws still vary widely on using weighted lotteries for diversity purposes. A 2015 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Rhode Island — have laws that explicitly allow weighted lotteries and 19 have laws that could be interpreted to allow weighted lotteries. (North Carolina, which was in the latter category when the report was published, has since changed its laws to explicitly allow weighted lotteries.)

The report classifies Colorado’s charter school laws as “silent” on the issue of weighted lotteries, though it’s noted that a letter from the state attorney general has stated that they are allowed.

Reflecting the community

Leaders at Carbondale Community School say they’ve long believed in — and struggled with — creating a student body that represents a cross-section of the Roaring Fork School District where it’s located.

“I just think our schools are a reflection of our community,” said Tom Penzel, who served as principal of the charter school during the launch of the weighted lottery and recently took a job with the school district. “If this is what our community looks like, this is what our schools should look like.”

With just 15 percent of the school’s students coming from non-English-speaking homes last year — compared to 49 percent districtwide — there’s a long way to go. Still, the new weighted lottery made a dent.

All five children from Spanish-speaking homes who applied won kindergarten spots in last year’s lottery. There would have been room for one to two more based on the guidelines specified in the school’s new enrollment policy, but it was still an improvement over 2016-17 when there were just a couple kindergarteners from Spanish-speaking homes in the class, Penzel said.

Because the 135-student K-8 school is in such high demand, there are rarely openings in grades besides kindergarten — meaning it could take several years of weighted lotteries to see a difference schoolwide.

“It obviously makes cracking this nut of increased diversity all the more challenging,” said Michael Hayes, the executive director of the nonprofit that oversees Carbondale Community School and another charter school in Woody Creek.

Since word-of-mouth recommendations are the biggest factor in getting parents to apply for the lottery, Hayes hopes the school’s slowly growing Spanish-speaking population will help spread the word in that community.

Leaders of other charter schools with recently instituted weighted lotteries face other sorts of challenges.

The Denver Downtown Expeditionary School launched a weighted lottery prioritizing students eligible for free or reduced-price meals two years ago. But Letia Frandina, the school’s interim executive director, said it hasn’t made an impact yet. In fact, the percentage of students who get subsidized meals has actually dropped from about 29 percent in 2015-16 to 25 percent last year.

The school’s goal is for kids in that category to make up 40-50 percent of the student body. Districtwide, 68 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Frandina said one factor in last year’s dip may have been the school’s switch to a different lunch program and subsequent confusion about the free and reduced-price meal application form.

Some low-income families also have trouble securing transportation to the downtown school. Frandina said the school combined grant funds with fundraising dollars last year to buy light rail passes for some families and will continue the effort this year.

The school made another recent change that could help boost the numbers — working with Denver Public Schools officials to set aside six seats for low-income students who select the school during the district’s second round of school choice. While the weighted lottery provided access during the first round of choice in the winter, Frandina said some low-income families weren’t ready to make school decisions at that time.

“It’s so super early,” she said. “Some of our families are in transition.”

One piece of the puzzle

The well-regarded DSST network has weighted lotteries in place at six of 13 schools on three campuses — Stapleton, Conservatory Green and Byers.

All of those schools, which are located in higher-income neighborhoods than the other seven DSST schools, meet the network’s recently codified goal of serving 40-70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Spokeswoman Heather Lamm said DSST’s leaders always have prioritized having diverse schools.

“From the first day of the very first campus our goal was 100 percent we need to be an integrated campus … We believe that is the best academic environment and best community environment that we can get,” she said.

Most crucial in achieving that is communicating with prospective families, not weighted lotteries, she said.

Still, in a segregated city like Denver, some schools are in or near affluent neighborhoods where middle or upper-income students predominate.

“In those cases the weighted lottery can be very important,” Lamm said.

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”