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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.”

preliminary

Adams 14 falls short in its upward climb. Now the state could step in.

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district will likely face more state intervention, after the struggling district failed to meet its goals to raise achievement in various areas, including state tests.

Preliminary state ratings released by the Colorado Department of Education Monday morning showed some bright spots in the district’s performance, but overall, it was not enough to add up to a better rating in the state’s five-tier system.

Despite that, district officials spent the day celebrating at three schools that earned the state’s highest rating. Out of the district’s 11 schools, three is the most the district has ever had in the top tier.

“Everyone should be proud of the progress being made at these schools, which is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our students, families and staff,” read a statement from Superintendent Javier Abrego. “While it is important to celebrate these successes, we must also take ownership of the unacceptable and insufficient growth and pace of improvement across the district. Adams 14 will work alongside the state to determine the best outcome for students, staff and families.”

Districts can appeal before the state finalizes the preliminary ratings. Adams 14 officials said they will file appeals for at least three school ratings. If successful, the state could also change the district’s rating.

The 7,500-student district north of Denver has suffered instability and low performance for years. Current Superintendent Javier Abrego joined the district in 2016, making bold promises that he would help the district improve within two years — and telling the community they should hold him to it.

Colorado Department of Education

Monday, Abrego said he has kept his word, but said he will look to reach the goal of having no schools in the bottom two categories of ratings by 2019.

“We’re happy with the progress,” Abrego said. “It’s never been done here. We’ve never had this kind of success.”

In the changes the state had already required, the district was to work with an outside partner to improve curriculum and teacher training. The district was also to create a better monitoring system for its schools so it could respond faster when things aren’t going well in a school. Some of those changes were slow to roll out.

State test scores released two weeks ago had given district officials an indication that the ratings wouldn’t be what they were hoping for, and officials had said at that time that they were starting to prepare for another hearing with the state.

The process will be new. State officials Monday said they don’t have the process mapped out yet, but will seek State Board of Education feedback next month.

In spring 2017, Colorado held its first hearings under new laws to come up with plans to improve schools and districts that had more than five successive years of low performance. For each one, the state set different timeframes and deadlines for improvement. Of the districts that had state hearings, Adams 14 is the first district to fail to sufficiently improve by its deadline.

The state now may take further action, which can include actions as drastic as ordering schools to be closed or merging a district with a higher-performing one.

State officials said Monday that the State Board of Education could choose to let the district continue rolling out its plans, make changes to those plans, or the state could direct some other intervention.

Besides the district, Adams City High School, which was under a separate state intervention plan, but with the same timeframe, will also have to face the state again. Although the school improved from the lowest rating to “priority improvement,” it failed to meet state goals.

Two schools on state plans in Pueblo 60 — Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy — also have preliminary ratings that would require them to have another state hearing this year so officials can review the plans.

Adams 14 faces an additional problem, with another of its schools that has reached its limit of low ratings. Central Elementary has a preliminary state rating of “priority improvement,” which if finalized, will mean it will be placed under a state improvement plan.

Central Elementary is one of the schools that was working with Beyond Textbooks, the partner that Adams 14 paid to work with low-performing schools as part of its state-ordered improvement plan.

out of the woods

With test scores nudging up, Westminster escapes state’s watchlist

Superintendent Pam Swanson and the Westminster school board celebrate their state ratings. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Public Schools)

Westminster Public Schools has improved enough to escape from the state’s crosshairs as a low-performing district, to the relief of school officials.

According to preliminary state ratings released Monday, the district has earned an “improvement” rating, or the middle rating on the state’s five-tier system for districts.

The district has been working under a state-ordered plan to raise student achievement and this year continued to post gradual but steady improvement in student growth across state test scores.

Colorado Department of Education

The district had just one more year to show that the plan was working, or else could have faced further state intervention. With the improvement this year, the district will no longer be under the state plan or timeline or face the threat of state action that could include closing schools or asking the district to merge with a higher-performing one.

But Westminster officials said their improvement plan will still be rolled out, because it was what the district intended to do anyway.

“Regardless, that’s Westminster’s plan,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said Monday afternoon. “I believe we are going to continue to see progress. We have to double down to keep that up.”

When the district was facing state intervention for the first time, Westminster officials argued that the state’s rating system was unfair because of the district’s demographics and its education model.

For almost a decade, Westminster schools have been using a competency-based model where students aren’t placed in a class based on their age and corresponding grade level. Instead, 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. The switch to the model caught national media attention when it was first announced. Despite its struggles, Westminster has steadfastly stood by its model, an innovation among public schools.

District officials say their improvement now is proof the model works.

“For many years we have asked the Colorado Department of Education to provide more flexibility in its accountability system to support innovation instead of focusing on high-stakes, once-a-year testing,” Swanson said in a press release. “The state resisted, but we pushed forward with our model and have now shown success, even by the traditional state standards. It’s very gratifying.”

One of the components of that plan was to work with education researcher Robert Marzano to create a school in the district to be used as a lab for teachers to develop their skills in using the competency-based model. The district closed the former Flynn Elementary School and reopened it this month as the Marzano School.

School-by-school ratings clearly show Westminster’s improvement.

This year only one school, Westminster High, fell into the bottom two tiers. The high school, however, did not start rolling out the district’s education model at the same time as the rest of the district, and when it did, did so one grade level at a time, district officials said.

Westminster had more schools in the top category than it had before — nine, more than twice as many as last year.

Besides its unique educational model, Westminster board President Ryan McCoy also credited increased student and parental engagement for the district’s improvement.

“Students have to own their work as well,” McCoy said.

But officials said that’s all part of getting better, or “going deeper” in using the competency-based model.