tick tock

Here are the Colorado schools and districts most likely to face state intervention for poor performance

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

As many as five Colorado school districts and a dozen schools could face state intervention next year for persistent low performance on state tests.

That’s according to preliminary school quality ratings issued by the Colorado Department of Education this month and obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request.

Schools and districts can appeal the ratings, and some have already said they plan to do so.

When the ratings are finalized this winter, it will mark a significant milestone. For the first time since Colorado’s current school accountability system was created in 2009, the State Board of Education will force districts and schools that have failed to improve for five consecutive years to take action to boost student learning.

The state board has a list of directives it may issue to local school boards. Some are more drastic than others. Among the possibilities: close schools or turn them over to new management, apply for waivers from local and state policies, merge with a nearby high-performing school district, or turn over all or some operations to a third party.

The schools and districts facing sanctions are large and small, urban and rural, district-run and charters. The largest school is Aurora Central High with 2,172 students, most of whom are black or Latino. The smallest school district is Aguilar in southeastern Colorado with 124 students.

Still on the clock |
These districts and schools received a preliminary rating that if unchanged would mean the State Board of Education must take action:
• Westminster Public Schools
• Adams 14 School District
• Aguilar Reorganized
• Montezuma-Cortez
• Julesburg RE-1
• Adams City High
• Aurora Central High
• HOPE Online Learning Academy, elementary and middle schools
• Peakview School
• Aguilar Junior-Senior High
• Bessemer Elementary
• Heroes Middle School
• Risley International Academy of Innovation
• Destinations Career Academy of Innovation
• Franklin Middle School
• Prairie Heights Middle School

The largest school district to face intervention next year will likely be Westminster Public Schools, which serves about 10,000 students northwest of Denver in Adams County. The district has pledged to appeal its preliminary rating. Leaders there plan to point to multiple years of sustained academic growth, especially at schools that were among the first to be flagged by the state for poor test scores.

“This is not a district that has been sitting still for five years,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “If we get pushed back down the hill, we’ll just have to start climbing up again.”

The state’s accountability system rates schools and districts annually based on scores from English and math tests, and other factors such as graduation rates.

Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two ratings — turnaround or priority improvement — must improve within five years or face interventions.

The state’s current accountability system was created in 2010 but was put on pause last year due to a change in standardized tests. Now that the state has two years of test data, the state has turned the system, sometimes called the “accountability clock,” back on.

Another school district that plans to press the state for a higher rating is Adams 14 in Commerce City.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.
Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.

The district believes results from its own standardized tests will demonstrate enough progress to bump Adams City High, one of the schools that could face sanctions next year, off the academic watch list.

“We own our performance and are accountable for our data,” new Superintendent Javier Abrego said in a statement. “That’s why it’s important to consider the preliminary nature of these data. This is a prime example of why the state has built into its process, the opportunity for local schools to illustrate student performance using local viable and credible test measures.”

Not every school is sure it will ask the state for a higher rating.

“We just received the results late last week and are in the process of evaluating them,” Heather O’Mara, CEO of the HOPE Online Learning Academy charter school, said in a statement. “At this time we have not decided if we will make a request to reconsider.”

Leaders of the charter school will meet with officials from its authorizer, the Douglas County School District, next week to discuss the school’s results.

Schools and districts have until Nov. 7 to ask the state for a higher rating.

Prior to the one-year timeout caused by the change in state tests, eight districts and 30 schools had been on the state’s watch list for five consecutive years.

School districts that jumped off the list in time to avoid meeting with the state board next year include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and the Ignacio School District. Schools that jumped off the list include four in Denver Public Schools and five rural schools.

One of those rural schools was Kemper Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez RE 1 school district in southwestern Colorado. While the school showed enough progress to exit the watch list, the district’s preliminary rating indicates the district as a whole might face sanctions.

The 2,782-student rural district also believes that local data will show greater improvement than results from the PARCC exams, especially given the large number of students who skipped the tests in 2016.

“We believe results from the PARCC test are not a fair representation of our student population,” said Superintendent Lori Haukeness, adding that 75 percent of ninth grade students and more than 35 percent of middle school students opted out.

In case the state rejects the district’s request for a higher rating, the district is beginning work on a plan to present to the state board next year.

“Hopefully we’re successful with our appeal,” Haukeness said, “and won’t need to identify a pathway.”

Some improvements

Aurora Public Schools improves enough to dodge state action, mixed results elsewhere in new preliminary state ratings

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has improved enough to pull itself off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance, according to preliminary state ratings made public Wednesday.

The district of about 40,000 students was staring at state intervention if it didn’t move the needle enough. Last year marked the first time Colorado schools and districts faced such a fate under the current accountability law, and Aurora would have been the largest district on a state-ordered plan.

The district saved itself by earning a state rating of “improvement,” no longer in the bottom two categories of performance.

“We’re excited about our momentum,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Colorado Department of Education

Improvements to Aurora’s state test scores and its high school graduation rate helped move the district’s rating up. Munn credited work in the district helping teachers align their instruction to state standards, and focusing on individual students.

“It’s the culture that says we need to make sure we recognize and identify where our kids are,” Munn said.

No district faces state sanctions for too many consecutive years of low ratings, but a handful of schools might based on the preliminary ratings. Some of the schools are alternative education schools, which won’t get their preliminary ratings until next month.

Schools that may face state intervention if preliminary ratings don’t change

  • Martinez Elementary School, Greeley
  • Manaugh Elementary School, Montezuma-Cortez
  • EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School, Douglas

Last year, five districts and a dozen schools were the first to reach the end of the rope and faced state action in the spring. State officials could have closed schools, turned them over to charters or merged districts. But they used a lighter hand, working with local educators to create improvement plans.

Those districts and schools are now on two- and three-year deadlines to improve or face possible additional consequences.

Their performance in year one, based on Wednesday’s preliminary ratings, was mixed. One district, Julesburg, already improved as much as it needed to under its state plan.

“People are doing the work, and it takes time to do the work,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

The Commerce City-based school district Adams 14 is already celebrating a step in the right direction toward meeting its improvement goal on time.

Adams 14 moved up one level in rating categories from “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, to “turnaround on priority improvement.” Ten of its 11 schools saw improved ratings from last year. One school, Kearney Middle School, is now the first in the district with a “performance” rating — the highest rating possible for a school.

“We’re just very happy and motivated,” Superintendent Javier Abrego said.

Kearney’s principal told students at a celebration Wednesday morning that they now have to work even harder and asked students to listen to their teachers.

“You know what’s harder than getting to the top?” Principal Veronica Jeffers asked. “It’s staying there.”

Westminster Public Schools as a district made small improvements, earning 41.5 percent of points this year, up from 40 percent last year. That was not quite enough to move up in ratings, but just a few points away from an improvement rating that is the the district’s goal in its state-ordered plan.

Districts have until Oct. 16 to contest the preliminary ratings. State officials will consider whether the concerns are valid and whether new evidence of performance is convincing before finalizing ratings later this fall.

Some of the requests to reconsider will be based on low test participation. In some cases, the state lowered ratings if not enough students took state tests, reasoning that it was hard to know whether the scores were representative of an entire school. Westminster and Aurora officials already have said they will ask for ratings to be reconsidered because of the participation issue.

Aurora Central High School, a school that ran out of time on the accountability clock last year and is now under a state plan, would have earned enough points to improve its rating from turnaround to priority improvement based on its scores.

But because of low test participation on one key test — just 84.9 percent of sophomores took the PSAT — the preliminary rating was knocked back down to turnaround.

Aurora superintendent Munn said the district likely will ask the state to reconsider that decision.

After the ratings are final, hearings will be scheduled in the spring for the state board to make final determinations on the fate of the low-performing schools.

Schools and districts may provide the state with additional information to boost their ratings before they’re finalized later this year. In previous years, only a few dozen schools would request a rating increase. However, since some schools have seen participation in testing plummet, more schools are asking the state to take a second look.

More than 200 schools and 40 districts requested a higher rating last year.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia contributed information to this report. 

looking inside

Adams 14 district to keep closer eye on each school as part of state improvement plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

As part of an improvement plan negotiated with the state, the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City has developed a new system for monitoring progress at schools meant to more quickly arm leaders with information about what’s working and what isn’t.

The system, developed with guidance from the state, includes regular walkthroughs at schools by district leaders, data tracking, and new staff and student surveys.

Such diligent tracking of school performance is more common at larger districts, and could be seen as a burden for districts with fewer resources. But Adams 14 officials say they are welcoming the opportunity and are optimistic about the benefits.

“What doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic officer for the 7,500-student district. “…. We know we need to be data-driven.”

The process will kick into gear starting next month, when district leaders begin weekly walkthroughs of all 11 schools and an early learning center. Different leaders are assigned different schools, and those in the mix include Superintendent Javier Abrego, the chief academic officer, director of English language development and director of educator effectiveness.

Three of the visits will be brief — checking on whether the school feels welcoming, safe and whether students are engaged.

Then, once a month, the school visit will be more formal. District leaders will follow a sort of rubric that is being finalized with the state to determine if teachers are doing good work and if students seem to be learning.

Several other districts on state improvement plans are in the process of creating similar plans. Adams 14 was among the schools and districts that faced state intervention because of more than five years of low performance, based in part on an increasing drop-out rate and low growth scores on state tests.

Without a system of its own, Adams 14 would be reliant on school ratings provided by the state, which are based mostly on state test scores and are not as timely.

Among larger districts that track their own schools’ performance, Denver Public Schools has a more elaborate system that includes giving each school a rating that takes more factors into account than the state ratings.

The same system wouldn’t necessarily be feasible for a district the size of Adams 14, district officials have said.

The point of any system, however, is for district officials to be engaged with what’s happening in schools, and knowing how they’re performing early on, rather than waiting for a state rating.

Eventually, the monitoring plan should improve school performance if district leaders are able to detect problems early on and respond quickly to fix them. It should also create a record of what has been tried and what has worked that could help if district officials want to contest a state rating of their schools or district in the future.

“The first bar is really, ‘Did you design something?’ and second is, ‘Are you implementing it?’” said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the state. Medler has worked with Adams 14 officials to design their school monitoring process.

The Colorado Department of Education is thinking about how to create a template for district-level school monitoring, Medler said. But the benefit of each district working on its own plan is that it’s tailored to the district’s own goals and resources, especially since the requirement to create the plan doesn’t come with funding for it. (Adams 14 officials said its new school monitoring system does not carry any additional costs).

“It’s really built on their context,” Medler said. “It’s taking advantage of whatever assessment tools, like interim or benchmark tools they have already.”

To make tracking data easier, all seven elementary schools are now using the same district-level periodic tests to measure growth rather than getting to pick their own. And to make sure the information is used, teachers now have built-in common planning time for about an hour a week.

Once a month, when district leaders visit schools for the longer walkthrough, they’ll also sit down with school leadership to look at test and attendance data. The monitoring plan has target goals for how many students are on reading plans, for attendance rates and growth scores on interim tests.

If the district leaders see a school isn’t meeting those targets throughout the year, they could order teachers to do an online training course or they could ask a coach to work with them.

When district leaders find a teacher doing great work, the district will record that teacher in action and make it available online for the other district teachers to learn from.

“We want to be supportive,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the director of educator effectiveness and director of secondary education. She started some school observations last year working with a consultant and more narrowly looking at work in classrooms.

From that experience, Trinidad-Sheahan said she knows the classroom and school monitoring needs to create ongoing conversations to be successful.

The new process already has made the district’s leadership team more effective at working together, officials say.

“It’s a lot of energy for us because we’re such a small community,” Burgos said. “Now that we’ve come together as a cohesive group, that’s important and we’re feeling very confident.”