collaboration not confrontation

Colorado shied from taking aggressive action to fix its lowest performing schools. Will it be enough?

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

At historic Aurora Central High School, the last few years have been a trial.

Students have described widespread fights, high truancy rates and a heavy police presence. Academic performance has suffered, with fewer than half of all students graduating on time.

The clock finally ran out on the city’s oldest school this year. After six years of academic struggles, it was time for state education officials to intervene with a plan of action.

State officials could have closed Aurora Central or handed it over to a charter school.

But instead, they chose a far more lenient path — allowing the 2,100-student high school to continue a plan that began a year ago that gives the school more flexibility from the district’s school schedule, curriculum and hiring practices. The school was required to hire a consultant to help execute the plan.

This kind of approach — relatively cautious, devised in close collaboration with local school districts and reliant on outside consultants — sums up Colorado’s strategy this year for trying to turn around five districts and a dozen schools that have persistently struggled since 2010.

This was the first year under Colorado’s current school accountability system that required the state to take such action. The strategy of working collaboratively with school leaders reflects both the power of local control in Colorado and the philosophy of a department that has evolved in recent years from one that is less strong-armed regulatory enforcer and more partner.

Colorado’s approach is part of a growing trend away from aggressive state takeovers that produced mixed results in states such as Tennessee, New Jersey and Michigan.

“States have increasingly recognized that the work of school improvement is hard,” said Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

State takeover of districts and schools was not on the table in Colorado. That’s because Colorado’s constitution puts ultimate control of schools in the hands of local school boards.

State and district officials explained in some cases why more aggressive steps — such as school closure or charter school takeover — weren’t feasible given the circumstances.

But concerns have arisen — including from some members of the State Board of Education, which had the final say on the plans — that Colorado’s efforts may not be drastic enough.

“Will this program work?” Republican board member Steve Durham asked while discussing the plan to improve Westminster Public Schools, a district with more than 9,000 students northwest of Denver. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, said the state gave the schools and districts a pass.

“Nobody is losing their job, no one is forced to hand over a building,” he said. “I just think it’s outrageous and systemic. There were a lot of options — and the state board and CDE decided not to take them.”

No ‘silver bullet’

The 2009 law that created Colorado’s current accountability system gave the state board four options. It could direct schools be closed; turned over to a charter operator; redesigned under the state’s innovation law, which would give the school some flexibility from state law and district policies; or be managed in part or completely by an education management company.

The state also had the option to order a school district with too many low-performing schools to merge with a nearby district with higher test scores — a step officials did not take.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes acknowledged the challenges of choosing a course.

“What kept me up at night was that these are high-stakes decisions that affect real students and teachers and educators in these systems,” she said. “The toughest decision was making a decision, because you know there isn’t one silver bullet and there isn’t one right answer.”

As the state prepared to intervene, it appeared the favored course would be to allow districts and schools to radically redesign under the innovation law. The law allows for freedom in curriculum decisions, different school calendars, and makes it easier to hire and fire teachers.

But state board members and department officials grew worried the struggling schools were in no position to manage those responsibilities on their own.

In three cases, the state board approved a school’s innovation plan on the condition it also contract with a management partner to help put it in place. The state also directed six schools and districts not seeking innovation waivers to contract with an outside group for assistance.

“The state board found (innovation) as a strong option, as there would be some dramatic change,” said Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner, a state education department official who helped shepherd this year’s accountability hearings. “But we also want to make sure” the schools had strong leadership and necessary help putting the plans in place, she said.

While state officials may believe the combination of innovation status and external help could prove fruitful, one observer cautioned that the strategy poses risks.

“Schools often adopt a million different strategies, not recognizing that some of those are incompatible with each other,” said Lorrie Shepard, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “New leaders sometimes want a million of those things. Incoherence is bad, and only adds to the churn and the chaos in schools.”

The amount of authority each management partner will have varies from school to school. The Aguilar School District turned over considerable decision-making power to its partner, Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit organization that works in Denver and New York.

Westminster’s partnership with AdvancED will involve a more traditional consultant role, in which the outside officials will review and make recommendations to the district on how to better see through its unique approach to learning. AdvancEd has accredited the district, and officials told the state they will pull that accreditation if the district doesn’t meet their standards.

In some cases, like with Pueblo City Schools and the Adams 14 School District, the state board pushed for management companies to have more authority than the districts had envisioned.

During the process, department officials said that some options were just not viable.

State documents outlining recommendations for changes to schools and districts said that closing schools was not a good idea, in many cases because a better alternative was not available nearby. Other schools could not absorb such a large number of displaced students.

Turning over schools to charter operators was a nonstarter for many school districts, according to district officials.

Deirdre Pilch, superintendent of the Greeley school district, told the state board during a hearing that high-performing charter networks were not interested in taking over her schools.

