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.”