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.”

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.

top down

Board president of troubled Adams 14 school district abruptly resigns

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

In a surprise announcement Tuesday night, the president of the Adams 14 school board abruptly resigned — a departure that could reshape the leadership of the split board.

In a statement Wednesday Timio Archuleta noted the need for “new energy” in the troubled district.

“As the board president, I have worked hard to represent the community and make decisions that put students first,” Archuleta wrote. “After reflecting on all the work that needs to be done in Adams 14, I believe at this time, that we need new energy that will help the district and our students succeed.”

Timio Archuleta. (Photo courtesy of Adams 14)

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18. But Adams 14 appears to be struggling to meet required benchmarks. If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.

Archuleta, whose first term would have ended in November 2019, is part of a majority on the five-member board who has supported Superintendent Javier Abrego’s efforts to improve school performance, despite criticism from some parents.

Archuleta’s vocal opponents welcomed his departure.

“It’s actually going to be a step forward in the right direction,” said Joanna Rosa-Saenz, who organized a meeting earlier this year calling on the board majority to fire the superintendent or step down themselves. The group specifically targeted Archuleta and two other board members and threatened a recall.

She said the resignation could provide hope to parents who felt the board was not listening to them.

Archuleta, 65, said he will miss his time on the board, but will continue to advocate for the district. Reached briefly by phone, he said that he still believes in the district, but said he has been frustrated by the lack of parent involvement in district improvement efforts.

“It’s not just the board. It’s not just the district. It’s the parents also that have a role,” Archuleta said. “That’s a message that people refuse to hear. It’s hard to make decisions that are best for kids that way.”

Board member Bill Hyde, part of the board minority, said in a statement Wednesday that while he disagreed with Archuleta on several issues, he appreciated his service.

“I see his resignation as a sad commentary on the state of affairs within the district,” Hyde said.

In a written statement, Abrego praised Archuleta for improving the district.

“Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mr. Archuleta to push the district forward as we make improvements and changes for the betterment of the district,” the statement read. “I have admired his passion for the students of Adams 14 and the community. As a long-time Commerce City resident, we cannot thank him enough for his service and he will be truly missed.”

District officials promised to post online information about the board’s process to appoint a new member to finish Archuleta’s term, but did not say when.

According to state law school boards have 60 days to appoint a new member to fill a vacancy. The law does not specify how a board should seek out candidates for appointment.

Hyde said the board is likely going to meet Thursday to elect a new president and start the search for a new member.

Janet Estrada, a Denver educator and Adams 14 resident and parent, said she had already been considering running for Archuleta’s seat next year.

“One of the issues with the board members is a lot of them don’t have an education background,” Estrada said. “They haven’t really been in the classroom and I think that really helps a board in their decision-making. I want to run because I think this district for a very long time has been in need of change.”

Estrada said she would consult with her family about applying for the seat a year earlier than she had anticipated.

The surprise resignation came at a meeting that included a public hearing on next school year’s budget and a report about Beyond Textbooks, the external partner that is helping with the district’s state-approved improvement plan.