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.

leading a district

Adams 14 is restructuring leadership team after yearlong exodus of top staff

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District, speaks to parents at a forum April 17, 2018. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A stream of top-level departures in Adams 14 has left teachers uncertain about the school district’s direction and has some blaming a culture lacking respect and cooperation.

Just four of the 11 directors who started the 2017-18 year remain with the district today. Superintendent Javier Abrego, who was hired in 2016, has restructured his team and made new hires — changes a new communications team describes as a long-sought strategic shake-up to better align salaries and skills to people’s jobs.

Regardless of the reasons, the turnover has rattled district employees, including teachers who say there is constant uncertainty about where the district is headed.

“It’s about how you make the people around you feel,” said teacher Deborah Figueroa. “I have no faith in the administrative team the superintendent has pulled together right now. You want to be inspired.”

It particularly matters to Adams 14, which has struggled to raise the academic achievement of many students, as it approaches a possible state decision to mandate changes if state ratings due out this fall don’t improve.

“In practice, superintendents, they set the tone of the debate for what reform is going to look like,” said Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “In that way they can inspire people or they can really undermine that goodwill.”

Throughout the school year, as cabinet leaders left, some positions were eliminated, other staff members shifted positions or took on more roles, and other jobs were left vacant.

Barb McDowell, a district teacher and union president, said teachers often don’t know who to call if they need administrative help. Making matters worse, she said, at one point, the superintendent cut off communications with her over their disagreements.

“Some people think collaboration is agreeing all the time,” McDowell said. “I think it’s having different voices at the table. But nobody is working with us on anything. Our voices aren’t being heard or even asked for.”

Jochim said throughout her research, she believes one of the most important things for superintendents pushing reform is their ability to work with the community and with politicians to gain support for changes.

The superintendent turned down several requests for an interview for this story.

“I was hired to turn this district around, which requires that we make strategic changes and tough decisions, especially in the areas where our practices are not producing the results that we want and need,” Abrego said in written statement. “We can’t expect different results if we don’t make the appropriate changes to central office and in our schools.”

One example of a change was an administrator who was shifted from a human resources position, for which she had no prior experience, into an executive director position overseeing instruction, for which she does have some qualifications.

But researchers say that although turnover is inevitable when districts are in the middle of reform, the timing of the turnover in Adams 14 could suggest staff have lost confidence in a plan they first bought in to, or that necessary changes were delayed.

“And that would be quite worrying,” Jochim said.

Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the district’s former director of secondary schools and most recently director of educator effectiveness, said she felt a disregard for her opinions which she said were based on her experience doing turnaround work.

“You’re supposed to be collaborating with other leaders,” said Trinidad-Sheahan, who resigned in May. “What it came down to is, they want those who are just going to do what they ask. They don’t want to be questioned.”

Adams 14 has always had problems with retaining staff. According to state data, turnover rates for its administrators are often higher than in districts with similar-sized administration teams, or in other metro-area districts. Last year’s turnover rate in Adams 14 was about 26 percent.

That instability, in turn, could be affecting principals. The turnover rate among principals in Adams 14, which was 52 percent last year according to state records, is much higher than in similar-sized districts or than other metro area districts.

Recent turnover has heightened anxiety for some students, parents, and teachers watching the clock runs down for the state to see improvement.

Just last year, Adams City High School students took to the streets to protest the inconsistency in their school leadership. The school has had six principals in as many years.

This year there were also organized protests by teachers who said there were too many teachers who were losing their jobs, while they felt that incompetent principals and administrators remained in place.

And the district’s school board hasn’t been immune from instability. Last month, the school board’s president suddenly resigned more than a year before his term ended.

Candidates who were looking to fill the board position expressed concern about a lack of leadership in the district.

“Leadership starts with this board and the superintendent, and at times we have appeared to be lacking in that area,” Joseph Dreiling told the board during his interview.

In the end, Sen. Dominick Moreno, a popular figure in the area, was selected for the role. Board members said they believed he could help them work together, and mend relationships with the community.

One important question for the board, and one on which the members have not had consensus, is on how they should manage the superintendent. He has not had a written evaluation during his tenure.

Some board members said that taking community complaints to the superintendent and asking him to fix them would be micromanaging. Other board members say they should be better informed about what the district is doing, and not be caught off guard every time a community member explains an issue new to them.

Top-level decision-making represented the only more specific question the board had when seeking to fill its vacancy — asking candidates to describe what the board’s role should be relative to the superintendent.

Moreno told the board that the superintendent should be held accountable.

“The superintendent is the only employee that the board actually has oversight over,” Moreno said. “This is the policymaking body and you evaluate your employee according to their ability to carry out the policies you set forward.”

Some community members have also talked to the board about turmoil and the superintendent’s leadership. So much so that the board has created new guidance for speakers at meetings, asking them not to use names of district staff, and asking them not to “attack” any specific people.

Among the administrative changes that will be evident this coming school year is the elimination of “chiefs” as part of any title. Sanchez, the district’s new manager of strategic communications, said part of the reason for reorganizing titles and roles was to bring more consistency to people’s salaries, and to have a more organized hierarchy of responsibilities.

For instance, the former chief financial officer, Sandy Rotella, had a contract directly with the board which started at $150,000 three years ago. As a comparison, the superintendent was hired in 2016 at a salary of $165,000.

Rotella retired in November, and her position was restructured and filled in the spring. Now, the executive director of budget, operations, and construction, who oversees Rotella’s and another eliminated position’s work, has a base salary of $128,546.

This year, six people will report directly to the superintendent, with some people who were previously directors now taking on new lower-level titles under the executive team. There are also some new lower-level positions.

In one example, the district’s director of English language development, Edilberto Cano, was placed on leave in December after a community uproar over changes to the biliteracy program. The district was rolling out a K-5 program to foster biliteracy in part by teaching students to read in their native language first, which can strengthen their English later. But the district decided to stop the changeover for now.

Then, as the superintendent cut off ties to the university that was helping with biliteracy instruction, Cano’s position was eliminated. The new position overseeing services for English learners is no longer a director, but rather a “culture and language development manager,” several steps removed from the superintendent.

Biliteracy program changes were the hardest on teachers, they say, because guidance changed throughout the year.

Figueroa, the middle school teacher, will also have a new principal this year. Principals are often key in how much administrative changes impact teachers, McDowell said.

So this summer, some said they are anxious, waiting to see how the latest changes will play out.

The superintendent, in his statement, said he expects changes to continue to “strengthen our climate and culture as an organization.”

“I’m completely not looking forward to the school year,” Figueroa said. “It’s a negative impact on the grown-ups, therefore, a negative impact on our kids.”

2017 Position Responsibilities 2018 Position
Shelagh Burke, Director of Federal Programs and Interim Director of Education Technology Federal funding and IT Shelagh Burke, Executive Director of Federal Programs and Interventions, and Technology
Sandy Rotella, Chief Financial Operations Officer
Retired
Budget and finance Sean Milner, Executive Director of Budget, Operations and Construction
Eddie Storz, Director of Finance, reporting to Sandy Rotella Budget and finance Eddie Storz, Director of Finance, reporting to Sean Milner
Gionni Thompson, Chief Operating Officer
Relieved of duties
Facilities and operations Duties absorbed by Sean Milner’s position
Robert Frantum-Allen, Director of Student Support Services
Resigned
Special education, gifted and talented, mental health supports Shay Lynn Carter, Director of Student Support Services
Janelle Asmus, Public Engagement Officer
Resigned
Communications Alex Sanchez, Manager of Strategic Communications
Jeanette Patterson, Director of Human Resources Staff recruitment and retention Darci Mohr, Executive Director of Human Resources and Legal
No equivalent position Staff recruitment and retention Vacant, Director of HR, reporting to Darci Mohr
Matt Schwartz, Director of Secondary Education Secondary schools Matt Schwartz, + one vacancy, Directors of Teaching and Learning (2 positions)
Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, Director of Educator Effectiveness
Resigned
Teacher training and evaluation Mark Langston, Educator Effectiveness Manager
Edilberto Cano, Director of English Language Development
No longer employed, details unclear
English Language Learner services and biliteracy Tonia Lopez, Culture and Language Development Manager
Ruben Chacon, Director of Teaching and Learning for Climate and Culture English Language Learner services and biliteracy Ruben Chacon, Student Intervention Officer

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

new faces

State Sen. Dominick Moreno among candidates for Adams 14 board vacancy

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

A state senator is one of five candidates seeking to fill a vacancy on the school board for the troubled Adams 14 school district.

Dominick Moreno, a Democratic state senator whose district includes most of Adams 14, will be among the candidates the board will interview for the position on July 9.

Moreno said he got a legal opinion from legislative services that states he can serve on a local school board while maintaining his seat as a state senator.

The other candidates include:

The vacancy was created two weeks ago when then-board president Timio Archuleta abruptly resigned, citing the need for new voices and opinions on the board.

Many parents and advocates celebrated the resignation, saying it brought hope that the district, which has had made several unpopular decisions in the last year, would listen to the community and change. Adams 14 is facing state intervention after years of low performance and has experienced significant staff turnover in the last year.

The board, by law, has 60 days to fill the vacancy. The board is currently scheduled to vote on July 9 after the candidate interviews. The selected candidate will serve out Archuleta’s term until the next election in November 2019.

Moreno, who graduated from Adams City High School, has been a vocal supporter of the district throughout their turnaround process.

“Obviously the district is at a critical juncture on the accountability clock, and there’s been some unrest in the community,” Moreno said Thursday. “I believed we needed candidates who could come on to the school board and have the relationships and the experience needed to pull everybody together with a common vision.”

Moreno said he didn’t have any strong opinions on the controversial decisions the district has made this past year, including the pause of a biliteracy program, saying only that he would have a lot of homework to do if appointed and that every decision would be reviewed.

In the legislature, Moreno served on the influential Joint Budget Committee and sponsored legislation that required schools to serve breakfast to students from low-income families. He also supported a bill last year that created the opportunity for school districts to offer the seal of biliteracy, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas for students who could demonstrate fluency in two languages. Adams 14 was one of the first three districts to offer the seal, and it is still one of the components of its bilingual education program.

The school district posted the list of candidates Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, last week, the remaining four members of the district’s board voted to name Connie Quintana as the board’s president in a long process that included two failed attempts to reach a decision. Board member Bill Hyde criticized the process as a “circus.”