Two full days

State Board agenda packed with hot-button issues

It seems that every contentious education issue of the day has a spot on the State Board of Education’s agenda for the two-day meeting that starts Wednesday.

The seven-member board is known for full agendas at its monthly sessions. But the February meeting is especially crowded, including such issues as testing, the state’s waiver from NCLB requirements, opting out of the Common Core State Standards, future state graduation guidelines, and parents’ rights to opt out of testing. There’s even a briefing on math standards, which have been a sore point for some Common Core critics.

Most of the issues are labeled as “information items,” meaning the board will be briefed and likely have a discussion but won’t take any action.

But the two new members who joined the board last month have added an element of unpredictability to the group’s deliberations, heightening interest in what individual members have to say on key issues.

The new board produced a surprise at its Jan. 8 meeting when it voted 4-3 for a resolution instructing education Commissioner Robert Hammond to grant waivers to districts that requested exemptions from the first part of CMAS/PARCC language arts and math tests, due to be given starting next month.

The motion was made by new GOP member Steve Durham of Colorado Springs and supported by two other Republicans plus Democrat Valentina Flores of Denver, the other new member (see story).

Since then 18 districts, including Douglas and Jefferson counties, have applied for waivers. But more important, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has issued a formal opinion concluding that neither the board nor the Department of Education have legal authority to grant such waivers.

Deciding what to do about the waiver applications is on the agenda for Wednesday morning. In light of the attorney general’s opinion, the department is recommending the requests be denied.

“I don’t have a lot of answers about how it’s going to go,”said board chair Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction.. “What the response will be from individual board members is unknown.”

The rest of the agenda

Here’s a look at the other issues the board will be talking about this week.

More testing – Significant numbers of seniors in some districts boycotted science and math tests last fall, raising concerns about opting out during the main testing season this spring. Under federal and state requirements districts face reductions in accreditation ratings if fewer than 95 percent of students are tested. The board will be briefed on that issue Thursday (see the slide show members will view).

Proposed resolutions on parents’ rights to withdraw from testing and in support of teaching social studies (testing isn’t mentioned) will be presented. Votes, if any, won’t come until March.

Common Core withdrawal – A majority of the board supports pulling out of the Common Core standards. But, like testing waivers, that may be easier talked about than accomplished. On Thursday the board will be briefed on the issue. An informal opinion from one member of the attorney general’s staff outlines the procedure, and the document basically concludes it can’t be done without legislative action.

NCLB waiver – Colorado currently has a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that gives it flexibility in rating districts and schools and in use of federal funds for the most struggling schools. That waiver needs to be renewed, and the state has to file its paperwork by March 31. The board will get an update Wednesday; see this document for details.

Graduation guidelines – Since 2008 the state has been working on high school graduation guidelines, a system that won’t go into effect until 2017-18. (The state can’t impose graduation requirements because the Colorado constitution gives local school boards final control of instruction.) A recent story in The Denver Post raised the issue of possibly watering down the proposed guidelines, so the issue has taken a higher profile. The board will have a study session on the guidelines Thursday, using this document.

New math – The board will have a “learning session” Wednesday on Colorado’s math standards, with CDE staff trying to explain how and why the standards seek to teach kids how to both get the right answers and also understand why those answers are correct. (Here’s the staff presentation.)

On top of all these issues, the board has the usual long list of other business, including a charter school appeal, rule-making hearings, and various procedural matters – plus time for public comment. Over the last year public comment sessions have been a lively forum, primarily for critics of testing and Common Core.

If board members were paid – and they’re not – they’d earn their money this week.

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.

Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school chief, said the report should motivate the district to ensure students are graduating at higher numbers, and are college ready when they leave high school.

“We are focused on creating a college going culture in our high schools by expanding accelerating programs, such as IB, dual enrollment, AP, and Early College,” he said. “We have already expanded SAT preparation during the school day and intend to offer classes within the schedule for this focus with 10th graders next year.”

Focusing on strengthening basic skills among elementary and middle school students also will better prepare them for college after graduation, Vitti said.

“Most importantly, if we teach the Common Core standards with fidelity and a stronger aligned curriculum, which we will next year at the K-8 level for reading and math, our students will be exposed to college ready skills and knowledge,” he added. “We look forward to demonstrating the true and untapped talent of our students in the years to come.”

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates for all Michigan high schools.