Pilch said the former superintendent approached at least one high-performing charter network and was told Greeley’s low student funding wouldn’t support its model. Greeley voters have never approved local property tax increases, known as mill levy overrides, for school funding.

“They are not coming,” said Pilch, whose district does have seven existing charter schools. “So you know what? The work is on us. It is our job to take care of our kids.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, challenged that contention.

“We’ve got charter schools operating all across the state in different districts and they make it work,” Schaller said. He added that “the real question” is whether school districts are willing to share available money with all schools or hold some back from charters.

Board member Durham, at one hearing, cited a lack of time as a barrier to charter schools playing a greater role. He said that by the time the board reviewed options, it was too late to suggest a charter school take over a school program in just a matter of months.

Schaller agreed, and added that charter school operators in Colorado are interested in playing a larger role in the turnaround of low-performing schools.

“It just has to be a much longer-term conversation,” he said.

The education department is considering options to make charter schools part of the mix moving forward. Charters receive tax dollars but are run independently of school districts.

One possibility is the state requesting proposals months in advance from charter groups that would volunteer to take over one or more schools in a certain region.

Working together — and the trouble that brings

In 2010, the Colorado Department of Education began a philosophical shift under the direction of then-commissioner Robert Hammond. The department would be less focused on making sure schools and districts are complying with state law and more focused on supporting their efforts.

That’s a philosophical approach Anthes, the current commissioner, continues to embrace.

“This is a human relationship-driven, complex endeavor,” Anthes said. “I find interacting positively, working toward a common goal, will bring us to a higher quality outcome faster. And that’s my North Star: higher quality outcomes the fastest way possible.”

In an effort to support schools — and avoid the political and emotional conflict typical of school improvement efforts — the department created a grant program for schools and districts to develop their own plan that the state board could endorse.

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14, called the state’s approach a wise decision that his community appreciated.

“Allowing us to choose our own pathway, I thought that was a very important strategy,” Abrego said. “It gave us ownership. They didn’t mandate anything.”

Other states, including Massachusetts and Tennessee, are experimenting with similar approaches, hoping that better involving communities into the school improvement process will yield better results than more heavy-handed takeovers. In both states, however, the education department has considerably more sway over how schools are run compared to Colorado.

The dual role Colorado plays in holding schools accountable and supporting school improvement efforts brings a host of problems, said Jochim, the Washington state-based researcher.

“When you’re charged with holding people accountable, can you also take responsibility for guiding the improvement process?” she said. “It’s tough to tell schools what to do, and when (they) fail you sanction them.”

Anthes said she sees the roles as complementary. She said the education department’s role is to provide guidance and expertise to help school districts complete the work.

“I do have confidence in the process and the plans that were put forward,” she said. “I’m not going to say they’re perfect. But I don’t think any intervention is the perfect solution.”

progress report

Slow progress, many challenges: How Colorado schools on improvement plans are doing

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A new report on Colorado schools operating under state-approved improvement plans shows mixed academic results and slow progress getting all the necessary pieces in place.

State education department officials on Wednesday briefed the State Board of Education on schools and districts halfway through their first year on the plans.

State staff praised Aurora Central High School, noting that leadership in Aurora’s innovation zone and the consultant hired to help are providing good feedback to teachers as they focus in on improvements to the school. The data also show Aurora Central is making “small increases” in academic progress and more significant progress in attendance numbers.

The report also highlights problems that have come up in other schools or districts working on their plans. One example: Administrators in the Aguilar school district realized their language arts curriculum was not aligned to state standards. The report, however, noted that the district “moved immediately to work to adopt new materials,” mid-year with help from its consultant.

Colorado Department of Education

Adams 14 and its high school, Adams City High School, along with three schools from Pueblo City Schools, will be required to return to the state board for an evaluation if they do not earn an “improvement” rating or higher this year. The preliminary ratings will be available in August and finalized later in the fall.

Other schools and districts that were put on state-approved improvement plans last year, including the Westminster district and Aurora Central High School, have until 2019 to show improvements.

State officials are monitoring the progress of the schools and districts through site visits, data reviews, and grants. The state board next will be updated when the preliminary ratings are available.

Officials report that schools and districts are seeing a slower rollout of their plans than expected. In many cases, officials say, schools or districts have not built out the infrastructure and routines required to make their plans work. In other cases, other community issues are distracting educators from the work of the improvement plans.

“There’s some common themes,” Alyssa Pearson, an associate education commissioner, said during the presentation to the board. “But how it plays out… it’s different everywhere.”

Both are true in Adams 14. Community members have criticized the district for changes to recess, parent-teacher conferences, and more. The district has also been slow to learn to use its new school monitoring systems, the report said.

“While progress monitoring data is being collected, it is not routinely analyzed and discussed by school staff,” the state’s report notes. “For example, elementary data meetings are scheduled after school and staff attend on an optional basis.”

The mid-year report also notes that the Adams 14 data does not show the district meeting targets in math or literacy, although the middle schools were noted to be showing the “most consistent growth.”

At Adams City High School, a “lack of a valid interim assessment makes it difficult for the school, district and state to determine overall academic progress in the school” is a problem, the report concludes. According to the report, the district and school “have agreed” to use a valid interim assessment next year.

Read the mid-year progress summaries here:

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that officials in the Aguilar school district discovered the problem with their language arts curriculum on their own, rather than state officials notifying them.

learning curve

Westminster school will reopen as a Marzano lab school ‘to take on problems we haven’t solved yet’

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

An extended day and school year, new extracurricular activities including martial arts and lacrosse, and new uniforms are all part of what students can expect at a new Westminster school this fall.

The district plans to close Flynn Elementary School in north Westminster and re-open it as a Marzano Academy, only the second school in the country designed by local education researcher Robert Marzano. This is part of the district’s improvement plan approved by the state last year as it tries to change years of low performance.

The board of education for Westminster Public Schools Tuesday night approved the closure of Flynn Elementary along with an innovation plan to reopen the school as a Marzano Academy.

Flynn Elementary, near the corner of 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, currently serves about 275 students of which 75 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty. The school’s teachers will lose their jobs, but students will automatically be re-enrolled to stay in the building when the school reopens in the fall.

The Marzano Academy model will be used to help the school’s teachers — and others across the district — improve their use of the district’s competency-based learning model. It’s an approach that calls for students to be grouped and to advance based on what they have proved they learned, not based on their age or how long they’ve been in one grade level.

Westminster schools have been using the model for about seven years, but the majority of the district’s students have not performed well on annual state ratings. District officials have argued that the state’s way of testing students isn’t fairly tracking their progress, but state officials haven’t excused the district. Now after years of low ratings from the state, the district is on a timeline to show students making improvements, or it could face more action from the state.

District officials worked with Marzano this year to write the school’s innovation plan which details a five-level framework for high quality that starts with creating a safe culture.

The plan was not made public until after the board vote Tuesday night. In it, there are details about the school’s plan to personalize learning, including requiring that every student complete a project every year. There are also specifics about teacher coaching and evaluation.

The Marzano Academy will be run as a lab school where teachers will be coached on using the best strategies to teach students so they can then model those strategies for other educators in the district or across the country. Marzano said being a lab school also means studying problems.

“The lab part is to take on problems we haven’t solved yet such as how do you teach kids at a developmentally appropriate level but make sure on some external test they are performing well,” Marzano said. “There’s no easy answer to that. There will be some very interesting things to discover.”

The school will open as a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school, just as it is now, and will expand to include sixth through eighth grades, or levels as they are called in the district, in fall of 2019. This fall, all students currently at Flynn will be automatically enrolled to stay at the school when it opens as the Marzano Academy, but in the future, the school will no longer be a neighborhood-boundary school.

Principal Brian Kosena said that even though the school will become an open enrollment school without boundaries, students will not be hand-picked, although there will be caps on the number of students accepted each year.

“The idea of these research-based practices are that they should make a difference no matter what school or student population you serve,” Kosena said. “It benefits us, and it benefits Marzano if the school represents the neighborhood that the school is in. We want to maintain a neighborhood feel.”

The school is seeking to open as an innovation school to allow it to be free from laws and rules created for the traditional education model, according to the plan. The status must next be approved by the State Board of Education.

“Currently, local policies limiting the length of the school year, the school day, and school choice are all barriers to realizing the full potential of the plan,” the document states. “State regulations and policies regarding teacher qualifications currently prohibit or limit the use of otherwise competent individuals in the teaching process.”

Colorado’s innovation law, which grants schools flexibility from state laws, and district or union rules, states that as part of the process to convert a school into an innovation school, staff must vote and a majority must approve the plan. But in this case, because the current school — Flynn Elementary — will close, and because the Marzano Academy will open in the fall as a new school, no staff vote will be required.

Denver Public Schools followed a similar process between 2010 and 2012. The local teachers union sued the district, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the district and stated that the process was allowed.

All teachers currently at Flynn Elementary will be out of a job at the end of this school year. Those who want to work at the school when it reopens as a Marzano Academy must apply for positions. District officials say the current Flynn teachers will be guaranteed an interview, but will not have any other preference in the hiring process.

Asked if teachers will be placed in other district schools if they aren’t hired at Marzano, Kirk Leday, the district’s chief of staff and human resources director said in a statement, “We are confident that all of our non-probationary teachers will secure a position in our district for next year.”

Read the full innovation plan: