Elliott Asp has done it all (pretty much) in Colorado education. Here’s his take on where we stand.

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez
Longtime Colorado educator Elliott Asp

When it comes to Colorado education, Elliott Asp has seen it all.

He taught for several decades before serving as assistant superintendent in the Douglas County and Cherry Creek school districts, moved to the Colorado Department of Education and was appointed interim education commissioner in 2015.

In spring of 2016, Asp transitioned to the nonprofit sector. He worked with the Washington, D.C.-based organization Achieve, and now serves as a senior partner at the Colorado Education Initiative, which works with the state education department to provide teacher training and to support programs in STEM, health and wellness, and other issues.

Asp recently received this year’s CASEY award from the Colorado Association of School Executives, which recognizes a current non-educator who has “made a significant contribution to education,” according to the organization’s website.

We asked Asp for his take on changes to Colorado’s public education landscape — and what the future might bring. Here is our email exchange, edited for length and clarity:

What are the defining characteristics of Colorado’s approach to efforts to improve public education for all students? What distinguishes us or makes us stand out?

There are several key aspects of Colorado’s approach to improving education. The most important one is our focus on “local control” – which I think is a great strength.

It is our belief that those closest to the local classroom have the greatest understanding of the needs of the school and the community and are best positioned to make these crucial decisions. When we have combined this “bottom-up” approach with a few collaboratively developed state-wide requirements, we have been most successful.

We have adopted state goals when it makes sense to do so and we have developed processes for routinely reviewing those goals so that all interested parties can have their voices heard. Our approach to intervening in habitually low-performing schools gives preference to locally developed solutions and allows districts to bring additional evidence of student learning and contest their state accountability rating.

Colorado has been considered a leader in education policy because of reforms dating back years now in teacher evaluations, early literacy and more. Do you think the state’s policies have had the desired effect? 

We were one of the first states to develop academic content standards and administer a state assessment based on those standards that required kids to do more than answer multiple choice items. Our state assessments were groundbreaking at the time because kids had to write about what they read, develop and revise a piece of writing and explain their reasoning in math.

We were also one of the first states to set postsecondary and workforce readiness as the goal for all students and create a preschool-20 vision for public education (Governor Ritter’s CAP4K legislation). Our educator evaluation legislation (led by Mike Johnston) has served as a national model. Our focus on the importance of early literacy has also brought us national attention.

Like all state policies, some of these have had unintended negative consequences. However, there have been many positive outcomes as well. For example, while there was a narrowing of the curriculum in some districts and schools in response to the “content” state assessments and the way the results from those tests are used in the accountability system, teachers have also reported that they have improved their practice in reading, writing and math as they prepared their students for those assessments.

The educator evaluation policy caused districts to carefully examine their evaluation systems and make some much needed changes to ensure teachers and administrators received more useful feedback. It also helped ensure ineffective educators got help to improve, along with a more workable mechanism for removing those who did not.

Colorado continues to be a leader in educational policy and reform. Some of this leadership comes from our Department of Education and legislature, but much of what makes Colorado a national leader is the groundbreaking work of local districts, schools and nonprofits that are supporting some very effective local and state efforts. A prime example is the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), my new professional home. CEI supports innovation and transformative change in the service of improving outcomes for every student, and I am very excited to be part of this organization.

For us to continue to be national leaders, it is important for all players in the policy space to communicate openly and regularly. We are much better at finding solutions and adapting them to local needs when they emerge from a collaborative process rather than in an isolated manner from a specific sector, no matter how well intended.

You served on a committee that helped review state plans to comply with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. How do you feel Colorado’s compared to other states? Will ESSA change public education in Colorado much? 

There was great hope that the flexibility afforded to states under ESSA would lead to innovative approaches to state assessment, broaden the focus of state accountability systems and provide more relevant and useful data to practitioners and community members. However, that has not been the case.

Most states have made some minor changes, but their ESSA accountability systems look a lot like their systems under the previous law, No Child Left Behind. Some of this is due to the change in administrations. States were not clear how the Trump administration would differ from the Obama administration when it came to approving state plans and were reluctant to make large changes that may not be approved.

The greatest opportunity under ESSA is to expand our notion of accountability to include, for example, non-test sources of data about student outcomes, such accumulation of career and technical certifications.

