ratings and consequences

Five low-performing Colorado school districts on track for sanctions after state releases quality ratings

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Five Colorado school districts face the unprecedented prospect of state sanctions and three were spared that fate according to final state school district quality ratings released Thursday.

The ratings from the Colorado Department of Education are the first since the state made a switch in assessments designed to measure student learning in English and math. The ratings are also the first to be released since a growing number of families began opting their children out of the tests, driving down many districts’ participation rates and complicating state officials’ efforts to rate them.

The five districts that failed to improve student learning enough during the last six years and now face state action are a mix of suburban and rural: Westminster Public Schools, Adams 14 School District, Aguilar Reorganized, Montezuma-Cortez and Julesburg RE-1.

Those districts have one more chance to appeal to the State Board of Education for a higher rating, which could halt the sanction process. Such an appeal has never been granted.

The sanctions could come as soon as February. Among the state board’s options for the five school districts: close schools, turn some over to a charter authorizer, or direct the district to reorganize and turn over some operations such as teacher training to a third party.

Both Adams 14 and Westminster asked for the state to reconsider their ratings before finalizing them. But both those bids fell short. State officials concluded that Adams 14 neither improved enough nor provided sufficient data, and district officials say they will not appeal.

In Westminster’s case, the state said the district could claim some promising data but not enough to lift its rating. District officials also contended the state accountability system doesn’t adequately take into account the way it groups students not by age but by what they know. District officials told Chalkbeat they plan to appeal.

The three districts that beat the state’s so-called “accountability clock” and escaped sanctions were Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and Ignacio. The three districts learned they had made enough improvement earlier this fall, and the final ratings make it official.

Overall, more than two-thirds of the state’s districts were awarded one of the state’s top two ratings. Another five districts ranked in the bottom two.

More than half of the state’s 184 school districts and other agencies that get ratings — including the Charter School Institute, the state’s charter school authorizer — have similar ratings compared to 2014, when the ratings were last issued. Forty districts saw a rating increase, while 33 districts dropped at least one level.

Meanwhile, 13 mostly small rural districts effectively have no rating because too few students in those districts took the state’s tests.

The ratings come almost four months since the state released the second round of results from PARCC exams.

The ratings rely heavily on results from the PARCC English and math tests students in grades three through nine take each spring. Other factors that contribute to a district’s rating include how well high school juniors scored on the ACT and how many students graduate or drop out.

Under the system, which was created by the General Assembly in 2009, districts that fall in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face sanctions. This year marks the first year the State Board of Education must take action on districts that have crossed that threshold.

In the past, the department has issued districts one of five ratings: “distinction” being the highest and “turnaround” being the lowest. This year, in response to the state’s growing movement of parents opting their students out of state standardized tests, the department developed a sixth rating: “insufficient state data, low participation.”

The department is also clearly labeling districts that had enough data to get ranked but fewer than 95 percent of students take the PARCC exams.

State and federal law require schools to test 95 percent of their students in an effort to ensure schools don’t exclude groups of students such as English language learners or students with special needs.

However, state lawmakers, reacting to pressure from parents and activists, tweaked the law in 2015: Students who are excused from the tests aren’t counted as either participants or nonparticipants. As a result, the state changed the way it calculates a district’s participation rate so districts are only held responsible for testing students who are not excused by their parents.

The resistance to standardized testing and the changes to the law “created some interesting situations,” said Alyssa Pearson, the department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

“We need direction from policy makers,” Pearson said, noting the state’s rating system was created in 2009, a time when nearly every student took the state’s standardized tests. “This year, we did what made sense to us.”

When the state released its preliminary ratings earlier this fall, dozens of districts had their ratings lowered manually by the department because they failed to meet the 95 percent participation rate and did not provide evidence that parents had pulled their kids from testing.

The department received a record number of requests from districts to up their ratings. Mosts of those requests were granted because data coding errors led to a lower preliminary rating.

Ultimately, three districts had a rating lowered due to low participation — the first time the state has made such a move. Another 89 districts did not have their ratings lowered but were flagged for low participation.

One of those districts that was flagged for low participation was Boulder Valley, which had a “distinction” rating in 2014 but earned an “accredited with low participation” rating this year. An epicenter for the opt-out movement, Boulder had not a single grade meet the 95 percent participation requirement.

Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent, said the district’s performance is not being accurately captured because so many students opted out.

“I’m not pleased that accreditation would be impacted by the participation rate,” said Bruce Messinger, the district’s superintendent. “We have a conflict in the state of Colorado over the relationship between accreditation and participation. That needs to be resolved, and I’m sure it will be over time.”

“We have no reason to believe the performance on the test, on those that were reported, reflect our school district,” he added. “Statistically there is no way anyone could jump to that conclusion.”

The state’s third largest school district and another opt-out hotbed, the Douglas County School District, also saw its rating drop since 2014 and was flagged for low participation. However, leaders there seem unfazed.

“We recognize the impact that low participation rates in state-mandated assessments have on accreditation ratings,” Interim Superintendent Erin Kane said in a statement. “However, we honor parental choice and will continue to do so.”

The state is expected to release school ratings at the state board’s January meeting.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.

Future of Schools

Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Anna Chaney is a parent at School 14, which will be restarted as an innovation school.

