Who Is In Charge

Seeking state-local balance on evaluations

A central issue in Colorado’s year-old educator effectiveness law – the amount of flexibility school districts should have in evaluating teachers – was at the forefront Wednesday as the State Board of Education discussed rules for implementing the law.

The board got its first formal look at the 30 pages of draft regulations for implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the educator effectiveness law that requires annual evaluations of principals and teachers, basing 50 percent of evaluations on student growth and removing teachers from non-probationary status if they receive two ineffective evaluations.

“This is an exciting day, an historic day,” noted Deputy Commissioner Diana Sirko.

A key issue in the draft regulations is whether districts should opt in or opt out of the model system to be developed by the state. The draft rules were prepared by Department of Education staff and are based on the recommendations of the State Council for Educator Effectiveness.

Teacher evaluationCDE is recommending that each district “shall implement the state model system” unless a district has developed its own system that meets requirements set by the department.

Sirko said a district “can use their own system; they just need to clearly demonstrate how it aligns” with state requirements.

“I think you’ve arrived at a very appropriate compromise,” said board member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District.

But Michelle Murphy, a lawyer who works for the Colorado Association of School Boards, told the board that requiring an opt-out evaluation system “is an issue of real concern for CASB.”

She argued that state law assigns different roles to CDE and to districts, with the state responsible for creating an overall framework for educator evaluations and districts allowed to design evaluation systems that meet their individual needs.

“There’s a critical difference between guidance … and technical requirements” issued by the state, Murphy said. She added that CASB feels an opt-out model system “clearly seems to exceed the authority granted by the legislature. … We’re not a one-size-fits all state.

“The local districts, the local communities need to have the right to develop their own systems.”

Berman said she didn’t quite see the problem Murphy was raising, saying districts are “asking, they’re begging for a model they can adopt.”

District flexibility has been an issue since the legislature was debating the effectiveness bill during the 2010 session. While school districts have a substantial measure of local control under the state constitution, one goal of the effectiveness law is to create a system of evaluations that would measure teacher effectiveness in comparable ways district to district. The hope is that a district would be assured a teacher was truly “highly effective” or “effective” when hiring that person from another district.

CASB has supported the effectiveness law since it was being debated in the legislature. But, as the association did raise concerns about local flexibility during the deliberations of the effectiveness council over the last year.

The proposed regulations cover several broad areas: definitions of effectiveness, quality standards and performance ratings for principals and for teachers, duties of local districts, CDE duties and the role of students and parents in evaluation. The regulations eventually will contain rules for evaluation of other licensed professionals (counselors, librarians, etc.), but language hasn’t yet been drafted on that subject.

In addition to the local control question, some other key issues facing the board include exactly how to define the first teacher quality standard, which requires teachers demonstrate knowledge of the content they teach; the specific definition of student growth and how districts will be permitted to measure it, and how CDE will monitor districts’ compliance with the law.

The proposed rules contain the four levels of principal and teacher effectiveness recommended by the council: Ineffective, partially effective, effective and highly effective.

Paula Noonan, a Jefferson County board member who testified Wednesday, suggested that the state board might want to consider at least five levels, to make the system easier to use for districts that want to tie evaluation to compensation. She said that’s Jeffco’s intention.

Here’s a look at some other provisions in the rules:

  • Probationary teachers would receive at least two observations and one written evaluation a year.
  • Written evaluations would have to be presented to employees no later than two weeks before the end of the school year.
  • Every principal would have a professional performance plan.
  • Districts would be required to set up Advisory Personnel Performance Evaluation Councils made up of administrators, teachers and citizens. District and school accountability committees would also have advisory roles in the new system.
  • Evaluators would have to have training, and teachers could serve as evaluators.
  • Districts would be “encouraged” to involve parents in their evaluation systems and “encouraged … when appropriate” to use student survey data as part of the “multiple measures” of effectiveness that will be used to evaluate teachers.

Charter schools, for the most part, would be exempt from the law, which applies to licensed teachers. Charters don’t have to hire licensed teachers, but Sirko said schools probably will have to detail in their charters how they are meeting the intent of the effectiveness law.

Some major elements of the new evaluation structure remain to be fleshed out, including detailed evaluation scoring systems, an appeals process for teachers who receive “ineffective” ratings and the system for measuring student growth in subjects that aren’t included in the CSAP tests.

Some of those things will be fleshed out based on what happens during a pilot period, when evaluation system trial runs will be held in about half a dozen districts. That process starts this fall and runs through July 2013.

The state board is required to issue final regulations this autumn, and they will be reviewed by the legislature early in 2012.

DPS innovation plans approved

The state board unanimously approved innovation status for three Denver schools, including High Tech Early College, Collegiate Prep Academy and the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning at Wyman. The first two schools are part of the district’s reorganization effort in Far Northeast Denver.

The three innovation applications were approved by DPS board May 19 on split votes.

The three schools approved Wednesday, as well as three others approved earlier this spring, are controversial because of the issue of faculty involvement in innovation applications. The state innovation law requires majority faculty sign-off on an innovation application. But, because these schools are new and don’t have existing faculties, there have been no votes. Instead, teachers applying for jobs at the schools have been informed of the innovation plans and told accepting them is a requirement for being hired.

The Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association has said it plans to file a lawsuit challenging those innovation designations.

Among other things, innovation status gives schools freedom from various personnel rules and procedures, greater control over budgets and freedom to choose curriculums.

Hope Online wins two appeals

Elaine Gantz Berman
State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz-Berman, D-1st District.
The state board voted 4-3 to grant two appeals by the Hope Online charter system. Hope, which is supervised by the Douglas County schools, sought to force the Eaton and Harrison schools districts to sign memoranda of understanding with it.

Hope operates brick-and-mortar “learning centers” as part of its online program, but state law requires school districts where learning centers are located to have the MOUs with online schools. Eaton and Harrison had declined to sign understandings with Hope.

The board votes require the two districts to negotiate such memos with Hope.

The vote split on partisan lines, with Republicans Bob Schaffer, 4th District; Marcia Neal, 3rd District; Debora Scheffel, 6th District, and Paul Lundeen, 5th District, voting for Hope. Democrats Berman, Jane Goff, 7th District, and Angelika Schroeder, 2nd District, voted no.

Berman said she voted no because of concerns about the academic quality of Hope. “I’m not in favor of poor quality online programs.”

Associate Commissioner Rich Wenning acknowledged that “we have a challenge” with the student growth scores of all online programs in the state and that “Hope is probably in the middle of the pack.”

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.


Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”