Keep On Keeping On

Struggling Colorado elementary school gets time to let innovation plan work

PHOTO: Getty Images

Superintendent Deirdre Pilch of the Greeley-Evans district felt “a little embarrassed” to be sitting before the State Board of Education Thursday.

“I really thought we would come off the clock,” she said of Billie Martinez Elementary School, which came within a hair of improving student performance enough to avoid state intervention. “But we did not come off the clock, and we own that.”

The state board, though, will let Martinez Elementary’s principal and teachers keep working within the additional autonomy they were granted last year.

A state review panel supported the school’s proposal to continue with innovation status, and five of the six board members agreed. This cooperative stance has been typical of the state board’s approach to stepping in to improve low-performing schools.

Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes praised the openness of administrators in Greeley-Evans to feedback and new ideas and said the school is making progress. Two other schools in the district north of Denver faced state intervention last year, and one of those, Franklin Middle School, has already improved enough to get off the so-called “accountability clock.”

Public schools in Colorado get a rating every year, known as the School Performance Framework report, based largely on results from student scores on the state’s English and math tests. The factor that carries the most weight is student growth, how much students learn year-to-year compared to their peers.

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest). Schools that receive the state’s lowest ratings are put on “the clock.” Schools that do not improve within five years receive a state-ordered school improvement plan aimed at boosting student performance. Those plans can include anything from innovation status — which gives school leaders autonomy to address specific issues — to turning the school over to outside management to closing the school.

Martinez has been in priority improvement status since 2011. In 2017, 27.5 percent of students in grades three through five met or exceeded expectations in English and just 22.8 percent met or exceeded expectations in math. However, those numbers were up from 14 percent in 2015. The school’s overall performance rating for 2017 was 41.3 percent. The schools needs to hit 42 percent to go into “improvement” status and get off the clock.

“We have seen sustained improvement,” said Brenda Bautsch, an accountability specialist with the state Department of Education. “There are areas where the school needs to improve more.”

The school sought and received innovation status from the state board in 2017, in anticipation of but independent from the accountability clock process.

Under the increased autonomy that innovation status offers, Martinez has changed its learning model, offered more ongoing training to teachers, gotten a head start in hiring to scoop up more qualified applicants, and opened its own academic preschool serving three- and four-year-olds.

Classroom instruction is more oriented toward projects, and students are more engaged in real-world applications of what they’re learning. The school hopes to open a community health clinic in the future and offer other services to families, including basics like laundry facilities.

The school serves a community where 97 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 71 percent of students are learning English as a second language.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat, was alone in criticizing the district and the school’s approach.

“You need to do more than depend on accountability, accountability, accountability and monitoring, monitoring, monitoring,” she said. “You could do some big changes. One of the things that really disturbed me is that one of the people who went and monitored your school found that teachers do not believe these students can be high achievers.”

Pilch said the teachers who saw students’ outside challenges as insurmountable have been encouraged to leave.

“If a state review panel came in now, they would not find teachers who think students can’t learn,” she said. “We now have a staff at Billie Martinez who truly believes that every student can learn.”

In accordance with the process, the State Board of Education did not take a final vote on Thursday. Instead, five of the six board members asked the district to submit a formal written proposal for innovation status. Flores said she could not support that “under these conditions.”

After the meeting, Draper, the principal, described improving the school as “the best work you can do as an educator and the toughest work you can do as an educator.”

“We are going to be a bright spot school in the state of Colorado,” she said. “We are going to set the bar for high-performing schools with the same demographics.”



Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system. The city is also home to two state-run schools placed on priority status.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.

READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess

The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.