The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.
The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.
Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.
A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.
Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.
The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.
After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.
But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.
Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.
But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.
“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”
The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.
Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.
“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.
According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.
But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.
According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.
“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.
Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.
The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.
But Risley has lagged behind.
Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.
Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.
The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.
Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.
As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.
First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.
“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”
The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.
Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.
“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”