Highs and lows

Some Colorado schools brace for state intervention, while others cheer their progress

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Two Colorado school districts and six individual schools failed to show enough improvement to raise their ratings under the state’s accountability system. Unless they successfully appeal their preliminary ratings this fall, they’ll remain on state-mandated improvement plans. Those include the 7,500-student Adams 14 district based in Commerce City, which is likely to face additional state intervention this school year, and Aurora Central High School.

And two new schools also face the potential for state intervention, Central Elementary School in Adams 14 and Minnequa Elementary in the Pueblo 60 district.

One school district and six individual schools that had previously faced state intervention improved enough to get off Colorado’s “accountability clock,” according to preliminary school ratings released Monday.

“Our students are working harder than they ever have, and it’s making a big difference,” said Superintendent Deirdre Pilch of the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver. In that district, two schools on state improvement plans and four others that had been placed on warning did well enough to get out of state scrutiny. “By every measure we use, we are seeing students move in the right direction. I am so proud of people locking arms and coming together to do that work.”

Colorado’s school accountability system rates districts based on achievement on state literacy, math, and science tests, on annual academic growth, and on postsecondary readiness as measured by graduation rates, dropout rates, scores on college entrance exams, and enrollment in college.

Schools go on performance watch or “on the clock” if their rating places them in one of the lowest two tiers – turnaround or priority improvement – and they face state intervention if they don’t move into a higher tier after five years.

The ratings released Monday are considered preliminary. Districts can request that the state reconsider districtwide or school ratings based on, for example, progress in literacy and math in the early grades or measures of high school achievement that don’t show up on state tests.

The deadline to file a request to reconsider is Oct. 15. The ratings will be finalized in December.

The State Board of Education has four options when deciding the future of schools whose performance remains in the two lowest tiers of the five-point scale for years on end. The board can close the school, hand it over to a charter management organization, contract with a third party to help run the school or create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and exemptions from district and state policy to improve student learning.

The options for districts are similar but include drastic and politically challenging steps like pushing for merger with a higher-performing district.

So far, the State Board has taken a collaborative approach and largely approved the plans that schools and districts brought forward. At the same time, state lawmakers, at the request of the Colorado Department of Education, approved changes to require schools to show more sustained improvement to get off performance watch and encourage schools to take action earlier in the process.

Colorado doesn’t have the option of state takeover that’s been exercised in places like New Jersey and Tennessee, with mixed results.

The next few years will serve as an ongoing test of how well this system of carrots and sticks works to help long-struggling districts.

“We are excited to see the progress made in some schools around the state to improve student performance, especially for some of those that have persistently struggled,” said Alyssa Pearson, the Colorado Department of Education’s deputy commissioner for accountability and performance, in an email. “These schools and their districts have had a laser-like focus on the needs of students. They have done this through two to three high-leverage priorities around data-driven instruction, leadership development, and culture to better meet the needs of all students. The specific actions vary, depending on the local context and need.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of the process working is the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver. When Pilch arrived in 2015, 10 schools were on the accountability clock, and three of them ultimately required state-approved improvement plans: Prairie Heights Middle Schools, Franklin Middle School, and Martinez Elementary.

Franklin Middle School got off the clock last year, and with this round of ratings, Prairie Heights and Martinez Elementary were also freed from state supervision. Four additional Greeley-Evans schools came off performance watch this year without outside intervention.

Three Greeley-Evans schools, though, will be on the state’s watch list if their ratings don’t change in appeals.

Pilch said the district poured resources and support into the schools that needed to improve and took advantage of state grants for leadership training and other professional development. The district received extensive reviews of what was and wasn’t working within its schools from state evaluators and took those findings seriously in crafting improvement plans.

“The schools that are on priority improvement and turnaround, they’ve been our priority in terms of support and in terms of ensuring the right resources and the right leaders are in place,” Pilch said. “We’ve been very intentional about maintaining and training quality leaders at these schools. We’ve seen fewer leaders turn over.”

Also showing improvement was the Westminster district, which had one more year to make progress on its plan and is now off the clock. Officials there claimed vindication for the district’s competency-based learning model, in which 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.

Results for Aurora schools, where district officials have been using new reforms to intervene in low-performing schools, have been mixed. The district as a whole improved enough to dodge state action last year. This year’s rating stayed at “improvement.”

The school with the most years of bad ratings, Aurora Central High School, failed to improve. The school is already on a state plan for improvement and has a year left to earn a higher rating before it would have to return to face the state again. Previously, state officials essentially blessed a district plan to continue rolling out interventions it was already trying, with extra help from an outside partner. If the school has to return to the state, officials could take more drastic action.

Three schools that had earned the lowest rating of turnaround last year — including Lyn Knoll Elementary — improved. Paris Elementary, which was facing state intervention this year if it didn’t raise it’s Priority Improvement rating, also managed a higher score, to avoid state sanctions.

If final school ratings remain the same, no other Aurora schools this year would be as close to state action. Three schools — Gateway High School, North Middle School and Virginia Court Elementary — would be entering year four, meaning they would have one year to show improvement before being at risk for state intervention.

“Aurora Public Schools continues to see gains and movement in the right direction,” district officials said in an emailed statement. “We have some great momentum that we will continue to build upon. While we recognize that we need to make more improvements at faster rates, we will dig into our data to plan how we will best leverage our strengths and address our challenges.”

District officials said the results from schools in what the district calls its Action Zone – schools that have individual plans for some flexibility from district rules – show the district has the right structure in place to keep improving. However, two schools in that zone, Aurora Central and Boston K-8, did not improve within the state framework and Boston actually earned a lower state rating this year, though it is not on the clock.

The tiny Sheridan district south of Denver, which got off the clock in 2014 after years of effort, was rated in the second-lowest tier, putting the district back on performance watch. Pat Sandos, the new superintendent there, said the news was a hard way to start his tenure, but it also brings a sense of urgency to improving student performance.

“We’re looking at the data really hard and breaking out the content areas,” he said. “We see opportunity for growth with [English-language learners]. It seems like that’s something that’s not just us, but for a lot of at-risk districts.

“Some of the work that we’re already doing is realigning and looking at the curriculum. We’re really focusing hard on that, on establishing a framework that gets teachers focused on what kids need to know at each grade level. And we’re paying a lot of attention to professional development.”

Other schools that got off the clock after facing state intervention include Hope Online Academy Middle School, authorized through the Douglas County school district, Manaugh Elementary School in the Cortez-Montezuma district in southwest Colorado, and Bessemer Elementary School in the Pueblo 60 district.

Two other Pueblo 60 schools still face state supervision: Risley International Academy of Innovation and Heroes Middle School. So does the little Aguilar district in southern Colorado, where the both the district and its joint junior-senior high school have struggled with years of low performance, and Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School.

The ratings will be finalized by December, and schools that have spent six years or more in turnaround or priority improvement status will face new or ongoing state intervention.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson. 

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.