Highs and lows

Some Colorado schools brace for state intervention, while others cheer their progress

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Two Colorado school districts and six individual schools failed to show enough improvement to raise their ratings under the state’s accountability system. Unless they successfully appeal their preliminary ratings this fall, they’ll remain on state-mandated improvement plans. Those include the 7,500-student Adams 14 district based in Commerce City, which is likely to face additional state intervention this school year, and Aurora Central High School.

And two new schools also face the potential for state intervention, Central Elementary School in Adams 14 and Minnequa Elementary in the Pueblo 60 district.

One school district and six individual schools that had previously faced state intervention improved enough to get off Colorado’s “accountability clock,” according to preliminary school ratings released Monday.

“Our students are working harder than they ever have, and it’s making a big difference,” said Superintendent Deirdre Pilch of the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver. In that district, two schools on state improvement plans and four others that had been placed on warning did well enough to get out of state scrutiny. “By every measure we use, we are seeing students move in the right direction. I am so proud of people locking arms and coming together to do that work.”

Colorado’s school accountability system rates districts based on achievement on state literacy, math, and science tests, on annual academic growth, and on postsecondary readiness as measured by graduation rates, dropout rates, scores on college entrance exams, and enrollment in college.

Schools go on performance watch or “on the clock” if their rating places them in one of the lowest two tiers – turnaround or priority improvement – and they face state intervention if they don’t move into a higher tier after five years.

The ratings released Monday are considered preliminary. Districts can request that the state reconsider districtwide or school ratings based on, for example, progress in literacy and math in the early grades or measures of high school achievement that don’t show up on state tests.

The deadline to file a request to reconsider is Oct. 15. The ratings will be finalized in December.

The State Board of Education has four options when deciding the future of schools whose performance remains in the two lowest tiers of the five-point scale for years on end. The board can close the school, hand it over to a charter management organization, contract with a third party to help run the school or create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and exemptions from district and state policy to improve student learning.

The options for districts are similar but include drastic and politically challenging steps like pushing for merger with a higher-performing district.

So far, the State Board has taken a collaborative approach and largely approved the plans that schools and districts brought forward. At the same time, state lawmakers, at the request of the Colorado Department of Education, approved changes to require schools to show more sustained improvement to get off performance watch and encourage schools to take action earlier in the process.

Colorado doesn’t have the option of state takeover that’s been exercised in places like New Jersey and Tennessee, with mixed results.

The next few years will serve as an ongoing test of how well this system of carrots and sticks works to help long-struggling districts.

“We are excited to see the progress made in some schools around the state to improve student performance, especially for some of those that have persistently struggled,” said Alyssa Pearson, the Colorado Department of Education’s deputy commissioner for accountability and performance, in an email. “These schools and their districts have had a laser-like focus on the needs of students. They have done this through two to three high-leverage priorities around data-driven instruction, leadership development, and culture to better meet the needs of all students. The specific actions vary, depending on the local context and need.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of the process working is the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver. When Pilch arrived in 2015, 10 schools were on the accountability clock, and three of them ultimately required state-approved improvement plans: Prairie Heights Middle Schools, Franklin Middle School, and Martinez Elementary.

Franklin Middle School got off the clock last year, and with this round of ratings, Prairie Heights and Martinez Elementary were also freed from state supervision. Four additional Greeley-Evans schools came off performance watch this year without outside intervention.

Three Greeley-Evans schools, though, will be on the state’s watch list if their ratings don’t change in appeals.

Pilch said the district poured resources and support into the schools that needed to improve and took advantage of state grants for leadership training and other professional development. The district received extensive reviews of what was and wasn’t working within its schools from state evaluators and took those findings seriously in crafting improvement plans.

“The schools that are on priority improvement and turnaround, they’ve been our priority in terms of support and in terms of ensuring the right resources and the right leaders are in place,” Pilch said. “We’ve been very intentional about maintaining and training quality leaders at these schools. We’ve seen fewer leaders turn over.”

Also showing improvement was the Westminster district, which had one more year to make progress on its plan and is now off the clock. Officials there claimed vindication for the district’s competency-based learning model, in which students are grouped by their understanding of a certain subject and can progress to another level as soon as they show that they’ve mastered that class content.

Results for Aurora schools, where district officials have been using new reforms to intervene in low-performing schools, have been mixed. The district as a whole improved enough to dodge state action last year. This year’s rating stayed at “improvement.”

The school with the most years of bad ratings, Aurora Central High School, failed to improve. The school is already on a state plan for improvement and has a year left to earn a higher rating before it would have to return to face the state again. Previously, state officials essentially blessed a district plan to continue rolling out interventions it was already trying, with extra help from an outside partner. If the school has to return to the state, officials could take more drastic action.

Three schools that had earned the lowest rating of turnaround last year — including Lyn Knoll Elementary — improved. Paris Elementary, which was facing state intervention this year if it didn’t raise it’s Priority Improvement rating, also managed a higher score, to avoid state sanctions.

If final school ratings remain the same, no other Aurora schools this year would be as close to state action. Three schools — Gateway High School, North Middle School and Virginia Court Elementary — would be entering year four, meaning they would have one year to show improvement before being at risk for state intervention.

“Aurora Public Schools continues to see gains and movement in the right direction,” district officials said in an emailed statement. “We have some great momentum that we will continue to build upon. While we recognize that we need to make more improvements at faster rates, we will dig into our data to plan how we will best leverage our strengths and address our challenges.”

District officials said the results from schools in what the district calls its Action Zone – schools that have individual plans for some flexibility from district rules – show the district has the right structure in place to keep improving. However, two schools in that zone, Aurora Central and Boston K-8, did not improve within the state framework and Boston actually earned a lower state rating this year, though it is not on the clock.

The tiny Sheridan district south of Denver, which got off the clock in 2014 after years of effort, was rated in the second-lowest tier, putting the district back on performance watch. Pat Sandos, the new superintendent there, said the news was a hard way to start his tenure, but it also brings a sense of urgency to improving student performance.

“We’re looking at the data really hard and breaking out the content areas,” he said. “We see opportunity for growth with [English-language learners]. It seems like that’s something that’s not just us, but for a lot of at-risk districts.

“Some of the work that we’re already doing is realigning and looking at the curriculum. We’re really focusing hard on that, on establishing a framework that gets teachers focused on what kids need to know at each grade level. And we’re paying a lot of attention to professional development.”

Other schools that got off the clock after facing state intervention include Hope Online Academy Middle School, authorized through the Douglas County school district, Manaugh Elementary School in the Cortez-Montezuma district in southwest Colorado, and Bessemer Elementary School in the Pueblo 60 district.

Two other Pueblo 60 schools still face state supervision: Risley International Academy of Innovation and Heroes Middle School. So does the little Aguilar district in southern Colorado, where the both the district and its joint junior-senior high school have struggled with years of low performance, and Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School.

The ratings will be finalized by December, and schools that have spent six years or more in turnaround or priority improvement status will face new or ongoing state intervention.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson. 

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

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

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.