Engaging parents

No more parent-teacher conferences: Why one Colorado school district is going with an online data system instead

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

A school district north of Denver is doing away with the traditional parent-teacher conferences this year, instead urging parents to log in to a website to find out how their children are doing.

The Commerce-City based Adams 14 school district says it made the change in an effort to squeeze in as much instructional time as possible. The 7,500-student district — where almost half the students are English language learners and about 85 percent qualify for subsidized lunches — has long struggled academically and is under a state-ordered improvement plan.

Frustrated parents and teachers, however, said in interviews with Chalkbeat that the new online system is either confusing or incomplete and can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

“Teachers would tell me at conferences what I needed to help my son with, they would tell me how he was behaving and everything they did in class, like what they were studying,” said Carolina Rosales, a mother of two elementary school kids. “The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?”

The system the district introduced this year is called Infinite Campus, a commonly used parent portal program in schools. In addition to weekly grades, parents who log in can get information about specific assignments and attendance, district officials said. The site can be accessed on a computer or smartphone.

“What we know is that the information available to a parent through the parent portal is much more robust than what they were able to get through a parent-teacher conference,” said Janelle Asmus, the spokeswoman for Adams 14. “We believe this is going to be better over time.”

Asmus said there are 1,267 accounts for parents on the district’s Infinite Campus system. Officials believe there may be others who are using alternate names that the district can’t track.

District-wide, parents did not receive information about the elimination of conferences and the switch to the online system. Many parents said they found out through word-of-mouth, as they started asking why conferences hadn’t been scheduled.

Asmus said that if parents are concerned about not getting face time, they can still reach out to teachers and ask to meet with them.

Elementary school teacher Jodi Connelly, who is also a union representative at her school, said that she’s had several parents this year asking to talk to her before or after school.

“They want to have that conversation with a teacher, but it doesn’t replace the actual conference,” Connelly said. “My Spanish is OK, but not great, so I have to take time to find someone to have a phone call with me.”

Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union, said teachers are stuck trying to find time on their own to talk with parents, often after hours when they aren’t being paid. Teachers and union leadership want the district to continue parent-teacher conferences, she said.

“All the teachers are really frustrated,” McDowell said. “We want to meet with parents. We send texts. We call. We try to have conversations. But at the same time, teachers know if they start doing it, it’ll just be expected of them.”

The district says it doesn’t have data on how many parents in Adams 14 attended conferences when the district held them. Asmus, however, said many times teachers were spending hours preparing for conferences only to sit waiting for parents who didn’t show.

Connelly said her records show 98 percent of families attended conferences in her classroom last year. McDowell, a teacher at Kearney Middle School, said participation does drop in higher grades. But she stressed the need for conferences, citing an example from a conference she had last year.

One of her students was having issues and hurting herself, and in talking with the student’s parents, Connelly was able to help. This year, the student “is doing great things,” she said.

“It’s powerful when we know there’s communication back and forth,” McDowell said.

The district is rolling out several changes this year as part of their plan to improve its state rating, including new district observations of schools and using a consultant to help train teachers and provide curriculum resources.

Several other metro area districts have used Infinite Campus for years, and still schedule parent-teacher conferences. But using the system is an adjustment for teachers, district officials say, and they wanted to free teachers from another responsibility.

“We aren’t like all the other districts,” Asmus said. “They aren’t in turnaround. They aren’t having to make the changes we’re trying to make in an expeditious manner. People can only take so much change in one year.”

On Aug. 11, before the school year started, the district did designate a “parent-engagement day” where principals could choose activities to better involve parents.

At least one school used the August day to teach parents how to use Infinite Campus. Other schools held a more traditional back-to-school day. The next one is set for Jan. 9.

The district also has been trying to build parent engagement by increasing the number of home visits teachers do each year.

Teachers and experts say those are helpful in building relationships with parents. But because teachers aren’t supposed to talk during home visits about a child’s academics or school behavior, it doesn’t replace the value of a conference, they say.

Across the country, a handful of school districts have tried eliminating parent-teacher conferences. But experts say that even if parent-teacher conferences aren’t the best way to fully engage parents, doing away with them eliminates an important communication point.

“Generally speaking, everyone believes parents need an opportunity to meet with their child’s teacher,” said Steven Sheldon, a research scientist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “I personally find this policy decision troubling. I feel like it is creating greater distance between the schools and the families that they’re serving and they’re really putting the onus on parents to get all the information.”

