Westminster’s plan to improve schools gets narrow board approval

Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A plan to improve the struggling Westminster Public Schools was narrowly approved Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The Democrat-controlled board voted along party lines to approve the plan, with the Democrats voting in favor and the Republicans voting against.

The 4-3 vote followed months of negotiations and appeals between the 10,000-student district and the state.

Westminster is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face state intervention after more than five years of low performance on state English and math tests. It is the only district in the state, and one of a few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. Instead of traditional grade levels, the district moves students through instruction when they prove they’ve learned a concept.

As part of the improvement plan, the district has hired consultant AdvancEd to help diagnose problems interfering with the rollout of its teaching model and other achievement problems at each of the district’s underperforming schools.

The district previously hired the company to review its school improvement efforts. AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Under its plan, Westminster will also work with Denver-based Marzano Research to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model. Marzano will open a new lab school in the district in the 2018-19 school year. Called Marzano Academy, it will be run based on the company’s research.

Last week members of the state board pushed back on Westminster’s plan, saying it lacked clarity and didn’t make clear the roles the two companies would play.

Even though the district added new details to its plan, some state board members still balked.

“Will this program work?” Republican Steve Durham asked. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Earlier in the meeting Durham attempted to strip the district of its accreditation, a seal of approval from the state. But only one other board member, Republican Joyce Rankin, supported his motion.

State board members have increasingly voiced concern about how much authority external partners such as AdvancEd and Marzano should have in low-performing schools. A majority of plans have mirrored Westminster’s. Other options include closing schools or turning them over to charter operators.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson told the board’s Republican members that she rejected their premise that the district hasn’t been proactive in improving.

“We’re really pleased the board upheld Westminster’s plan to move forward,” Swanson said after the meeting. “We believe we’re doing great work. We believe we’ve had a great trajectory.”

community input

Group studying Adams 14 recess recommends 20 minutes, training, and new equipment

Adams 14 must prioritize making time for at least 20 minutes of recess, and also should invest in more play equipment and train its staff in developing policies for the unstructured time, a committee has reported.

A group of parents, teachers, and staff convened to research the issue of student play time, urged the school board to provide more play time for children. The advisory group was named after an uproar earlier this year when the district reduced recess times to add more instructional time.

“One of the questions that was asked several times was, ‘Where is the time going to come from?’” said committee member and grandmother, Connie Bonnell. “Well, the time has always been there. Recess has always been a part of school.”

The team was made up of three parents, a grandparent, two teachers, and an administrative assistant. They met weekly in April to talk about the issue and to craft the recommendations.

The group told the school board at a meeting Tuesday that they felt recess was important enough to schedule daily, so that students can expend energy and return to class ready to learn. The committee said the district could still benefit by learning from experts on the topic and asked the district to seek a partner to plan recess and train staff.

The group added that their discussions often focused on safety concerns.

“If you have 500 kids on a playground that’s only equipped for 200, you have a problem,” Bonnell said.

In complaining about the cuts to recess, teachers had reported that classroom behavior problems increased after kids were denied free time to play. Parents also complained that recess for students with disabilities was often even shorter because they sometimes take more time getting through a lunch line.

School board members asked the committee a handful of clarifying questions, including whether the group had looked into whether a 20-minute block was better than splitting the time into two segments.

Committee members said they did like the idea of scheduling two 10-minute breaks, but still wrote the recommendation simply asking the district to provide “at least 20 minutes of recess (non-academic physical activity) during the school hours.”

Superintendent Javier Abrego released a statement applauding the recommendations work and said they would “be the foundation for constructive changes benefitting our children and staff.”

“I am pleased to share that through the advisory committees efforts, the curriculum and instruction team has reviewed the elementary school instructional day and have developed options for how to incorporate recess/physical activity time without compromising instructional time, which we plan to implement for the 2018-19 school year,” he said in the statement.

The group’s last recommendation was to have the District Wellness Committee evaluate how recess might relate to social-emotional learning policies and then monitor the district’s progress on the recommendations. Abrego’s statement said he would ask the wellness committee to “review and operationalize” the recommendations.

Note: The story was updated with the statement from the superintendent. 


Sheridan school district picks new leader in split decision

Pat Sandos talks with board members Daniel Stange (left) and Karla Najera. (Courtesy of Sheridan School District)

A newly seated fifth member cast a deciding vote in Sheridan on Tuesday, as the school board selected an inside candidate to lead the tiny metro district – breaking more than a month of indecision by what was previously a four-member board.

Pat Sandos, one of three finalists named in March, will become superintendent in July. He currently leads work around security and mental health for the district as executive director of schools services and student behavioral and emotional supports. He is also the son of the first Denver Hispanic City Councilman, Sam Sandos.

New board member Juanita Camacho, who had a few weeks to review the candidates, cast the decisive vote, along with board members Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle.

Finding a replacement for current superintendent Michael Clough has been a contentious process, that has included shouting at board meetings, and emotional community backing for Antonio Esquibel, a Denver administrator who was called “inspirational,” and seen as more likely to introduce needed changes. Some parents, students, teachers, and community members have complained that the district ignores them and isn’t doing enough to improve school performance.

Some also pointed to Esquibel’s Hispanic background to say he might also be a better advocate for Sheridan children, 88 percent of them children of color, up from 81.9 percent in 2010.

Sheridan, a district of about 1,400 students, improved enough on state ratings in 2016 to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low performance and to avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still below state averages.

Some board members said that Sheridan has been improving and said they favored an internal candidate because they didn’t want to stop the district’s momentum.

“Because I’ve built relationships in the district, we can hit the ground running,” Sandos told the school board at his interview last month.

The board initially named three finalists in late March and wanted to name a new superintendent by mid-April, but deadlocked right away.

On April 11, the board president appointed Camacho, who acted Tuesday as a tie-breaker. That board seat had been empty for more than 12 years as no one in the outlined neighborhood corresponding to the seat had expressed interest.

The Sheridan board will vote on a proposed contract for Sandos at a later meeting. The job listing stated that the starting salary would be a minimum of $150,000 plus benefits.

Clough, who had moved to part-time years ago, has a contract with an annual salary of $63,654 for 140 days of work.

Sandos acknowledged the controversy in the process after the vote.

“Without question, Sheridan has made major strides of late — but we all know there is plenty of work ahead,” Sandos said in a news release. “The process brought some strong opinions to the table, and I certainly hope we can tap that passionate support for Sheridan students and turn it into positive momentum.”