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. 

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.