Anna Chaney didn’t expect to love School 14. She only sent her daughter because her family became homeless and it was the neighborhood school for their shelter.

But the school soon became an important part of their lives. It has a close-knit community, she said, and there is an abundance of help for families, such as a food pantry, after-school programs, and Christmas gifts.

“Once I was on my feet and able to leave the shelter, we made sure to find a house that was in the boundary,” she said.

But last year, Chaney and other parents at the school got a painful shock: After years of low test scores, Indianapolis Public Schools was considering taking drastic action at School 14 by restarting it as an innovation school. Under the plan, which was approved by the school board last week, the school will be managed by a charter operator, with a new principal, and the teachers will likely be replaced — a seismic shift for a school that has long been a place of stability for students living with instability at home.

School 14, which is also known as Washington Irving, has gotten several failing grades, with a brief period of D grades, over the last six years. But many of its parents were nonetheless surprised that the school had struggled on state tests for years.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think their school was broken,” said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, a nearby community center that works with many families at the school. “From a parents’ perspective, it felt like it was a stable environment that people wanted to have their children in.”

By restarting School 14, Indianapolis Public Schools is betting that the potential for improved test scores outweighs the risk of compromising the supportive role the school has played for families.

“We value consistency but at the same time, we are obligated and responsible for academic excellence,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “We are not getting the results from the school in terms of performance. It’s one of those situations where we clearly need to go in a different direction.”

For parents at the school, the situation is more complicated. Chaney, for one, said that she was probably blinded to low test scores by everything else the school offered her family, and she now favors the restart.

“We love that school so much that we were kind of scared to step up and say, ‘yeah, we need to change some stuff,’ ” said Chaney, a member of the parent organizing group Stand for Children, which has supported many innovation school conversations.

School 14, a striking brick facade that stands out from the residences surrounding it on the near eastside, sits at a crossroads of Indianapolis’ wealth and poverty. With a boundary that stretches across vast swaths of downtown, its neighborhood includes the picturesque houses of Chatham-Arch and Woodruff Place — and some of the city’s homeless shelters, including the Julian Center and the Salvation Army Shelter for Women and Children.

While affluent families in the city’s downtown often choose magnet and private schools, School 14 has long served many homeless students, at least one time having the largest proportion in the city.

Last year, the school enrolled 456 elementary school students, and it served more children living in shelters — 14 students — than any other school in the district. (The school is expanding to 8th grade.) Federal law requires public schools to continue busing students to their old school if they become homeless, and nearly every school in the district educates some homeless children. There were several campuses with higher overall rates of homelessness, which includes students who were forced to move in with friends or relatives or live in hotels.

But while the challenges at School 14 are not unique, advocates and families say it has been shaped by its unusually transient population, and it has become a hub to connect local nonprofits with families.

When Ebony Turner, who has a 4th grader at the school, was laid off, she would often stop by School 14 to use the computers to look for work, and it was a staffer at the school who helped her find a job as a teaching assistant. “They have helped me tremendously,” said Turner, adding that staff at the school always advocate for what’s best for students.

With the district’s new plan for the school, it could be a radically different place next fall. The board voted last week for the campus to be converted to an innovation school managed by URBAN ACT Academy, a new charter school founded by Nigena Livingston.

As an innovation school, School 14 will still be considered part of the district. But the school will be operated by Livingston without daily oversight from the district. In the four years since the state created innovation schools, Indianapolis Public Schools has restarted four struggling schools with innovation partners. Most of those schools have seen improvements in test scores.

Livingston, who has been an educator for over 15 years, moved to Indianapolis in 2016 after she won a fellowship from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has supported many of the innovation schools in the district. She plans to use “place-based learning” at School 14, a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

When students are struggling, parents, educators, and community groups need to come together to support them, said Livingston.

“These are all of our students and we are all responsible for student outcomes,” said Livingston. “We are all working together.”

Since Livingston was chosen as a potential operator for School 14, she has won support from many of the community partners and parents at the school. Taylor of the Boner Centers said that he believed her vision for the school and her focus on place-based learning could help stitch the school into the community.

But the plan to restart the school has also inspired resistance.

School board member Elizabeth Gore, who voted against the proposal last week, said the district could have improved the school by giving it more support.

“Using outside partners is one way, but not the only answer when we have a good core of principals and staff to work on our own to restore the academic quality,” she said.

Several parents at School 14 — some supporting the restart and some opposing it — seemed to share many of the same concerns about the plan. They said the school would benefit from newer technology, and they would be happy to see a new curriculum. But they also said they would like some current teachers to remain.

When the school restarts, however, many of the teachers will likely leave. Teachers at innovation are employed by the operator rather than the district. In order for current teachers from School 14 to remain at the school, they will need to apply for positions with URBAN ACT Academy. If Livingston hires them, they will be giving up their contracts with the district, and the protections of their union membership.

Because the staff and parents learned in the fall that School 14 would likely be restarted, educators there have already been in limbo for months.

“There has to be a better way,” said Judith Fleurimond, a parent of two children at the school and a member of Stand. “Teachers are important. A teacher who has worked at a school for that many years shouldn’t have to just get up and pack and leave.”