tracking progress

A parent engagement program in Westminster is helping families understand the district’s model

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Westminster mom, Martha Tapia, had gotten her hopes up last year when her daughter received a scholarship of $15,000 to go to Regis University.

“But then, my daughter said it wasn’t enough,” Tapia said. “I wouldn’t be able to come up with the rest of the money.”

Instead, Tapia’s daughter is now attending college classes at a community college. With her younger children, Tapia wants to be more involved to see if she can better understand how college admissions work and how she can help her kids attend the schools they really want to go to. On Thursday, at Westminster High School, she found a program that promised to help her do just that.

Westminster Public Schools staff this week launched PASS, a parent engagement program at Westminster High School.

It’s the third semester the district has offered the nine-week program at one of their schools.

The program has multiple goals. Among them is to help parents better understand the district’s competency-based model — a system based on grouping, and advancing, students based on the standards they’ve proved they learned, instead of on their ages.

The district started rolling out the model in 2009. Seven years later, when the district paid for a review by an outside organization, the audit found problems including that many parents still didn’t understand the model and had a difficult time understanding report cards. The district is now on a state-ordered improvement plan. As they forge ahead with the competency-based model, helping parents and students better understand how it works is a big part of that effort.

“We knew there was an aspect of parent support that we needed in our district,” said Sandy Steiner, the district’s director of post-secondary and workforce readiness. “For us it has been a plan realized. I couldn’t be happier with the program.”

The PASS program was tailored to Westminster, but was purchased and modeled after a California-based program that has 30 years of data and is now used in 15 states. It has been paid for so far by two grants, both of which are set to end this summer. The district has applied for an extension of one of the grants, but staff running the program are also asking the district’s school board this spring to make up the gap to keep the program running.

“This is a program that is really helping shift the life of our families,” Steiner said. “We will figure out a way.”

The Westminster district is still the only one in Colorado to use the program to engage and educate parents, but other districts have been asking about the program.

Besides helping Westminster teach parents to understand the district’s competency-based report cards, it helps parents — many of them immigrants — understand the country’s education system.

Classes taught during the nine-week program touch on how schools get funded, how state standards work, how students earn credits, and the various opportunities in high school to prepare for a college or career.

“For our students performing ahead of schedule, the opportunities for them to take advantage of college courses and apprenticeships to glide right into their future careers or their post-secondary options — there has been nothing quite like it before,” Steiner said. “But it’s dependent on students being prepared.”

Parents during the launch of the PASS program at Westminster High School.

As parents discussed why they had attended the program during a kickoff event this week, all said they believed their kids would graduate and go to college.

But parents were also quick to think of the many challenges their kids face: how to pay for college, deportation fears, and single-parent homes where parents are sometimes too tired to help.

The most recent graduation data show that about 58 percent of Hispanic students in Westminster Public Schools graduate from high school in four years. About 70 percent graduate high school in five years.

But officials cite data from the PIQE program in California (or the Parent Institute for Quality Education) where the local program comes from. There, officials have tracked students whose parents participated in the program and found that 90 percent of them graduate.

“We are tracking that going forward,” said Whitney Allen, Westminster’s parent engagement coordinator, who runs the program. “We don’t have enough of a track record, but we are finding that we are having similar impact.”

Officials say they reached 150 parents so far during the pilot and the second semester. Those parents have almost 500 students in the district. On Thursday, another 160 parents, mostly from the high school where the program will be run this time, promised to go through the classes starting next week.

Anecdotally, at Scott Carpenter Middle School, where the program was piloted last year, the following semester school officials reported “an astronomical bump” in the number of parents attending parent-teacher conferences. The school also saw a significant jump in the number of students who had raised their scores enough to participate in a particular club, Allen said.

It can’t all be tied just to the parent engagement program, but Allen said they are indicators that parents are doing something different.

Officials say parents report being more comfortable asking questions. Other parents report that after understanding the district’s competency-based model, they can now log into their parent portal (or ask their child to) and then track progress daily to talk to their children about it.

“Culturally sometimes our Latino families give over the authority to the schools, saying the schools are going to help my child, but we want to really bring it back,” Allen said.

“Even if you haven’t had a high school education or went to college, there are things you can be doing to support your students at home, and we give them those tips every week,” Allen said. “It’s about just informing parents what’s possible.”


Adams 14 falls short in its upward climb. Now the state could step in.

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district will likely face more state intervention, after the struggling district failed to meet its goals to raise achievement in various areas, including state tests.

Preliminary state ratings released by the Colorado Department of Education Monday morning showed some bright spots in the district’s performance, but overall, it was not enough to add up to a better rating in the state’s five-tier system.

Despite that, district officials spent the day celebrating at three schools that earned the state’s highest rating. Out of the district’s 11 schools, three is the most the district has ever had in the top tier.

“Everyone should be proud of the progress being made at these schools, which is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our students, families and staff,” read a statement from Superintendent Javier Abrego. “While it is important to celebrate these successes, we must also take ownership of the unacceptable and insufficient growth and pace of improvement across the district. Adams 14 will work alongside the state to determine the best outcome for students, staff and families.”

