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.

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: