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)

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.