Rocky Mountain Turnaround

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

Students from Lake County High School work outside in December. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

LEADVILLE — When Ben Cairns took over as principal at Lake County High School in 2016, he made a deal with his students.

Those who showed more growth on the state’s English and math tests than 90 percent of their peers across the state would earn steak dinners with the principal for themselves and their parents.

Cairns, a former Denver charter school principal hired to turn around a school that had been struggling academically for years, figured only two or three students would accomplish such an extraordinary feat.

Then last summer, Cairns received a phone call from a district administrator: “You’re in trouble.”

Sixteen students had made more than enough academic growth — a key data point that measures how much students learn during a year compared to peers with similar test results — to earn dinner with the principal at the local steakhouse, Quincy’s.

School improvement efforts look a little different at 10,000 feet above sea level. While many of the strategies used by the Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of the 1,000-student school district that’s 100 miles west of Denver. A new curriculum coupled with intense training for teachers is showing progress. And the district has had plenty of help from outside consultants paid for in large part by state and federal grants.

For the first time in seven years, the district’s students showed enough progress on the state’s English and math tests to stave off state intervention for continued poor performance. At the same time, the district, and its intermediate and high schools have earned one of the state’s highest quality rating. Now state education leaders and other observers of Colorado’s efforts to improve schools are heralding the work in Lake County as a model others — especially those far from the state’s urban center — can replicate.

“There is no magic solution for every community seeking to improve student achievement,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “It’s hard, complex work, and the solutions differ based on the local context. Lake County School District has shown dramatic improvement, and we think there’s a lot we can learn from them.”

Despite sitting high in the Rocky Mountains, Lake County looks like many of the struggling urban school districts in Colorado and across the country. Most students are non-white; 70 percent are Hispanic. That’s a big swing since 1990 when the mountain school district was predominately white. Now, forty percent are learning English as a second language. And 67 percent of students in 2016 qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.

Source: Colorado Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park/Chalkbeat

What makes the turnaround in Lake County so appealing to observers is that the district bucked the conventional wisdom of the day. Unlike most places working to improve schools, there were no mass layoffs of teachers or principals. No schools were closed. And handing over management of the schools to charter operators wasn’t considered an option given the distance from the state’s urban Front Range, where most successful charter schools operate.

Instead, district officials adopted a new way of teaching — one they hoped would better engage students. Teachers were given more training on how to teach core subjects with a unified curriculum, in some instances from groups known for their work in urban school improvement. The district added more services for students and families, including a health center. The district applied for and was awarded millions of grant dollars. And the district’s staff and governing board received coaching to focus on the difficult work of school improvement.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” said Wendy Wyman, the district’s superintendent. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.”

Some education activists and researchers have long been critical of the kind of school reform efforts that call for total disruption.

“The notion that you just have to blow it up and start fresh has just proven to be a failure time and time again,” said Michelle Renée Valladares, the associate director at the National Education Policy Center based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Creating more instability in an already unstable situation does not help.”

* * *

Since 2010, Colorado has rated the quality of its schools largely based on results from standardized English and math tests. Schools that perform the worst are flagged and put on a watchlist. If they don’t improve quickly enough, the state is required to step in and direct drastic action.

Wendy Wyman, the Lake County School District’s superintendent, watches students as they line up after recess. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

At the same time, the Obama administration created a school improvement grant program that came with millions of dollars in an effort to get schools in Colorado and around the nation to improve at a quicker clip. In creating the program, the administration touted controversial methods of school reform that often pushed for the firing of school principals and required teachers to reapply for their jobs. (The program was eventually deemed unsuccessful.)

The Lake County district, which sits at the foot of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, was among the first to receive a failing grade from the state’s new school quality rating system.

School leaders felt that the sort of disruption that was typically used to turn around schools in urban settings wouldn’t work for their isolated mountain community.

“We could have fired everyone,” said Amy Frykholm, the school board’s president. “But then we’d have to hire them right back. And that’d be devastating for morale.”

Instead, Wyman and her team embraced a total instructional and cultural shift.

In 2013, the district adopted the EL Education model, which shifts focus away from lectures and tests toward research and long-term projects that tackle big problems. (EL Education was formerly known as Expeditionary Learning.) Often, after a project is completed, students spend time outdoors connecting their learning to real life problems and nature.

Third-graders end their lesson on the history of the 10th Mountain Division, a mountain warfare unit of the United States Army that trained near Leadville during World War II, with a ski trip. More recent military veterans from the unit join them.

“It bridges the community with the learning,” said Kim Kortkamp, the district’s academic dean for literacy.

Along with a new curriculum and teaching techniques, the expeditionary philosophy asks students and teachers to behave differently. There are regular “crew” meetings, where students meet with teachers to discuss their academic goals and receive emotional support. And the district adopted a list of shared expectations – what they call the “habits of a learner.”

The habits, which are posted in classrooms through the district, include responsibility, curiosity, and collaboration.

* * *

Last fall, first-grade students at Lake County’s elementary school were practicing how to use capital letters and periods to form a basic sentence.

Teacher Ally Duncan zig-zagged her way through the room, crouching down to meet students at eye level to check their work.

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Duncan was practicing “aggressive monitoring,” an effort to catch students making mistakes in real time and correct them immediately.

The strategy is one of dozens that teachers in Lake County have learned from the district’s classroom consultants.

The Achievement Network, or A-Net, a nonprofit that works to improve teaching in struggling schools, is just one of several consultants and organizations the Lake County school district has invested in since it began its turnaround work. The outside help is in part a recognition that school improvement is difficult work that few educators are prepared to do.

“My teacher college didn’t teach me how to turn around a school,” said Wyman, the superintendent, who spent most of her career in Colorado schools that serve students from low-income homes.