ESSA also provides the chance to explore different models for state assessment. We could take advantage of these opportunities by having districts experiment with different approaches to see if these lead to improved student outcomes locally and if they could be scaled statewide.

For example, a group of rural districts is using a “peer review” process as an integral part of an accountability project they have initiated. This kind of outside review could be one way to make the state accountability system more relevant to all districts, even those that are relatively high performing.

What is your read on how Colorado is doing on PARCC, now three years in? There has been some progress, but the majority of students still aren’t meeting the bar the state has set. What does that tell you?

This is not surprising. It reinforces what we’ve known for a long time – not all kids are graduating high school postsecondary and workforce ready. This is a relatively new goal and will take some time and resources to meet.

When I was in high school at Wasson High in Colorado Springs, only some kids were expected to go on to some sort of postsecondary training. That was how it was in every high school in that era because at that time you could still find some way to earn a living wage with only a high school diploma. That is no longer the case. To support a family and have options in their lives, students must be prepared to access and succeed in some sort of postsecondary education program.

For us to reach this goal, we need to create multiple pathways to postsecondary and workforce readiness within our high schools. These pathways must go beyond the “typical” college-bound, academic path to include career and technical certificate programs, work-based options and early college opportunities, to name a few. It is critical that these pathways are equally rigorous and personalized to student need and interests.

Colorado’s achievement gaps on tests aren’t shrinking. What kind of things can be done to change that storyline?

There are three basic things that we need to do to reduce achievement gaps and eliminate the predictability of student outcomes by student characteristics (e.g., race, gender, income).

  1. We must hold the same high expectations for every student, believe that they can meet those expectations and communicate that to students in a meaningful way. This is not about verbally expressing platitudes like “all kids can learn.” We communicate high expectations to students by our behavior – the questions we ask in class, who we call on, the instructional materials and processes we employ, who is in particular classes, the kind of support we provide for every student, how we reach out to families and honor different cultures in the classroom and school.
  2. We must ensure that every student has the opportunities to learn that will prepare them to become postsecondary and workforce ready. That includes more than enrolling in courses. It also involves the kind of curricular materials we use, the instructional approaches we employ and additional supports we provide. It goes beyond the school day to include providing assistance so that students come to school able to learn and have the materials and access to technology that will enable them to succeed. Every student must also feel emotionally and academically safe in school.
  3. We need to monitor student progress and intervene quickly when things are not going well. This can be done in the classroom on a daily basis as teachers use formative assessment practices but also includes leading measures related to student achievement such as attendance, course enrollment and social-emotional indicators.

Do you think that the plans that were approved for Colorado’s “out-of-time” schools and districts this past spring are going to be enough to turn around achievement? The state did not take the most aggressive steps it could have, in terms of closing schools and districts, or charter takeover. Are the actions the state and districts taking bold enough?

That is a question that can only be answered over time, but I want to compliment the Department of Education for their hard work and dedication in working with districts and schools as they went through this process. At times this was difficult for the adults involved, but the goal was not to make adults feel comfortable – it is about improving student outcomes.

It is critical that ineffective schools are not permitted to continue to operate indefinitely. But we know that state take-overs rarely work. We have had some success in Colorado with closing schools, governance changes and so forth when it is a local decision that is supported by the local school board and community. So I think the State Board of Education was wise to allow districts to move ahead with promising practices that are developed and supported locally. Every school and district situation is unique and will require some degree of individualization to be successful. There are no magic bullets.

It is important to remember that we can fundamentally change only three things about a school: what is taught, how it is taught (including who is doing the teaching) and the culture and organizational conditions in which those occur. A district or school is fortunate if it only needs to change one of these. Most ineffective districts and schools must change all three — and that is a very difficult task that takes time and focus.

This “end-of-clock” process in Colorado provides the opportunity to observe the work of these districts and schools and identify what strategies and actions seem to be the most effective in particular settings. We need to make good use of the lessons learned as we work to improve this process in the service of students.

Opening doors

What other schools can learn from two Colorado Schools of Opportunity

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
South High students Lionel Kulembwa, Eliana Goldberg, Zahra Abdulameer and Shambel Zeru pose for a portrait.

Two Colorado high schools are among eight in the nation recognized as Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

Schools of Opportunity are institutions that go above and beyond to help all their students succeed. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at CU’s School of Education, said the program is designed to counter the “Best High Schools in America” rankings from U.S. News & World Report and similar lists.

“At the top of these rankings, year after year, we see two types of schools: schools in high-income communities and choice schools that enroll high-scoring students,”  he said. “The best way to have high test scores is to have high-scoring students, but these schools don’t necessarily employ exemplars of best practices.”

Socioeconomic factors outside of school continue to play a strong role in how well students do in school. Schools of Opportunity use methods and strategies that should close some of that gap, even if it doesn’t show up in test scores, Welner said.

“A lot of things that schools do won’t show up in test scores right away, but they’ll show up in other things, like more students showing up to school, and in life beyond school, what the student takes with him or her,” Welner said.

Denver’s South High School received a gold rating, with reviewers making note of heritage classes in Arabic and Spanish that help students achieve literacy in their first language as well as English. The school also received praise for a peer-mentoring program that has significantly increased the number of students of color taking Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“The first thing you have to start with is your mindset,” South Principal Jen Hanson said. “It’s very important that people in the building see diversity as an asset.”

Hanson said teachers and administrators focus on the assets students already have, rather than what they lack, and build from there.

Aurora’s William C. Hinkley High School received a silver designation. A restorative justice program there has transformed the school culture, according to students interviewed by the committee that made the awards. It’s part of an overall “culture of care” that includes teacher training that focuses on collaboration and building relationships.

Principal Matthew Willis said all these efforts go toward “helping students access a better life.” Disciplinary referrals are way down, and graduation rates are way up at a school that serves a lot of students from low-income families. The school has one of the highest rates of concurrent enrollment – high school students taking college courses – in the state.

Welner said he hopes other schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are learning English will read through the applications and find ideas that can work at their school. He’s also used these ideas to help the Office of Civil Rights come up with remedies when schools are found to violate their students’ civil rights.

South High School

Student body: 1,605
Students of Color: 67 percent
English Language Learners: 42.9 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 58.7 percent

Almost 70 percent of South students are students of color, but in the 2015-16 school year, just 73 students of color enrolled in AP classes. Hanson said administrators knew something must be wrong. A student group called “Rising Rebels” was enlisted to recruit their peers to sign up for AP and college-level classes. Teachers also reached out to students and their parents to encourage them to sign up. This school year, 423 students of color are signed up for AP courses, and the school has a tutoring program to make sure those who need extra help get it.

“If you grow up with a parent in your ear saying you’re going to college and you’re going to take that class, that’s great, but if you don’t have that parent, it’s our obligation to provide that,” Hanson said.

Denver Public Schools as a whole is pushing to get more students into advanced classes, with some success, but students of color are still underrepresented.

South has a large refugee population representing students from more than 50 countries, many of whom have had their schooling interrupted. South is a designated Newcomer Center, and soon all of its teachers will be certified to teach English Language Learners.

Hanson said sending the right message from the top is important, as is teacher training, but administrators also need to look closely at the structures and systems at their schools, at discipline and schedules. Do these structures support equity or do they give an advantage to some students while discouraging others?

Hinkley High School

Student body: 2,184
Students of color: 91.9 percent
English Language Learners: 29.7 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 75.2 percent

Willis said the restorative justice program is just one component of a larger “culture of care,” but it’s the oldest and perhaps foundational piece.

“Many referrals can be boiled down to relational problems between two individuals that can be solved with facilitation,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

The school also arranges schedules so that teachers who work in the same subject area can meet and share ideas. A first-year teacher can share recent research, while a veteran teacher might know the signs that a student needs help. Topics for teacher training are chosen with student needs in mind, Willis said. Right now, many Hinkley teachers are giving up a planning period to work on ideas to better serve students with disabilities.

When students stay in class and when teachers work hard to understand their students, a lot can happen, Willis said. It’s taken years to get here, and Willis said any school leaders who want to make big changes also need patience.

“There isn’t a magic pill or silver bullet,” he said. “When we talk about the culture of care, cultural transformation takes time. Each year, this philosophy coalesces more. We work together as a staff to see how we can take that next step. We’re never completely satisfied, and I think that’s why you see this continual progress toward improving our school.”

“There are many ways to improve a school, but sticking with one approach long enough to actually see the fruits of our labor is really important,” he added.

You can see the full list of winners and read more about them here

Nominations are being accepted for the next round, and organizers said they’d particularly like to see more nominations from rural schools.

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14 and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students, are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”