Who Is In Charge

House Ed puts CDE on hot seat

Members of the House Education Committee spent a free-wheeling 90 minutes Monday afternoon raising questions about – and criticizing parts of – Department of Education plans for future state tests and for implementing the educator evaluation law.

Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster
Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster
A top CDE official, summoned by the department lobbyist, had to hustle across East Colfax Avenue to the Capitol and take the witness chair to answer committee questions in the middle of the meeting.

The discussion is by no means over and could resume as early as Wednesday.

The unusual session was sparked, at least indirectly, by the SMART Government Act, a new law that allows all legislative committees to make recommendations to the Joint Budget Committee about the budgets of relevant state departments. (So the two education committees can make recommendations about the departments of education and higher education, and other committees make them for other agencies.)

The agenda for Monday afternoon’s House Ed meeting was devoted solely to that SMART Act assignment, prompting a free-form discussion and complaint session of the kind that usually doesn’t happen during a normal committee meeting, when members have bills to consider and parliamentary procedure to follow.

Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, opened by telling his colleagues they were “under no obligation” to make formal recommendations. “We can just punt this back to the JBC and tell them to take care of it.”

Panel members took him at his word – no formal motions were offered – but the chatter made clear what some members think about two key issues – the $25.9 million cost of designing a new state testing system and $7.7 million in proposed spending for implementing the new educator effectiveness and evaluation system.

Part of the discomfort is sparked by the fact that the executive branch is sending mixed signals on those two issues. The State Board of Education and CDE have asked for the $25.9 million, but Gov. John Hickenlooper doesn’t want to spend the money. The governor, in turn, asked for the $7.7 million. But that wasn’t part of CDE’s formal 2012-13 request, although the department supports Hickenlooper.

“Those interested persons should get together,” said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and a longtime critic of the state testing system. “I think there needs to be more discussion” within the executive branch.

Other committee members agreed with her, but Massey noted gently that the costs and timing of multi-state tests, the alternative to buying a Colorado-only set of tests, are unknown.

The discussion detoured into a round of test bashing before Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, took aim at the $7.7 million request for implementation of the education evaluation system.

(To add to the confusion, there are various amounts of money in play here. CDE wants about $425,000 in 2012-13 to continue paying current staffers who are working on the program. There’s Hickenlooper’s $7.7 million ask. And the state recently won a $17.9 million federal Race to the Top grant that will be split between CDE and school districts to help implement the evaluation system.)

“The money is really beyond what’s necessary,” said Ramirez, citing his experience as a corporate trainer to stress the project could be done for a lot less money. “I just really think they’re going about it the wrong way.”

“There’s got to be more discussion about the cost of implementing,” chimed in Solano.

“Just because we got the [R2T] money it doesn’t mean we have to spend it all,” Ramirez said.

Jill Hawley, Colorado Department of Education
Jill Hawley, Colorado Department of Education
After about half an hour of this, Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, interjected to say, “I just feel like we need to hear from CDE to defend themselves.”

CDE lobbyist Anne Barkis, cell phone in hand, left the room, and 10 minutes late Jill Hawley, department policy chief, showed up with her arms full of binders and settled in at the witness table.

“At this point we’ll let Miss Hawley be grilled,” said a smiling Massey.

Hawley, composed and smiling herself, launched into a detailed explanation of how the R2T money will be used for creating key elements of the evaluation system that can be used by districts. The $7.7 million will be needed for outreach to and training in school districts, she said.

Ramirez listened intently but didn’t seem convinced. He said the funding was “a lot of top-heavy money in terms of directors, executive directors and office space. … This can be done a lot less expensively,” throwing out an estimate of $700,000.

“It’s complicated,” Hawley offered.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County and a former superintendent there, said, “The implementation is a huge cultural shift” for schools, “So I’m not surprised it’s going to take time and money.”

The back-and-forth continued with a discussion about whether the legislature was uninformed or misinformed about costs when it passed SB 10-191, but Hawley finally was able to escape after about 45 minutes of grilling.

“Thank you for jumping into the fire,” said Hamner.

Things may warm up again on Wednesday morning, when the House and Senate education committees have a previously scheduled session with CDE leaders to talk about implementation of various recent reform initiatives.

That session will be followed later in the morning when the two committees are scheduled to meet with JBC members to talk about the SMART Act.

Members of Senate Education had their own problems with the SMART Act and testing costs at a meeting late last week (see item).

Although the budget requests from the Hickenlooper administration and CDE have been public since last Nov. 1, and the department has provide extensive briefing papers about its plans, Monday’s meeting made clear that the department has a more to do to bring lawmakers up to speed.

For the record

Speaking of the educator effectiveness law, the House Monday gave 64-1 final approval to House Bill 12-1001, which ratifies the regulations issued by the state board to implement SB 10-191. The bill has generated zero controversy in the legislature. The only no vote was Rep. Ed Casso, D-Adams County.

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.”