Source: Colorado Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park/Chalkbeat

Along with A-Net, principals and their assistants at each school have a coach to help them focus their time on coaching teachers on instruction. District leaders, including the school board, have received training from a variety of state-run school improvement programs, as well as the New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education. And the district is investing in some online tutoring programs to help students catch up.

“Wendy has done a nice job of strategically partnering with other organizations to draw in expertise the district needed to change,” said Peter Sherman, who recently left his post as the executive director of school performance at the Colorado Department of Education. His office at the state education department helped manage some of the training and grants Lake County received. “They’ve strategically taken advantage of the resources and expertise out there to their advantage.”

While some Colorado school districts have been let down by consultants helping with their turnaround work, Lake County says it’s been important for them to tailor all of their training and support to real needs. And if something isn’t working, they jettison it.

“We learned to say to our partners,‘This is who we are. This is what we need,’” Wyman said. “If something isn’t working, we try to fail quickly and try something different.”

Source: Colorado Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

The new curriculum and training has not come free. In fact, school improvement work is very expensive.

Each of the district’s consultants or programs — EL Education, the Achievement Network, the Relay Graduate School of Education, and the National SAM Innovation Project — cost annually between $10,000 and $40,000, Wyman said.

To help pay for the work and other needs — including infrastructure and buildings — the district has applied for and won more than $24 million dollars in grants. The lion’s share was a $16 million grant for a new school. The next largest block, $3.2 million, was specifically for its turnaround work.

It paid for principal and teacher training, travel, and consultants.

“The figures may be surprising for their sheer size, particularly given the size of our district,” Wyman said. “However, the magnitude of the funding validates another core belief we have come to hold: It does take resources – and even significant ones – to do the work of reforming an entire system.”

* * *

Lake County school leaders focused most of their early school improvement work on younger grades. The elementary and middle school were the first to adopt the expeditionary model.

Then in 2016, Wyman made one of her most important hires: former charter school principal Ben Cairns.

Roxi Aldaz, a 24-year veteran of the Lake County School District, leads a class at the high school in Leadville. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Cairns would seem an unlikely fit for a small rural school district that had a strong teachers union. Cairns got his start in Denver Public Schools and cut his teeth leading schools at DSST, Denver’s high-achieving charter school network. He would go on to open DSST Cole High in one of Denver’s historically black neighborhoods that had long lacked a quality school.

But Lake County teachers, including the leaders of the county’s teachers union, welcomed Cairns.

“We needed a really strong leader to step in,” said Roxi Aldaz, a 24-year veteran of the district and co-president of the Lake County Education Association. “That’s Ben.”

According to Aldaz and other teachers, the high school lacked order and discipline. Cairns, who had been looking to relocate his family to the mountains, would be able to provide that. Before Cairns was hired, though, Lake County sent teachers to see him in action at DSST. They were amazed.

Now, Lake County High is a place where students put away their cell phones and are never late for class. (If they are late, there is lunch detention, no questions.) Instruction begins as soon as students take their seats. And teachers are attempting to establish common expectations in every classroom.

“We put a lot of time and energy and thought into school culture and working with teachers around what their perceived needs were,” Cairns said. “There’s been a big emphasis on building relationships and holding kids accountable. The mix I always try to bring is restorative justice along with a little bit of the no-nonsense approach.”

* * *

Wyman and her team of educators are well aware that dozens of Colorado schools that have jumped off the state’s academic probation list, like they did last year, have slid back.

“It’s going to be a little back and forth until we steady out,” said Cheryl Talbot, the district’s math dean.

A Lake County elementary school student works on an assignment away from his desk. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

And there are still plenty of obstacles for the district to work through.

The district’s average attendance rate is 88 percent — far lower than anyone would want. The graduation rate is well below the state average. Getting parents involved is difficult. Most parents work outside of the county limits at nearby ski resorts. To schedule a parent meeting could include two hours of travel time over snowy passes. And despite some improvement, teacher turnover remains high.

Source: Colorado Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park/Chalkbeat

And while students are making large leaps on state tests, the district’s average proficiency rates still remain lower than the state average.

“(This) for us is by no means the end point,” said Dan Leonhard, Lake County’s Intermediate School’s culture and operations manager, referring to the color associated with the state’s highest quality rating. “This doesn’t mean we’re there. It means we’ve made success in what we’ve been doing now and we have to keep the foot on the pedal.”

But all the work is paying off and has been noticed — perhaps most importantly — by students.

Leo Littlepage, a fourth-grader, said school was more difficult two years ago because teachers weren’t helpful. Teachers would hand him and his classmates worksheets with little instruction, he said.

“‘Here’s your math, you’re on your own,’” Littlepage recalled.

He and other students said they often felt lost. But now, there’s more explanation from teachers and fewer worksheets.

“The teachers thought because it was easy for them, that it’d be easy for us — but it wasn’t,” Ever Leon, a fourth-grader said. “Now they’re explaining the steps.”

Some fourth-graders, who spent the first part of the school year learning about poets such as Robert Frost, Walire Worth, and Walter D. Myers, said classrooms aren’t perfect yet. There’s a lot of repeating material in math, and their spelling words aren’t tough enough.

“I want our teachers to challenge us more,” said Giselle Sarabia. “I want to think hard.”

Students at Lake County Intermediate School line up after recess. Behind them is one of the state’s highest mountain peaks. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Some opponents of the mayor’s plan to scrap the specialized high school admissions exam say the city’s effort to integrate should actually start with gifted and talented programs. But while these parents and alumni groups have lobbied fiercely to keep the specialized high school exam in place, they are calling for a new approach to determining who is “gifted.” 

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”