Districts can appeal before the state finalizes the preliminary ratings. Adams 14 officials said they will file appeals for at least three school ratings. If successful, the state could also change the district’s rating.

The 7,500-student district north of Denver has suffered instability and low performance for years. Current Superintendent Javier Abrego joined the district in 2016, making bold promises that he would help the district improve within two years — and telling the community they should hold him to it.

Colorado Department of Education

Monday, Abrego said he has kept his word, but said he will look to reach the goal of having no schools in the bottom two categories of ratings by 2019.

“We’re happy with the progress,” Abrego said. “It’s never been done here. We’ve never had this kind of success.”

In the changes the state had already required, the district was to work with an outside partner to improve curriculum and teacher training. The district was also to create a better monitoring system for its schools so it could respond faster when things aren’t going well in a school. Some of those changes were slow to roll out.

State test scores released two weeks ago had given district officials an indication that the ratings wouldn’t be what they were hoping for, and officials had said at that time that they were starting to prepare for another hearing with the state.

The process will be new. State officials Monday said they don’t have the process mapped out yet, but will seek State Board of Education feedback next month.

In spring 2017, Colorado held its first hearings under new laws to come up with plans to improve schools and districts that had more than five successive years of low performance. For each one, the state set different timeframes and deadlines for improvement. Of the districts that had state hearings, Adams 14 is the first district to fail to sufficiently improve by its deadline.

The state now may take further action, which can include actions as drastic as ordering schools to be closed or merging a district with a higher-performing one.

State officials said Monday that the State Board of Education could choose to let the district continue rolling out its plans, make changes to those plans, or the state could direct some other intervention.

Besides the district, Adams City High School, which was under a separate state intervention plan, but with the same timeframe, will also have to face the state again. Although the school improved from the lowest rating to “priority improvement,” it failed to meet state goals.

Two schools on state plans in Pueblo 60 — Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy — also have preliminary ratings that would require them to have another state hearing this year so officials can review the plans.

Adams 14 faces an additional problem, with another of its schools that has reached its limit of low ratings. Central Elementary has a preliminary state rating of “priority improvement,” which if finalized, will mean it will be placed under a state improvement plan.

Central Elementary is one of the schools that was working with Beyond Textbooks, the partner that Adams 14 paid to work with low-performing schools as part of its state-ordered improvement plan.

out of the woods

With test scores nudging up, Westminster escapes state’s watchlist

Superintendent Pam Swanson and the Westminster school board celebrate their state ratings. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Public Schools)

Westminster Public Schools has improved enough to escape from the state’s crosshairs as a low-performing district, to the relief of school officials.

According to preliminary state ratings released Monday, the district has earned an “improvement” rating, or the middle rating on the state’s five-tier system for districts.

The district has been working under a state-ordered plan to raise student achievement and this year continued to post gradual but steady improvement in student growth across state test scores.

Colorado Department of Education

The district had just one more year to show that the plan was working, or else could have faced further state intervention. With the improvement this year, the district will no longer be under the state plan or timeline or face the threat of state action that could include closing schools or asking the district to merge with a higher-performing one.

But Westminster officials said their improvement plan will still be rolled out, because it was what the district intended to do anyway.

“Regardless, that’s Westminster’s plan,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said Monday afternoon. “I believe we are going to continue to see progress. We have to double down to keep that up.”

When the district was facing state intervention for the first time, Westminster officials argued that the state’s rating system was unfair because of the district’s demographics and its education model.

For almost a decade, Westminster schools have been using a competency-based model where students aren’t placed in a class based on their age and corresponding grade level. Instead, students are grouped by their understanding of a certain subject, and can progress to another level as soon as they show that they’ve mastered that class content. The switch to the model caught national media attention when it was first announced. Despite its struggles, Westminster has steadfastly stood by its model, an innovation among public schools.

District officials say their improvement now is proof the model works.

“For many years we have asked the Colorado Department of Education to provide more flexibility in its accountability system to support innovation instead of focusing on high-stakes, once-a-year testing,” Swanson said in a press release. “The state resisted, but we pushed forward with our model and have now shown success, even by the traditional state standards. It’s very gratifying.”

One of the components of that plan was to work with education researcher Robert Marzano to create a school in the district to be used as a lab for teachers to develop their skills in using the competency-based model. The district closed the former Flynn Elementary School and reopened it this month as the Marzano School.

School-by-school ratings clearly show Westminster’s improvement.

This year only one school, Westminster High, fell into the bottom two tiers. The high school, however, did not start rolling out the district’s education model at the same time as the rest of the district, and when it did, did so one grade level at a time, district officials said.

Westminster had more schools in the top category than it had before — nine, more than twice as many as last year.

Besides its unique educational model, Westminster board President Ryan McCoy also credited increased student and parental engagement for the district’s improvement.

“Students have to own their work as well,” McCoy said.

But officials said that’s all part of getting better, or “going deeper” in using the competency-based model.