Sheldon said research on parent teacher conferences as a way of engaging parents is limited, but plenty of research exists about online parent portals.

“What researchers have found is people who are using parent portals tend to be the more highly educated or more affluent families,” Sheldon said. “Often times portals can be a greater source of inequities. Families with poor or no access to the internet are cut off from that information.”

The rollout of the Infinite Campus system could create inequity in another way.

This year, the system is only producing report cards in English. The district, under a federal order to better serve students and families who are not native English speakers, let each school create its own cover sheet to send with the report cards giving parents information on how they could request a translator or an explanation of the report card if they needed it.

Asmus said the system will be updated over time so report cards can be produced in other languages.

The language barrier is also one reason some parents want a face-to-face conference with their child’s teacher.

Guadalupe Castro, a mother of a student at Adams City High School, said she has not been able to meet this year with any of her child’s teachers, or with the school principal. She has an account with Infinite Campus, but hasn’t actively used it.

“I don’t understand it,” Castro said. “There’s a language barrier, so for me it’s more comfortable to talk in person. My thought is that it was the only space we really used to find out how our kids were doing. And most of all, for me it was about building that trust with the teacher so that I could collaborate with them and they could get to know me and know that I’m accessible to support them.”

District officials say they are gathering feedback now on the change, but Castro said she wished they had asked parents about it before.

“No one asked me if I agreed with this or not,” she said.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.



On the Agenda

Adams 14 school board votes to give superintendent a raise with no prior notice

Adams 14 Superintendent Javier Abrego celebrates with teachers at Kearney Middle School during an event highlighting the school's rating in August 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The school board for Adams 14 approved a raise for Superintendent Javier Abrego Tuesday after amending their agenda during their meeting. The surprise vote came in a year when the district’s progress has been tested.

Abrego took over the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district in 2016 and has a contract running through June 2019. The addendum, approved on a 3-2 vote, raised his salary to $169,125, up from $165,000, and will be retroactive to the start of this school year. The board also gave Abrego a $25,000 contribution for his retirement account.

The board’s decision comes while the district is in the middle of a state-ordered improvement plan. While the district began the year celebrating that it had earned a higher rating, bringing it one step closer to coming off the state’s plan, the board recently also heard from state officials that the district is struggling to comply with data requirements and is not meeting goals.

The district this year has also been attacked by community members upset with many changes, including cuts to recess, elimination of scheduled parent-teacher conference days, and changes to a biliteracy program.

Colorado’s open meeting laws generally require that the public have 24-hour notice before elected officials discuss something. There are certain exceptions that give school boards some flexibility to add items to their agenda.

But experts say that in this case, Adams 14’s board should have given the public notice — before the meeting — that they were going to vote on the superintendent’s contract.

“That’s not the intention of the sunshine law,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Essentially if they know they’re going to do this, it should be on the agenda. The public should have a good idea of what’s coming up. There are emergency things that come up, but this doesn’t sound like an emergency.”

In describing the contract addendum the board was about to vote on, Adams 14’s board president, Timio Archuleta, said that all administrative staff in the district had received a 2.5 percent step increase, and that the superintendent should have also received that.

“It was thought that this was taken care of last fall, but the addendum had not been finalized for approval, so I’m asking the board for approval tonight,” Archuleta said.

The signed document describes the $25,000 payout as a “one-time compensation for services rendered to the district under this contract during the 2016-17 school year.”

The board members did not discuss the salary increase in the open meeting before voting.

Board member Bill Hyde attempted to abstain from the vote, but the board’s attorney said that would require the board president’s approval. Archuleta did not allow Hyde to abstain. Hyde and board member Harvest Thomas voted against the salary increase.

Hyde did not say why he wanted to abstain from the vote.

Before the meeting started, the school board also had a study session where, in part, they discussed with a consultant whether and how they should evaluate the superintendent.

Although Abrego’s contract states that the board shall evaluate the superintendent every year, officials say it hasn’t happened.

According to the contract, the board “shall evaluate and assess in writing” the superintendent’s progress toward meeting goals each year. But the contract also states, “at a minimum, this evaluation shall include a meeting between superintendent and the board.”

Hyde pushed the board to commit to scheduling a discussion to pick between three superintendent evaluation tools that Adams 14 can begin to use.

The consultant pushed the board not to focus on the “tool” for evaluation so much as the practice of doing so.