Who Is In Charge

Colorado in sweet 16 for Race to the Top

Video and audio clips are at the bottom of this story.

Colorado’s bid for $377 million in federal Race to the Top education stimulus funds was strong enough to land it among the 16 finalists, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Thursday morning.

Duncan said Colorado, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee made the finalist cut. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied. Colorado is the only western state selected.

More states were named finalists than many observers had expected. The states named Thursday will be invited to Washington the week of March 15 to make presentations. States that don’t make the cut can apply in a second round later this year.

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien discuss Colorado's selection Thursday as a Race to the Top finalist. Democratic Sens. Suzanne Williams and Bob Bacon are in the background.

Meeting with reporters about an hour after the announcement, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien and Education Commissioner Dwight Jones were understandably upbeat.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be considered one of the top states in the country,” said O’Brien, who helped lead the state’s effort. But, she added, “We’re very aware that all we’ve done so far is make the first cut.”

O’Brien also praised the state’s collaborative approach in developing the application, which has been questioned by some observers.

“We think we’re one of the states that really has the highest likelihood of successfully implementing our plan because of the broad public input process we had. … If what’s right for Colorado ends up being what’s right in the eyes of Washington, it will be a huge win-win.”

Jones, noting that R2T “is a difficult, competitive process,” added, “We know we still have a lot of work to do. I’m very optimistic. … No matter what the outcome of the competition, we still plan to continue with Colorado reforms.”

O’Brien announced that Gov. Bill Ritter has named the members of the Educator Effectiveness Council that will develop a proposal for a new teacher evaluation and tenure system. This is the piece of the state’s R2T plan that has been criticized by some who want a faster pace of reform on this issue. (List of council members.)

“We are committed to streamlining and modernizing our teacher effectiveness system,” O’Brien said. “The idea will be to figure out what we need in rules and state policy” concerning educator evaluation.

She said teacher evaluations and student performance will be tied to compensation, retention, promotion and tenure. “I think we’re going to have a very finely tuned performance management system in our districts.”

O’Brien said state officials hadn’t yet learned how Colorado’s application was scored nor the details of the presentation process in Washington later this month.

“We are cautiously optimistic. Now the hard work of explaining our proposal in detail will begin,” she said.

R2T has been the focus of state policymakers’ attention for months. One lawmaker called it the “golden ticket” for solving the state’s school problems; other officials have tried to subtly downplay expectations.

The competition required states to detail how they would use the money in four broad policy areas:

  • Standards and testing that prepare students for college and work.
  • Data systems that measure student growth and success and help educators improve teaching.
  • Recruitment, development, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially in the most challenged schools.
  • Turnaround plans for the lowest-performing schools.

Applicants were graded on a 500-point scoring system by outside judges hired by the U.S. Department of Education. The interviews can move that total score up or down. But the final decisions rest with Duncan.

Colorado education leaders have long felt recent education reforms have positioned the state reasonably well for the competition, except in the area of educator effectiveness.

In contrast to some states, which pushed through new laws on teacher preparation, evaluation and tenure, the Ritter administration as part of the application instead opted to create the Council for Educator Effectiveness that will develop a proposed new educator evaluation system, based at least 50 percent on student performance.

The administration has defended that strategy as a “consensus” approach more likely to create sustainable reforms because of the involvement of a wide spectrum of interests, including teachers unions.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, had been working on comprehensive evaluation and tenure reform legislation before Ritter’s plan was announced. He says he still plans to introduce a bill but said Wednesday it might not happen for several weeks.

Much of what Colorado proposes would pay the costs of implementing previously approved but unfunded education reforms such as the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. The state proposes to use the $377 million in these ways:

  • Implementation costs – $21.5 million
  • Rollout of and training in new standards and in use of data – $23.8 million
  • Subsidies and incentives for schools to acquire new instructional materials and formative assessments – $18.6 million
  • Review of and partial subsidies for new interim assessments – $8.6 million
  • Improved state data capture of district information and a statewide enrollment system – $24.4 million
  • Other data improvements, including data on educator effectiveness – $52.5 million
  • Colorado Center for Educator Excellence – $5.7 million
  • Office of Educator Effectiveness to help districts – $4.5 million
  • Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness – $605,000
  • Rollout of new evaluation systems in districts – $67.8 million
  • Increase the number of Teach for America teachers in Colorado in low-performing schools – $24.5 million
  • Incentive grants for highly effective educators – $2.6 million
  • Grants for high quality teacher preparation programs – $6 million
  • School Leadership Academy – $7.3 million
  • Increased enrollment in Advanced Placement courses – $8.2 million
  • Grants to districts to develop alternative compensation plans – $5.5 million
  • Aid to teachers to gain expertise in high-needs subject areas – $5 million
  • Colorado Turnaround Center – $41.4 million
  • CDE Turnaround Office – $4.8 million
  • Innovation Acceleration Grant Program to develop school turnaround strategies – $6 million
  • Undesignated grants to districts for implementation of various reforms – $37 million

(See this CDE document for details on each proposed spending area.)

The R2T process required formal sign-on by school districts (known as “local education agencies”) if they want to receive funds from the program. Half of total funding is to go to districts. In Colorado, 134 of 178 districts signed on, representing 94 percent of state students, including 94 percent of free and reduced lunch students and 95 percent of minority students.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is leading the state's Race to the Top effort.

Leading up to the announcement, state leaders have been measured in their comments about Colorado’s chances. O’Brien has repeatedly said that Colorado will apply for the second round of R2T if necessary and that the plan will provide a blueprint for future education initiatives even if Colorado doesn’t garner any federal money.

While R2T has received most of the attention, it’s only part of the total education funding that state has received, or is eligible for, under other programs of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

For example, some $620 million has been used to shore up the budgets of state colleges and universities and nearly $270 million is available to school districts under various pre-existing federal formulas. The bulk of that money is for Title I and special education programs. (More information from CDE on other education stimulus programs.)

R2T funding, which will be spread out over multiple budget years, also is small in the context of total annual K-12 spending in Colorado, which this year is about $5.7 billion in state and local funds.

Members of the Council for Educator Effectiveness

  • Colorado Department of Education: Nina Lopez, Special Assistant to Education Commissioner
  • Colorado Department of Higher Education: Lorrie Shepard, Dean, School of Education, University of Colorado – Boulder
  • Teachers: Shelly Genereax of Brighton School District 27J, Kerrie Dallman of Jefferson County Public Schools, Amie Baca-Oehlert of Adams District 12, Nikkie Felix of Aurora Public Schools
  • Public School Administrators: Margaret Crespo, Principal of John Evans Middle School in Weld County, Tracy Dorland, Executive Director of Teacher Effectiveness in Denver Public Schools
  • Public School Superintendent: Sandra Smyser, Superintendent of Eagle County Schools
  • School Board Members: Bill Bregar of Pueblo District 70, Jo Ann Baxter of Moffat County
  • Charter Schools: Colin Mullaney, Principal of Cheyenne Mountain Charter in Colorado Springs
  • Public School Parent: Towanna Henderson of Denver Public Schools
  • Student: Shelby Gonzales-Parker of Justice High School in Denver Public Schools
  • At-Large Member: Matt Smith, Vice-President of Engineering, United Launch Alliance

Do your homework

EdNews video of O’Brien and Jones news conference:

Audio of today’s announcement from Colorado officials:

Video of Secretary Duncan’s announcement:

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.