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.”

progress report

Slow progress, many challenges: How Colorado schools on improvement plans are doing

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

A new report on Colorado schools operating under state-approved improvement plans shows mixed academic results and slow progress getting all the necessary pieces in place.

State education department officials on Wednesday briefed the State Board of Education on schools and districts halfway through their first year on the plans.

State staff praised Aurora Central High School, noting that leadership in Aurora’s innovation zone and the consultant hired to help are providing good feedback to teachers as they focus in on improvements to the school. The data also show Aurora Central is making “small increases” in academic progress and more significant progress in attendance numbers.

The report also highlights problems that have come up in other schools or districts working on their plans. One example: Administrators in the Aguilar school district realized their language arts curriculum was not aligned to state standards. The report, however, noted that the district “moved immediately to work to adopt new materials,” mid-year with help from its consultant.

Colorado Department of Education

Adams 14 and its high school, Adams City High School, along with three schools from Pueblo City Schools, will be required to return to the state board for an evaluation if they do not earn an “improvement” rating or higher this year. The preliminary ratings will be available in August and finalized later in the fall.

Other schools and districts that were put on state-approved improvement plans last year, including the Westminster district and Aurora Central High School, have until 2019 to show improvements.

State officials are monitoring the progress of the schools and districts through site visits, data reviews, and grants. The state board next will be updated when the preliminary ratings are available.

Officials report that schools and districts are seeing a slower rollout of their plans than expected. In many cases, officials say, schools or districts have not built out the infrastructure and routines required to make their plans work. In other cases, other community issues are distracting educators from the work of the improvement plans.

“There’s some common themes,” Alyssa Pearson, an associate education commissioner, said during the presentation to the board. “But how it plays out… it’s different everywhere.”

Both are true in Adams 14. Community members have criticized the district for changes to recess, parent-teacher conferences, and more. The district has also been slow to learn to use its new school monitoring systems, the report said.

“While progress monitoring data is being collected, it is not routinely analyzed and discussed by school staff,” the state’s report notes. “For example, elementary data meetings are scheduled after school and staff attend on an optional basis.”

The mid-year report also notes that the Adams 14 data does not show the district meeting targets in math or literacy, although the middle schools were noted to be showing the “most consistent growth.”

At Adams City High School, a “lack of a valid interim assessment makes it difficult for the school, district and state to determine overall academic progress in the school” is a problem, the report concludes. According to the report, the district and school “have agreed” to use a valid interim assessment next year.

Read the mid-year progress summaries here:

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that officials in the Aguilar school district discovered the problem with their language arts curriculum on their own, rather than state officials notifying them.

learning curve

Westminster school will reopen as a Marzano lab school ‘to take on problems we haven’t solved yet’

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)

An extended day and school year, new extracurricular activities including martial arts and lacrosse, and new uniforms are all part of what students can expect at a new Westminster school this fall.

The district plans to close Flynn Elementary School in north Westminster and re-open it as a Marzano Academy, only the second school in the country designed by local education researcher Robert Marzano. This is part of the district’s improvement plan approved by the state last year as it tries to change years of low performance.

The board of education for Westminster Public Schools Tuesday night approved the closure of Flynn Elementary along with an innovation plan to reopen the school as a Marzano Academy.

Flynn Elementary, near the corner of 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, currently serves about 275 students of which 75 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. The school’s teachers will lose their jobs, but students will automatically be re-enrolled to stay in the building when the school reopens in the fall.

The Marzano Academy model will be used to help the school’s teachers — and others across the district — improve their use of the district’s competency-based learning model. It’s an approach that calls for students to be grouped and to advance based on what they have proved they learned, not based on their age or how long they’ve been in one grade level.

Westminster schools have been using the model for about seven years, but the majority of the district’s students have not performed well on annual state ratings. District officials have argued that the state’s way of testing students isn’t fairly tracking their progress, but state officials haven’t excused the district. Now after years of low ratings from the state, the district is on a timeline to show students making improvements, or it could face more action from the state.

District officials worked with Marzano this year to write the school’s innovation plan which details a five-level framework for high quality that starts with creating a safe culture.

The plan was not made public until after the board vote Tuesday night. In it, there are details about the school’s plan to personalize learning, including requiring that every student complete a project every year. There are also specifics about teacher coaching and evaluation.

The Marzano Academy will be run as a lab school where teachers will be coached on using the best strategies to teach students so they can then model those strategies for other educators in the district or across the country. Marzano said being a lab school also means studying problems.

“The lab part is to take on problems we haven’t solved yet such as how do you teach kids at a developmentally appropriate level but make sure on some external test they are performing well,” Marzano said. “There’s no easy answer to that. There will be some very interesting things to discover.”

The school will open as a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school, just as it is now, and will expand to include sixth through eighth grades, or levels as they are called in the district, in fall of 2019. This fall, all students currently at Flynn will be automatically enrolled to stay at the school when it opens as the Marzano Academy, but in the future, the school will no longer be a neighborhood-boundary school.

Principal Brian Kosena said that even though the school will become an open enrollment school without boundaries, students will not be hand-picked, although there will be caps on the number of students accepted each year.

“The idea of these research-based practices are that they should make a difference no matter what school or student population you serve,” Kosena said. “It benefits us, and it benefits Marzano if the school represents the neighborhood that the school is in. We want to maintain a neighborhood feel.”

The school is seeking to open as an innovation school to allow it to be free from laws and rules created for the traditional education model, according to the plan. The status must next be approved by the State Board of Education.

“Currently, local policies limiting the length of the school year, the school day, and school choice are all barriers to realizing the full potential of the plan,” the document states. “State regulations and policies regarding teacher qualifications currently prohibit or limit the use of otherwise competent individuals in the teaching process.”

Colorado’s innovation law, which grants schools flexibility from state laws, and district or union rules, states that as part of the process to convert a school into an innovation school, staff must vote and a majority must approve the plan. But in this case, because the current school — Flynn Elementary — will close, and because the Marzano Academy will open in the fall as a new school, no staff vote will be required.

Denver Public Schools followed a similar process between 2010 and 2012. The local teachers union sued the district, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and stated that the process was allowed.

All teachers currently at Flynn Elementary will be out of a job at the end of this school year. Those who want to work at the school when it reopens as a Marzano Academy must apply for positions. District officials say the current Flynn teachers will be guaranteed an interview, but will not have any other preference in the hiring process.

Asked if teachers will be placed in other district schools if they aren’t hired at Marzano, Kirk Leday, the district’s chief of staff and human resources director said in a statement, “We are confident that all of our non-probationary teachers will secure a position in our district for next year.”

Read the full innovation plan: