tracking progress

Can Westminster’s different approach to learning get a fair shot under Colorado’s accountability system?

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

Leaders of the largest school district in Colorado facing possible state intervention next year are contending that the current system for rating schools is not capturing progress their students are making under an approach to learning that is one-of-a-kind in Colorado.

In 2009, Westminster Public Schools began phasing in competency-based learning, which is based on grouping kids together based on what they know instead of their age.

“Our system is at odds with the traditional accountability model,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools. He added that the district is showing growth and closing achievement gaps separating students of different backgrounds.

The state’s preliminary rating for the district is priority improvement, the second lowest rating on the scale, and the same as in previous years. The state is required to take action after a school or district earns five consecutive low ratings. Westminster Public Schools has reached that limit and if the newest preliminary rating is finalized they will face intervention. Among its options, the state can choose to shut down schools or require the district to merge with another.

Westminster Public Schools in the fall of 2009 began to phase-in what is now called a competency based system. Through it, the district did away with traditional grade-level assignments and grades. Instead, students in Westminster schools are assigned to classrooms based on their proficiency in each subject and they move up through the levels when they show they learned the content, not necessarily after a year of sitting in that class.

While other districts are experimenting with competency-based models in some schools, none have moved to do it district-wide like Westminster did by the 2013-14 school year. Westminster district leaders say it’s still evolving.

“One thing that has evolved over time is our tracking of our student data so we are as flexible as we can to move students when they’re ready to move,” said Pam Swanson, the district’s superintendent. “The other thing is we can never do too much communication.”

Part of the model is dependent on students understanding that when they learn the content, they can ask to prove it on a test so they can move to another level. Students accelerate more when they understand how the system works, officials say.

The district said it also can point to evidence that it is executing the model well. Last school year the district paid AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to review the model. The group accredited the district as a result and shared recommendations to improve the system, which the district is working on now.

Part of the conflict with the state’s accountability system, officials say, is that students have to be assigned a traditional grade level when they take state tests. A student may be assigned to a grade level based on their age, even if they have not had exposure to that grade level content yet.

District officials call the required grouping artificial, and say that the once-a-year tests don’t reflect the growth students make.

“We would love to be able to comply with state testing but to do it in a way that’s real time,” Swanson said. “If we could do it as we’re moving kids through their levels, that would make so much more sense.”

Maria Worthen, vice president of federal and state policy for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said competency is not at odds with accountability rooted in the idea that kids should know a certain amount by a certain age.

“When we talk about competency-based education, it’s about meeting students where they are and giving them all of the supports they need,” Worthen said. “We’re not talking about computer-based training. It’s not about everyone at their own pace. It’s about flexible pace. It’s about letting kids try again.”

Based on data from state tests, the most recent indicator of growth showed students in Westminster were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state. In English language arts tests, Westminster’s growth score was 47. That means Westminster students showed improvements, on average, better than 47 percent of Colorado kids who had similar scores last year. In math, Westminster’s growth score was 42.

Worthen said the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides more opportunities for states to create systems that better account for how kids learn in competency-based systems.

State officials say federal law requires students take tests based on a grade level because it allows officials to make sure students are keeping up with their peers and not being discriminated against. But Colorado is in the early stages of considering requesting flexibility from the federal government for a new state testing and accountability model.

That could involve a system that is more suited for competency-based teaching, or one that also allows for testing throughout the year instead of once.

“There’s not consensus across the state when it comes to what we should prioritize,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment at the state Department of Education. “One thing to keep in mind is that in the end, so, long term, the expectation is that the entire state will move to the same model.”

Worthen said that accountability systems don’t have to be exclusively built around competency. She said that one possibility could be basing accountability on multiple assessments over a period of time instead of one single test given in the spring.

“From an accountability point of view, we do want to know that no student is falling through the cracks,” Worthen said.

Educators across the state have raised issues with Colorado’s accountability system for a variety of reasons. While in Westminster it revolves around the competency-based approach, teachers elsewhere have said that students who are English language learners or who have special education needs are also unprepared for the tests they are forced to take.

Sharyl Kay Lawson, a special education teacher in Brighton, said that she has had students that blow through state tests in less than 20 minutes because they don’t know the material.

“My kids come to me for reading because the classroom reading is way above their level,” Lawson said. “Then they’re expected to go back to class and take a regular assessment at their grade level.

Recently, some district leaders also have questioned the validity of data for comparison when large numbers of students opt-out of taking the tests.

Westminster district officials are writing a request asking the state to reconsider their latest rating before it is made official by January. If the request to reconsider is denied, district, officials said they would appeal to the state Board of Education.

District leaders want to present the state with other evidence they say shows their district is improving, but they’re still figuring out what data the state will consider.

They have also been talking to state officials about what flexibilities they wish they had in the accountability system to let them continue their competency based model while not facing intervention from the state.

“Everyone here is open to having a conversation about what it is the assessment system should look like long term,” Zurkowski said. “But it needs to be something that allows for us to ensure that all of our students are getting access to high quality education regardless of race or zip code. That’s the balance and I expect there will be lots of discussion about that.”

language learning

KIPP charter network launching biliteracy program at new Denver elementary school

A first grade student reading in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A high-performing charter network will run a biliteracy program at a new elementary school in southwest Denver this fall — a first for KIPP schools in Colorado.

KIPP officials said they designed the program in response to parent interest in bilingual education that starts from a young age. Many families had seen their high school students educated in two languages earning a seal of biliteracy upon graduation.

“Families said, ‘why can’t we start that sooner when kids are learning to read instead of waiting until high school to develop those skills,’” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado. “It was really driven by families seeing what was possible with their older students.”

Ellen Dobie-Geffen, KIPP Colorado’s director of English language development, designed the program and said KIPP is optimistic about the academic results it can have.

“We really believe in the power of biliteracy,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We’re not doing something that’s impossible.”

Several charter schools across the state offer dual-language or language immersion programs, but biliteracy programs, which focus on simultaneously creating a literacy foundation in both English and Spanish as a way to foster bilingualism and to help kids learn to read while they are still learning the language, are still rare in Colorado. While the programs are similar, they have distinct goals and can target different students.

In the case of KIPP, this program isn’t designed for students who have no English background, although they are welcome to take part. Rather, the biliteracy program is designed for students who are growing up in English/Spanish environments, which KIPP officials say describes the vast majority of the students in southwest Denver.

As the charter network works on expanding outside of Denver, officials said that if the program at the new KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary goes well, they may replicate it at a new school in the Adams 14 school district. Biliteracy education was a common request from parents there too.

For several years, a number of Adams 14 schools had been rolling out a biliteracy program from the University of Colorado. But this year, Adams 14 officials put the program on hold, claiming they were unsure of its effectiveness, and citing shortages of qualified teachers. Parents and advocates have held protests and community meetings, and continue to ask the board to reconsider.

Last month, several mothers who asked the board to support a KIPP charter school for their district cited its bilingual programming among their reasons.

One of those parents, Maria Centeno, told the board that she didn’t feel that her district school celebrated her Hispanic culture, but she said she saw students integrated and working together at KIPP.

In biliteracy programs, the amount of exposure students get to their home language and English can change by grade level, compared with dual-language programs that generally stay at a 50-50 split. At KIPP, students will start in preschool with 50 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 50 percent in English. The balance will shift so that students in fourth grade may be getting about 70 percent instruction in English and about 30 percent in Spanish.

“There are very few bilingual options in Denver at the middle school level,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We want to make sure we are setting students up to have the academic vocabulary to be successful.”

Dobie-Geffen said if the school in Adams 14 is approved, KIPP’s biliteracy program could be modified for the needs of that community.

Before designing the biliteracy program, KIPP also started a program last year, as mandated by a standing court order for the Denver district to serve English language learners, at its school at the other end of town in the far northeast.

That transitional program has accelerated students’ literacy growth, Dobie-Geffen said.

For southwest Denver, KIPP officials chose to create the biliteracy program, modeled upon other programs and based on research.

Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center at CU Boulder created a biliteracy program used in many districts across the country, said charter schools may have some advantages when operating a biliteracy program because of their independence and flexibility.

Escamilla said one of the keys to success is to train and help teachers as they roll out any biliteracy program.

KIPP plans to train teachers for five weeks this summer. Dobie-Geffen said teachers who already have the state’s credential for teaching students who aren’t fluent in English are “a bonus.” KIPP is requiring its teachers be certified as early-childhood educators and as bilingual teachers – under standards set by the district’s court order.

Sia, KIPP’s CEO, said finding teachers who meet those requirements was difficult. It’s a challenge for all schools offering bilingual programming.

Teacher training will cover the biliteracy program, why KIPP chose it, and how to execute a good lesson.

After that, teachers will receive weekly trainings, which can focus on biliteracy if teachers or charter leaders feel teachers need it.

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.