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.”

Engaging parents

No more parent-teacher conferences: Why one Colorado school district is going with an online data system instead

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

A school district north of Denver is doing away with the traditional parent-teacher conferences this year, instead urging parents to log in to a website to find out how their children are doing.

The Commerce-City based Adams 14 school district says it made the change in an effort to squeeze in as much instructional time as possible. The 7,500-student district — where almost half the students are English language learners and about 85 percent qualify for subsidized lunches — has long struggled academically and is under a state-ordered improvement plan.

Frustrated parents and teachers, however, said in interviews with Chalkbeat that the new online system is either confusing or incomplete and can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

“Teachers would tell me at conferences what I needed to help my son with, they would tell me how he was behaving and everything they did in class, like what they were studying,” said Carolina Rosales, a mother of two elementary school kids. “The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?”

The system the district introduced this year is called Infinite Campus, a commonly used parent portal program in schools. In addition to weekly grades, parents who log in can get information about specific assignments and attendance, district officials said. The site can be accessed on a computer or smartphone.

“What we know is that the information available to a parent through the parent portal is much more robust than what they were able to get through a parent-teacher conference,” said Janelle Asmus, the spokeswoman for Adams 14. “We believe this is going to be better over time.”

Asmus said there are 1,267 accounts for parents on the district’s Infinite Campus system. Officials believe there may be others who are using alternate names that the district can’t track.

District-wide, parents did not receive information about the elimination of conferences and the switch to the online system. Many parents said they found out through word-of-mouth, as they started asking why conferences hadn’t been scheduled.

Asmus said that if parents are concerned about not getting face time, they can still reach out to teachers and ask to meet with them.

Elementary school teacher Jodi Connelly, who is also a union representative at her school, said that she’s had several parents this year asking to talk to her before or after school.

“They want to have that conversation with a teacher, but it doesn’t replace the actual conference,” Connelly said. “My Spanish is OK, but not great, so I have to take time to find someone to have a phone call with me.”

Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union, said teachers are stuck trying to find time on their own to talk with parents, often after hours when they aren’t being paid. Teachers and union leadership want the district to continue parent-teacher conferences, she said.

“All the teachers are really frustrated,” McDowell said. “We want to meet with parents. We send texts. We call. We try to have conversations. But at the same time, teachers know if they start doing it, it’ll just be expected of them.”

The district says it doesn’t have data on how many parents in Adams 14 attended conferences when the district held them. Asmus, however, said many times teachers were spending hours preparing for conferences only to sit waiting for parents who didn’t show.

Connelly said her records show 98 percent of families attended conferences in her classroom last year. McDowell, a teacher at Kearney Middle School, said participation does drop in higher grades. But she stressed the need for conferences, citing an example from a conference she had last year.

One of her students was having issues and hurting herself, and in talking with the student’s parents, Connelly was able to help. This year, the student “is doing great things,” she said.

“It’s powerful when we know there’s communication back and forth,” McDowell said.

The district is rolling out several changes this year as part of their plan to improve its state rating, including new district observations of schools and using a consultant to help train teachers and provide curriculum resources.

Several other metro area districts have used Infinite Campus for years, and still schedule parent-teacher conferences. But using the system is an adjustment for teachers, district officials say, and they wanted to free teachers from another responsibility.

“We aren’t like all the other districts,” Asmus said. “They aren’t in turnaround. They aren’t having to make the changes we’re trying to make in an expeditious manner. People can only take so much change in one year.”

On Aug. 11, before the school year started, the district did designate a “parent-engagement day” where principals could choose activities to better involve parents.

At least one school used the August day to teach parents how to use Infinite Campus. Other schools held a more traditional back-to-school day. The next one is set for Jan. 9.

The district also has been trying to build parent engagement by increasing the number of home visits teachers do each year.

Teachers and experts say those are helpful in building relationships with parents. But because teachers aren’t supposed to talk during home visits about a child’s academics or school behavior, it doesn’t replace the value of a conference, they say.

Across the country, a handful of school districts have tried eliminating parent-teacher conferences. But experts say that even if parent-teacher conferences aren’t the best way to fully engage parents, doing away with them eliminates an important communication point.

“Generally speaking, everyone believes parents need an opportunity to meet with their child’s teacher,” said Steven Sheldon, a research scientist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “I personally find this policy decision troubling. I feel like it is creating greater distance between the schools and the families that they’re serving and they’re really putting the onus on parents to get all the information.”

Sheldon said research on parent teacher conferences as a way of engaging parents is limited, but plenty of research exists about online parent portals.

“What researchers have found is people who are using parent portals tend to be the more highly educated or more affluent families,” Sheldon said. “Often times portals can be a greater source of inequities. Families with poor or no access to the internet are cut off from that information.”

The rollout of the Infinite Campus system could create inequity in another way.

This year, the system is only producing report cards in English. The district, under a federal order to better serve students and families who are not native English speakers, let each school create its own cover sheet to send with the report cards giving parents information on how they could request a translator or an explanation of the report card if they needed it.

Asmus said the system will be updated over time so report cards can be produced in other languages.

The language barrier is also one reason some parents want a face-to-face conference with their child’s teacher.

Guadalupe Castro, a mother of a student at Adams City High School, said she has not been able to meet this year with any of her child’s teachers, or with the school principal. She has an account with Infinite Campus, but hasn’t actively used it.

“I don’t understand it,” Castro said. “There’s a language barrier, so for me it’s more comfortable to talk in person. My thought is that it was the only space we really used to find out how our kids were doing. And most of all, for me it was about building that trust with the teacher so that I could collaborate with them and they could get to know me and know that I’m accessible to support them.”

District officials say they are gathering feedback now on the change, but Castro said she wished they had asked parents about it before.

“No one asked me if I agreed with this or not,” she said.

Some improvements

Aurora Public Schools improves enough to dodge state action, mixed results elsewhere in new preliminary state ratings

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has improved enough to pull itself off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance, according to preliminary state ratings made public Wednesday.

The district of about 40,000 students was staring at state intervention if it didn’t move the needle enough. Last year marked the first time Colorado schools and districts faced such a fate under the current accountability law, and Aurora would have been the largest district on a state-ordered plan.

The district saved itself by earning a state rating of “improvement,” no longer in the bottom two categories of performance.

“We’re excited about our momentum,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Colorado Department of Education

Improvements to Aurora’s state test scores and its high school graduation rate helped move the district’s rating up. Munn credited work in the district helping teachers align their instruction to state standards, and focusing on individual students.

“It’s the culture that says we need to make sure we recognize and identify where our kids are,” Munn said.

No district faces state sanctions for too many consecutive years of low ratings, but a handful of schools might based on the preliminary ratings. Some of the schools are alternative education schools, which won’t get their preliminary ratings until next month.

Schools that may face state intervention if preliminary ratings don’t change

  • Martinez Elementary School, Greeley
  • Manaugh Elementary School, Montezuma-Cortez
  • EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School, Douglas

Last year, five districts and a dozen schools were the first to reach the end of the rope and faced state action in the spring. State officials could have closed schools, turned them over to charters or merged districts. But they used a lighter hand, working with local educators to create improvement plans.

Those districts and schools are now on two- and three-year deadlines to improve or face possible additional consequences.

Their performance in year one, based on Wednesday’s preliminary ratings, was mixed. One district, Julesburg, already improved as much as it needed to under its state plan.

“People are doing the work, and it takes time to do the work,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

The Commerce City-based school district Adams 14 is already celebrating a step in the right direction toward meeting its improvement goal on time.

Adams 14 moved up one level in rating categories from “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, to “turnaround on priority improvement.” Ten of its 11 schools saw improved ratings from last year. One school, Kearney Middle School, is now the first in the district with a “performance” rating — the highest rating possible for a school.

“We’re just very happy and motivated,” Superintendent Javier Abrego said.

Kearney’s principal told students at a celebration Wednesday morning that they now have to work even harder and asked students to listen to their teachers.

“You know what’s harder than getting to the top?” Principal Veronica Jeffers asked. “It’s staying there.”

Westminster Public Schools as a district made small improvements, earning 41.5 percent of points this year, up from 40 percent last year. That was not quite enough to move up in ratings, but just a few points away from an improvement rating that is the the district’s goal in its state-ordered plan.

Districts have until Oct. 16 to contest the preliminary ratings. State officials will consider whether the concerns are valid and whether new evidence of performance is convincing before finalizing ratings later this fall.

Some of the requests to reconsider will be based on low test participation. In some cases, the state lowered ratings if not enough students took state tests, reasoning that it was hard to know whether the scores were representative of an entire school. Westminster and Aurora officials already have said they will ask for ratings to be reconsidered because of the participation issue.

Aurora Central High School, a school that ran out of time on the accountability clock last year and is now under a state plan, would have earned enough points to improve its rating from turnaround to priority improvement based on its scores.

But because of low test participation on one key test — just 84.9 percent of sophomores took the PSAT — the preliminary rating was knocked back down to turnaround.

Aurora superintendent Munn said the district likely will ask the state to reconsider that decision.

After the ratings are final, hearings will be scheduled in the spring for the state board to make final determinations on the fate of the low-performing schools.

Schools and districts may provide the state with additional information to boost their ratings before they’re finalized later this year. In previous years, only a few dozen schools would request a rating increase. However, since some schools have seen participation in testing plummet, more schools are asking the state to take a second look.

More than 200 schools and 40 districts requested a higher rating last year.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia contributed information to this report.