Officials from Denver Public Schools asked parents and teachers at a North City Park elementary school to trust them as they introduced the campus’ new principal Monday night.
Jason Krause, described by the district as a “proven school leader,” will become Columbine Elementary School’s fifth principal in seven years when he takes over in the fall.
Columbine is one of the district’s lowest performing elementary schools. Parents pointed to the lack of consistency in the principal’s office as a fundamental reason the school is struggling.
“I don’t want to be the guinea pig school anymore,” said Melissa Skrbic-Huss, Columbine’s PTA president. “I don’t know if I can trust you guys.”
District officials said they’ve heard the community’s concern and have a longterm commitment from Krause.
“Our goal now is to create a stable community with your help,” said Erin McMahon, a DPS instructional superintendent. “I’m OK if you don’t believe us right now. But let’s give it some time and figure [Columbine's future] out together.”
Krause will replace Beth Yates, who is currently leading Columbine for her second year. Some parents and teachers were shocked to learn of the district’s decision to swap leaders — again. Despite inheriting a school in free-fall, Yates has rallied her staff and the school was showing progress in both its culture and test scores, they said.
District officials agreed and acknowledged Yate’s successes Monday night. But those changes weren’t happening fast enough, Ivan Duran, assistant superintendent for elementary education, told Monday’s crowd of about three dozen.
“We really can’t experiment anymore,” Duran said, introducing Krause, who in three years as principal at Smith Renaissance Elementary School saw double-digit gains in proficiency scores. Smith’s enrollment, which determines a school’s budget, is also up, Duran said. (The district will launch a full principal search, including community input, to replace Krause at Smith.)
At Columbine, the district is trying to combat declining enrollment, Duran said. Moreover, the leadership change was also a requirement for the school to receive a school improvement grant from the state.
For Krause, who began his teaching career at Columbine, it was a bit of a homecoming. A college philosophy major, who speaks Spanish, he joined the school through an alternative teacher-licensing program in the late 1990s.
Krause was also among the last generation of DPS students who were bused under a court mandate to integrate the urban schools. He said, in retrospect, the experience was the foundation of his yearning to be in the classroom.
“It made me value diversity,” he said.
Krause said he hopes to be a part of the Columbine community for years to come.
“I am not the kind of person who wants to put a band-aid on the school and leave,” he said. “It’s really special to be back.”
As part of the transition, the district will form a steering committee at Columbine made up of teachers, parents and community members. There will be a two and a half day “vision” retreat at the end of May. Additionally, Krause and district officials will survey families living inside of Columbine’s attendance boundaries but have decided to send their children to other schools.
Fourth grade teacher Blake Hammond said he hopes the school will develop a culture of grit and celebrate thinking outside the box.
“Let’s do something exciting,” he said.
One parent, who said three generations of her family have attended Columbine, said she hopes the school can be returned to its glory days when more than 500 students filled the halls. Next year’s enrollment is projected at 172 students.
Other requests from parents included art and music classes.
One parent who said his family was committed to the northeast Denver neighborhood wondered aloud if DPS was as well.
“The concern of a lot of parents — what we talk about on the weekends — is not just Columbine,” Jonathan Hammond said. “It’s Columbine, Barrett [Elementary School], Manual [High School]. We want to know DPS’s plan for northeast Denver. … The schools are dismal. Our hope, our dream is beyond Columbine, a quality middle school and high school. We want to make sure all of the northeast Denver schools do well — that our schools are not just the armpit of DPS.”
Instructional superintendent McMahon said DPS shared his concern.
“Our longterm goal is to see kids through college,” she said.
Charter school teachers and staff at United Neighborhood Organization charter schools are preparing to vote on what some say could be one of the biggest labor contracts for a charter school network in the country.
The scandal-plagued UNO network, one of the largest charter networks in Chicago, and the union reached a tentative agreement late last month after dozens of negotiation sessions that started in May 2013. UNO agreed last March to allow teachers to form a union.
Charter school officials did not respond to requests for comment on the pending agreement, and union leaders declined to share details, as neither UNO’s board nor the teachers have yet voted on the deal. But educators’ priorities included the elimination of merit pay, shorter schooldays and a shorter calendar year.
The UNO Charter School Network’s Board of Directors will vote on the tentative agreement on Wednesday during a special meeting at the Roberto Clemente campus, according to an agenda posted at the organization’s main office. Meanwhile union members will begin voting on a school-by-school basis on March 17.
"We know this is something that has never been done before and we’re pretty pleased," says Rob Heise, an English teacher at UNO’s Garcia High School and a union delegate on the negotiating team. “My No. 1 personal goal was to create a place where teachers didn’t have to choose between having a family and being a teacher.”
A model for more charter unions
What makes this tentative agreement so unique is the number of schools and educators involved in a single labor contract involving a charter.
The UNO contract, if approved, would cover between 500 and 550 teachers and other employees – including information technology staff, office support, counselors, paraprofessionals and apprentices—at the 13 elementary schools and three high schools that make up the network, organizers say.
Charter school labor contracts are often negotiated on a school-by-school basis, not for all schools within a single network. In recent years, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), which falls under the umbrellas of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has negotiated contracts for about 300 teachers and staff at 11 of the city’s 126 charter schools.
The UNO contract would more than double those numbers.
"Everybody is going to be looking at the UNO contract as a model,” said Chicago ACTS President Brian Harris, who added that some of the key wins at other schools have included improved health care plans for families and employer contributions to teachers’ pension plans.
Many existing labor contracts at Chicago charter schools include no-strike agreements and tie teacher pay to student performance, although Harris says he now discourages members from agreeing to the merit pay clauses.
“One of the things our union has moved away from is merit pay agreements,” Harris says. “They’ve been a complete disaster so far. Everybody hates them.”
Unlike traditional public schools, the vast majority of charter schools are not unionized. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, just 12 percent of the country’s charter schools were unionized during the 2009-2010 school year, the last year during which the group collected data
Advocates for charter schools have long said that operating without a labor agreement allows for more innovation in curriculum development and the ability to offer more instructional hours than traditional public schools.
“One of the keys to running a successful charter school is the flexibility to structure the school, including teaching agreements, in a way that best serves the needs of the students,” wrote Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance, in an e-mail to Catalyst Chicago. “Sometimes this means offering students a little extra tutoring help or a slightly longer school day. Unfortunately, the agreements unions negotiate are often not flexible enough to address changing circumstances during a school year.”
UNO scandal bolstered union drive?
Across the country, charter school educators who do unionize often benefit from the help of traditional teachers unions, including the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), which have bolstered their ranks with charter school employees.
“Teachers who come to us often went into a charter school because they wanted a voice and bigger say in their school, but without a union, that doesn’t become a reality,” says Jim Testerman, senior director for the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “And to attract and retain the best and the brightest, you need a good compensation package, making sure you have due process […] as well as a stable workforce.”
Charter schools tend to have higher teacher turnover than traditional public schools, which also means they spend less on salaries for more experienced teachers. For example, state records show that the average UNO teacher earns less than $53,000 per year, while teachers at traditional Chicago Public Schools earn more than $70,000 on average.
UNO union members credit two major factors for their ability to unify educators across the network: The support of traditional teachers unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the AFT, and the timing of a major corruption scandal involving former UNO CEO Juan Rangel.
CTU leaders, for example, offered informal advice and guidance to UNO teachers at the contract negotiating sessions and assigned an organizer to work with charter schools in the city.
Last year Rangel stepped down from his posts as head of both the charter school network, which he helped create in 1998, and its parent political organization, after a Chicago Sun-Times investigation uncovered a pattern of contract steering and cronyism at the privately run, but publicly financed charter school chain. The state has since pulled millions in grant money to UNO while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating a 2011 bond deal that helped expand the network.
“When the s--t hit the fan with Juan, I don’t know if it created an opening for us to unionize,” Heise says. “But this probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
Patrick Haugh, formerly the vice president of program investments at the Chicago Public Education Fund, is now the president of Teaching Trust. Based in Dallas, Texas, the Teaching Trust develops programs to prepare educators to lead change from the “inside out” and to build trust across organizations central to transformational change—districts, charters, higher education and other non-profits.
Joshua Vander Jagt, an assistant principal at Kenwood High School, is now the contract principal at Ogden Elementary.
The Chicago Teachers’ Center at Northeastern Illinois University has a new name—The Center for College Access and Success. The new center will focus on the coordination of a university-wide effort that will draw on the expertise of all of its colleges to strengthen and enhance programming targeted at helping P-12 students gain access and succeed in college.
The American Federation of Teachers ended a five-year relationship with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after rank-and-file union members expressed deep distrust of the foundation's approach to education reform.
AFT President Randi Weingarten told Politico's Morning Education the union will no longer accept Gates money for its Innovation Fund, which was founded in 2009 and has received up to $1 million a year in Gates grants ever since. The Innovation Fund has sponsored AFT efforts to help teachers implement the Common Core standards—a Gates priority—among other initiatives.
RALLY FOR TEST BOYCOTTERS: A group of about 100 people rallied Monday in the Bridgeport neighborhood to call on Chicago Public Schools officials not to retaliate against a group of teachers who refused to administer a state mandated test to students. CPS had threatened the boycotting teachers with disciplinary measures including decertification if they did not administer the multi-day Illinois State Achievement Test, which began last week. (Sun-Times)
BILL HAS ALEC BACKING: Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palestine) is the sponsor of SB 3533, a bill that would give public school students a choice of who will teach them - a teacher in their local schools or a "provider" in a remote location, even in another state. Murphy's bill, now assigned to the Senate Education Committee for consideration, was drafted by ALEC, a right-wing, corporate-funded, state policy-shaping organization based in Arlington, VA. (Illinois School News Service)
A bill introduced Monday would give charter schools a greater voice in planning of tax override ballot measures proposed by their districts.
House Bill 14-1314, which — significantly — has bipartisan sponsorship, would require school districts to include charters in the planning for ballot measures that propose raising taxes to meet operating expenses. In additional to a variety of other requirements, if a district decided not include a charter in a ballot proposal, it would have to provide reasons in writing to the charter. The bill also would authorize districts to propose ballot measures just for charter schools. (Read the bill text here.)
A law passed several years ago requires similar consultation with charters on district bond proposals.
There are other charter finance bills floating around this session, although they deal with charter facilities costs. (See the Education Bill Tracker for information on House Bill 14-1187 and Senate Bill 14-139.)
There’s also money for charter facilities in House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, the “big bill” that’s on hold pending release next week of updated state revenue forecasts. (See this story on all that details on that bill and this year’s school finance battle.)
In other developments Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave 5-0 approval to House Bill 14-1152, which would set deadlines for government agencies to erase video recordings taken by “passive” surveillance cameras. (Thinks of cameras mounted on ceilings that record video continuously, or cameras on parking lot light poles.)
The bill would apply to local governments, including school districts. But districts contacted by Chalkbeat Colorado – and the Colorado School Safety Resource Center – indicated the bill wouldn’t have much effect on schools.
That’s because cameras have limited data storage capacity, and new video is recorded over old video after a relatively short period of time. For instance, the Denver Public Schools keeps 30 days’ worth of video, and because of overwriting video generally isn’t kept more than 120 days, according to spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong. DPS has about 2,500 such cameras, she said.
Also Monday, the House gave final approval to Senate Bill 14-112, which would give he legislature oversight over cash grants awarded by the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. The bill basically means that the General Assembly could set a ceiling on the amount of cash grants awarded annually. The measure, which now goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper, is one of several bills floating around this year that propose to tweak the BEST program.
The Capitol debate over school finance this year has reached a level of intensity not seen since 2010’s battle over teacher evaluations.
Facing off are school districts that want significant restoration of past budget cuts and lawmakers and education reform groups who are trying to save pieces of 2013’s comprehensive school finance overhaul. (That law isn’t in effect because voters rejected the tax increase needed to pay for it.)
Also looming over the debate is the tricky long-range financial question of whether putting more money into basic school funding this year will set the state up for budget problems in later years, and set school districts up for future cuts.
The battle is being fought over hard-to-read spreadsheets; an alphabet soup of acronyms like ADM, ELL and BEST and most of all over something called the “negative factor.”
At the eye of the storm is House Bill 14-1292, introduced late last month but in the works since last November after voters defeated Amendment 66. The bill went through lots of versions before it was introduced, and backers made significant concessions to critics before the 113-page measure surfaced officially.
But opposition to the bill and heavy pressure to amend it remain strong, and those voices were in full cry during a 6 ½-hour House Education Committee hearing March 3 (see story).
Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the panel and a prime sponsor of HB 14-1292, had announced ahead of time that the committee wouldn’t consider amendments nor vote on the bill at the meeting.
“We will do our very best to respond to what we heard tonight,” she said at the hearing’s close.
With most everyone’s views now on the public record, discussions about HB 14-1292 have returned to a long series of private meetings between lobbyists, interest group leaders and sponsors in an effort to find additional common ground before House Education again takes up the bill. Most observers expect that won’t happen until after March 18, when updated state revenue forecasts are issued.What’s driving the arguments
Why has the school finance debate reached this level of intensity?
The causes lie in the interplay of major education bills passed and K-12 budget cuts imposed over the past six years. Here’s a review:
Reform measures: The 2008 legislature passed the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, which required new content standards, new tests, greater coordination between K-12 and higher education and other reforms. That was followed in 2009 by a new accountability and rating system for schools and districts, the educator effectiveness and evaluation law in 2010 and the READ Act, the early literacy program, in 2012.
Because most of the laws had long rollout timelines, most of them really only hit schools this school year, creating a stiff implementation challenge for many districts, particularly because most of the new programs didn’t come with extra state funding.Average per-pupil funding
Budget cuts: The 2008 recession shrank state revenues significantly, forcing lawmakers to cut K-12 funding in order to balance annual budgets without excessive cuts to other programs. They accomplished that by using a narrower interpretation of school finance law that applies constitutionally required annual increases only to part of K-12 funding, not the entire amount. That’s what’s called the negative factor, which is applied after the theoretical total for K-12 funding is calculated, thereby reducing the amount to what lawmakers feel they can afford.
“What’s the negative factor? The state gives us money and then takes it away,” is how John McCleary puts it. He is the superintendent of the 69-student Liberty school district in the northeastern plains community of Joes.
Total program funding has declined from a high of $5.58 billion in 2009-10 and has returned to only $5.51 billion this year. Over the same period average per-pupil funding has dropped from $7,078 to $6,652. (The low point was $6,474 in 2011-12.) It’s estimated K-12 funding this year is about $1.1 billion below what it would have been if the negative factor hadn’t been used.
High hopes in 2013: The major education debate last year was over Senate Bill 13-213, an ambitious overhaul of school finance law drafted by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. (A key feature of that bill was a significant shift of funding from wealthier districts to those with the highest percentages of at-risk students. That idea isn’t on the table this year because of cost.) Many districts and interest groups weren’t wild about Johnston’s bill but joined the effort because of hopes voters would approve the accompanying $1 billion annual income tax increase. They didn’t, leaving SB 13-213 unimplemented and schools with no new state revenue.
Recovering revenues: State revenues started growing again a couple of years ago, and the legislature also has tucked surplus money into the State Education Fund (SEF), a dedicated account used to both supplement annual state school support and for special programs. The fund now contains more than $1 billion.
The bottom line is that school districts, squeezed by cuts and frustrated by the lack of new revenues, see rising state revenues and a big balance in the SEF as ways to start reducing the negative factor.
“There’s tremendous passion among the districts around the state,” Brett Ridgway, director of finance for the Falcon district, testified during the House Education hearing.PHOTO: Boulder SchoolsBoulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo
“This touches every corner of the state,” Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger told a recent meeting of the Colorado School Finance Project, a research and advocacy group. “We aren’t going to allow this [the negative factor] to become the new normal.”
Messinger said that the effort has the support of every elected school board in the state. “If we don’t prevail it won’t be because we didn’t try,” Messinger said, calling on advocates of greater funding to “make people uncomfortable.”
Such feelings have forged unusual unanimity among mainline education lobbying groups and increased pressure on lawmakers from the squads of school board members, superintendents and teachers who’ve been descending on the Capitol weekly to buttonhole lawmakers on the issue.
“What’s remarkable is how superintendents in the state have come together to agree on some core principles,” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
“I’ve never seen such uniformity of passion and interest,” notes Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.What they’re arguing about
The debate can be confusing, what with all the acronyms and the complicated math inherent in any school finance discussion. Here’s a look at the key elements of HB 14-1292 and the points of disagreement:Do your homework
Negative factor and base funding: HB 14-1291 would trim the negative factor by $100 million. (Early discussions among sponsors didn’t include any negative factor reduction, and a pre-introduction draft of the measure proposed only $80 million, so lobbying has had some effect.) The Colorado Association of School Boards has called for elimination of the negative factor over five years (so, $200 million a year), and virtually all the state’s superintendents have signed a letter calling for a $275 million reduction this year (see story).
“We do appreciate how far that conversation has come in the last eight weeks,” Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of CASB told the education committee on March 3. “It doesn’t go far enough in our view.”
A really important – and really complicated – aspect of the discussion is the future impact of big reductions in the negative factor for 2014-15. Because such reductions would build base school funding, that would mean larger amounts of mandatory funding would be required in future years. (Amendment 23 in the state constitution requires base funding to increase annually by inflation and enrollment.)
Most of the growth in future K-12 spending would have to be borne by the state’s main General Fund, because budget experts assume the big balance in the SEF is a one-time phenomenon. Additional pressures also face the General Fund – other state programs like Medicaid and scheduled future transfers to transportation and even taxpayer refunds if future revenues hit certain trigger points.
Legislative leaders, budget experts in the Joint Budget Committee and the Hickenlooper administration are worried about those pressures – not to mention the next recession, whenever it hits. They fear too large a commitment to school funding would require – you guessed it – revival of the negative factor when times get tough.House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver
“We don’t want to get into a place … where in two or three years we have to cut schools again,” House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, told reporters during a recent briefing.
He also called the superintendents’ $275 million request “not sustainable,” adding, “I hope when the fiscal realities set in we can come to agreement” on a reasonable reduction of the negative factor.
Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, sounded a similar note. Speaking of district leaders, she said, “It’s their job to push for more money for education.” She added, “I think they’re starting to understand” the implications of buying down the negative factor. “These dialogues are starting to go in the right direction.”
Reform implementation: The bill includes $40 million to be distributed to districts on a per-student basis to help cover the costs of rolling out new standards, tests and teacher evaluations. (SB 13-213 also included this feature – with a lot more money.) This year’s bill also would earmark $5 million in state school construction funds for technology grants to districts. (Distributed to every district, the one-time funding would amount to $47 per student.)
While districts have griped for years about lack of state financial help to pay for state-imposed programs, their desire this year is for more money with no strings.
“Continue to work on this bill to ensure that we have operating revenue that isn’t earmarked,” testified Kirk Banghart, superintendent of the Moffat district in the San Luis Valley. ”We need it without earmarks.”
English language learners: The bill proposes to use $35 million to upgrade the state’s programs for English learners, including extension of students’ eligibility to five years. Many Democrats and Republicans – and educators and advocacy groups – support this idea in concept. But, again, districts this year want money without strings. Some bill supporters argue the ELL money is a modest way to help some at-risk students. Leaders from districts with lots of at-risk students who aren’t English language learners aren’t impressed with that argument.
Early literacy: Another $20 million is in the bill to help districts pay cost for the READ Act, which requires individual literacy plans for K-3 students who lag in reading. (The READ Act was one of the few reform bills of recent years that had funding from the start, but costs have been greater than expected.)
Kindergarten construction: The state school construction fund is projected to receive $40 million in revenue from recreational marijuana taxes. HB 14-1292 proposes taking $30 million of that for kindergarten facilities construction, plus the $5 million for technology mentioned above and $5 million for charter school facilities. Supporters of the Building Excellent Schools Today program want the money for that program and argue the diversion may even be unconstitutional. This has become one of the more contentious parts of the bill.
Charter facilities: The bill also proposes a $13 million boost in the $7 million in annual funding charter schools now receive to help defray facilities costs. There’s agreement in many quarters that charters are squeezed on building costs, and this is a part of the bill strongly backed by legislative Republicans.
Enrollment and transparency: Two recycled proposals from SB 13-213 are sections of HB 14-1292 that propose converting the state’s one-day enrollment count system to what’s called average daily membership (which involves multiple counts) and creation of a state website that would provide school-level spending information. The total cost would be $15 million. Some legislative Republicans like these ideas, and they’re pet issues for some reform groups, who believe the current system doesn’t get funding to the students who need it most. District interests are pushing back hard on these two proposals, claiming they would impose more paperwork on districts and that the money would – again – be better used in reducing the negative factor.
(See this chart for more details on the cost of the bill’s elements.)Undercurrents in the debate
While much of the rhetoric over HB 14-1292 is about adequate funding, there is a bit of tension about education reform in the debate.
Interestingly, that surfaced at the House Education hearing during an exchange between two Douglas County Republicans.
Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker was sympathetic to witnesses’ pleas for local flexibility, saying legislators “need to stop breaking what we can’t fix.”
That brought a quick retort from Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, a leading GOP figure on education issues and a co-prime sponsor of HB 14-1292.
“I have to take exception, Rep. Holbert. There are many children that are failing in this state,” she said. Legislators and the state “definitely have a role. … I’m not ready to back off on those children who are being left behind.”It’s not just about one bill Impacts of the negative factor The Colorado School Finance Project recently surveyed districts about how they would be affected by a $200 million buy down of the negative factor or by no change in the factor. Some 80 districts responded. Under the first scenario, some districts reported they could rehire teachers, unfreeze salaries, rely less on reserves and even buy buses and fix some buildings. Without a buy down, most districts predicted further cuts and continued use of reserves.Read the responses here.
It will take more than HB 14-1292 to set next year’s school funding.
The main state budget bill, not yet introduced, will carry the base funding for districts. A second measure, House Bill 14-1298, is a vehicle for additional funding. In its current form the most notable portions of that measure (also known as the school finance act) are:
House Education is expected to consider HB 14-1298 at the same time it takes up the Student Success Act again.What happens next
The two sets of revenue forecasts that will be issued by state economists on March 18 will be key for school finance (and the entire state budget) because they will give a more refined estimate of how much money lawmakers have to spend next year.
Ferrandino said, “It’s definitely possible” the negative factor buy down could be less than $100 million if the revenue estimates are down.
That will affect the negotiations over HB 14-1292 and how the bill may be amended in House Education.
The bill has wide – if perhaps superficial on the part of some members — support in the House, with 35 sponsors from both parties.
Some observers expect the bill could see significant changes in the Senate, whose members haven’t been as deeply involved in the discussions. So far the bill has only one Senate sponsor – Johnston.
As a Manual High School alum and community member who has been deeply involved in Manual for years, I feel a sense of responsibility to share some insights based on past (and recent) experience as the community and district work to determine – yet again – the future of Manual and its students.
While many may see this most recent round of problems at Manual as a déjà vu moment all over again, I know bold and right decisions can be made now that will chart a new course for the Manual community, one that will do right by the students today, and long into the future. After all, it is long past time that we finally get this right.
During the closing and reopening of Manual under Superintendent Michael Bennet, I had the privilege of working for Denver Public Schools as the liaison to Manual. We had high hopes about what the school could become, even in the wake and turmoil of the failure of the small schools initiative. Despite deep heartache and skepticism surrounding the closure, there was also a great deal of optimism about the future – because there was an abiding belief and obsessive optimism that Manual could be a great school.
There was progress for some years under Principal Rob Stein. However, after a more recent round of failed strategy and leadership, many are shaking their heads and throwing up their hands, dubious as to whether anything can work, or searching for the next experiment to try, at Manual.
Neither route is right.
Because despite the failure of all the adults (including myself), the Manual community and students are capable and deserving, and resilient. And ready – and hungry – for success. We have already lost too much precious time – and failed far too many deserving students. We cannot wait any longer to get Manual right. This latest failure creates the chance for a fresh start. But this MUST be the last start.
In an effort to seed success and help inform the work of the Manual community, I offer a few insights:
The Manual Community Council (a group of over 30 leaders that was formed during the closure of Manual) produced a report that broadly represented what they wanted in the future of Manual. Although this is a new time, there are many core concepts in this document that could serve as a starting point for the current group tasked with the future of Manual.
There is an opportunity to do right by past, current, and future Manual students. No more experiments. Only proven leaders or proven providers. It is way past time to get things right. And that commitment should be a primary focus for all stakeholders.
Manual represents deserving and capable students, and is a beautiful facility in the heart of the city surrounded by a diverse and passionate community. We can make it a cultural and educational centerpiece again. And we must.
With the number of homeless children in Illinois on the rise, many school districts across the state admit that they aren’t providing students all of the educational services they need. Since 2009, the number of homeless students has doubled in size statewide to nearly 55,000. In Chicago, the number has risen sharply to 18,854 from 12,512.
In a recent survey, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless documented the lack of services and is now urging the state Legislature to reinstate an additional $3 million that it last earmarked in 2009 for tutoring, preschool, counseling and other support.
The online survey of three dozen regional educational offices and school districts was self-reported. Among the findings:
- 52 percent of survey respondents said more than half of homeless students weren’t receiving tutoring or preschool, even though they needed it. Many respondents wrote about the kinds of services they’d like to offer, including “tutoring after school and in the evenings at shelters and transitional housing.”
- 56 percent said that more than half of homeless students did not receive counseling. In Chicago, for example, the district estimated that only 25 to 50 percent of homeless who need counseling services actually receive them.
- 44 percent said they had “limited” or “very limited” capacity to identify and enroll homeless students in the school.
Patricia Nix-Hode, associate director of the coalition’s Law Project, says it was important to quantify some of the problems the advocacy organization had been hearing about anecdotally.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides funding to states for services to keep homeless students in school, including preschool. Students are entitled to transportation to attend the school they were in before they became homeless to assure stability. Illinois receives $5 million, which homeless advocates say is not enough.
In its report, titled “Gaps in Educational Supports for Illinois Homeless Students,” the coalition carefully steered clear of criticizing districts for not providing mandated services; one of every five survey respondents said that less than half of students who need transportation get it.
“With more resources, districts will be able to provide the best services to homeless students and these gaps would be addressed,” Nix-Hode says.
Students are identified as homeless if they’re living on the streets, in cars or if their families have doubled up for financial reasons.
“It’s very difficult to focus on academics when you don’t know where you may lay your head at night or where you’re going to get your next meal,” says Mary Fergus, an ISBE spokeswoman.
Tom Bookler, who serves as a homeless liaison for the north and northwestern suburbs of Cook County, says the additional state funding in 2009 coupled with other federal stimulus funds allowed districts to dedicate more personnel to homeless students and their families.
“Now we’re all stretched thin,” Bookler says. “I believe my districts are doing as much as they can for the families and certainly doing what’s required by law…but it’s difficult to implement everything you want because of the funding.”
In recent years, the district has touted its growth in Advanced Placement course-taking among black and Latino students. Education experts say the introduction to tougher academic coursework in high school helps pave a smoother path to college. But there’s a significant caveat: Far fewer students achieve the ultimate goal of college credit by earning a 3 or higher on AP exams.
Enter Richard Gelb’s senior English composition class on the third floor of Juarez High School in Pilsen, where an alternative to AP coursework is on display. The class is one of a growing number of dual credit classes that bring college coursework to high school campuses.
Today, four young women lead the class through a PowerPoint on the story “Vampires Never Die.” They discuss the history of vampire lore, present a literary analysis and define advanced vocabulary, such as panacea and dystopia.
When they are done, Gelb asks if anyone has questions. They don’t, so Gelb has them pick questions from a set he has handed out. One question is about gender roles. A student named Kevin observes that vampires are usually men; if they were women, they would be called witches. After the discussion, the rest of the period is spent writing essays.
Stephanie Gil says Gelb’s class is similar to the AP English class she took last year, with one big difference: She is much more likely to earn college credit.
Dual credit courses, along with dual enrollment courses that bring high schools students to college campuses, make up the district’s Early College program and are changing the high school day for a growing number of students. In CPS, enrollment in early college courses has soared from 816 three years ago to 2,350 this year. Over the next two years, CPS and the City Colleges of Chicago would like to see the number reach 4,000. (Only a handful of students take early college courses at other institutions.)
About 89 percent of students in dual enrollment classes and 79 percent of those in dual credit courses earn college credit for them, according to CPS.
The growth of early college course-taking in CPS mirrors that of many suburban and rural school districts in Illinois. In some districts, virtually every senior graduates with at least some college credit.
The trend is national too. According to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics, 82 percent of high schools had students enrolling in dual enrollment coursework in 2011. (Many of these students were in career and technical education courses.)
Seats left empty
Before 2011, only small pockets of students participated in early college classes. Only five high schools offered dual credit classes and about 600 students took dual enrollment classes. Some high schools had small, one-off programs that sent students to City Colleges and other colleges, but the effort wasn’t coordinated and bureaucratic snafus sometimes cropped up.
Freda Richmond, early college manager at City Colleges, says that it was a “best-kept secret.”
In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told CPS and City Colleges to work together to increase early college participation. In 2012, the City Colleges started offering 100 free courses to high schools at each of its seven campuses.
Now, 30 high schools offer dual credit and scores of students are in dual enrollment courses.
The benefits are well documented. A 2013 study by the American Institutes for Research found that students in early college programs had higher graduation and college enrollment rates than a comparison group of students. The study examined an initiative in California community colleges that was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Plus, students and their families can save a lot of money. One young man at Kennedy High School earned all the prerequisites for the City Colleges nursing program. “He has been really strategic,” says Josh Kaufmann, senior manager of Early College Initiatives for CPS.
Being on a college campus can be especially important for those first-generation college-goers and shows them they can be successful in college, Kaufmann adds.
Says Richmond: “This is a great opportunity to see if you are ready for the rigor of college. This demystifies college.”
In CPS, most early college students take English or math courses, and must be a junior or senior with a GPA of at least 2.5 to be eligible. (Some students take career and technical education classes, which do not have any requirements.)
To earn credit, students have to meet requirements set out by City Colleges. For example, in Gelb’s English class, students have to submit three essays and earn passing grades on them. Of 31 students, 30 earned college credit last year.
Chadra Lang, who works for Kaufmann at CPS, notes that one of the best things about dual credit and dual enrollment is that it gives mid-level students an opportunity to earn college credit, which doesn’t happen with AP courses.
Suburban and rural high schools came to this realization long ago. At Alton High School in Alton, Ill., about 25 minutes from St. Louis, most students take at least one early college class. The school’s program has been running strong for at least five years.
Assistant Principal Catherine Elliott says the school is just starting to offer AP classes, mostly to attract students who are considering more selective universities and want the chance to get transferable credits. Some out-of-state colleges, and highly selective schools like Northwestern University, won’t take credits issued by Lewis and Clark College, the community college in the area.
Rewards for the motivated
For those that do dual enrollment classes, perhaps the most important, if intangible, benefit to students is the experience of actually going to a college campus.
While a student at Phoenix Military Academy, Francisco Peralta took English 101 and English 102 at Harold Washington College in the Loop. The classes started at 7 p.m. and lasted an hour and a half, allowing him to continue participating in after-school activities.
“I was the youngest one there,” Peralta says. He ended up enrolling at Harold Washington because it is more affordable than the four-year colleges he was accepted into. Making the transition was easy.
Juarez Principal Juan Ocon prefers dual credit classes because sometimes traveling to college campuses and fitting an off-site class into a school day can be difficult for students.
Yet offering dual credit classes can be a challenge also. For one, the high school teacher must have a masters’ degree in the subject they are teaching. Many teachers do not, though they have advanced degrees in education.
Gelb, who is also Juarez’s assistant principal, is unique: He has a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Gelb usually teaches freshmen, because of the importance of freshman year. But for the last two years, he has taught the dual credit class. “Teaching these students is a treat,” he says.
Gelb has one complaint. Only students who get a certain score on the Compass exam—the placement exam for City Colleges—can take dual credit courses. That leaves out students who don’t take the exam but might benefit from the exposure to college coursework.
That the students in Gelb’s class at Juarez are among the motivated is obvious. Stephanie Gil and her two friends, Marisol Dominguez and Teresa Calderon, each took three AP classes last year. Stephanie was the only one to earn college credit, and she did so in only one class.
Stephanie had also participated in a summer program at Harvard so she was familiar with the rigors of a difficult curriculum. (She got deferred early admission at Harvard.)
Teresa wants to enroll in pre-med courses at Elmhurst College. Last year, she took Juarez’s dual credit math program, passed it and will save money by having several math classes already behind her.
Marisol is mother to a little girl, so she plans to stay close to home for college, enrolling in a nursing program at either Daley College or St. Xavier University. She giggles when she says she only scored a 1 or a 2 on the AP exams she took last year. “I am not going to lie. I was not even close.”
Marisol is the only one of the three young women who is nervous about going to college next year, especially about meeting new people. She was nervous, too, about taking college-level classes. Now, she’s glad she did.
Looking at her friends, she says: “They encouraged me.”
If I were to ask what made your favorite teacher stand out what would you say? She was intellectually gifted? He could explain anything clearly? Able to reach every kid? Master of classroom management? Made you want to work? Brought every lesson to life? Don’t worry if you don’t see your teacher on that list. Experts differ on this question, too. Teaching talent is hard to pin down.
This lack of certainty is why I worry that some reforms proposed for teacher preparation may box us into tight requirements with unintended consequences. While research shows that teaching quality is a big factor in whether students succeed there is less clarity on which characteristics constitute “quality.” So how do we make sure only the most talented teachers wind up in classrooms? Even harder, how do we identify which students in teacher preparation programs will be effective in the classroom five or 10 years down the road — and which will never have what it takes?
There’s been a lot of push lately for educator prep programs to limit admission to applicants (usually 18-year-olds) with strong high school GPAs. This recommendation troubles me because while I want teachers to be smart, many important skills of great teachers are not captured in grades. It’s a solution that appeals to logic but, unfortunately, research hasn’t found that it reliably produces better teachers. As Tim Daly, head of TNTP, a nonprofit that includes an alternative teacher prep program, wrote in a blog post last fall:
“Every year, many teachers who come to the classroom from selective programs turn out to be great teachers, but many others turn out to be middling or ineffective. The same is true about less selective programs. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that any instances of outperformance among selective programs are due to selectivity. They could be attributable to better pre-service training or better on-the-job coaching models.”
If Daly’s observations hold true more generally, increasing the selectivity of teacher prep programs would not improve the quality of the teaching profession. Further, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the diversity of the teaching force. This is critically important as Colorado and the nation continue to diversify ethnically and socioeconomically while our teaching force remains disproportionately white and middle-class.
Daly doesn’t dispute that teacher prep can be improved. However, based on his experience, he points to more complex predictors of strong teaching: success during a teacher’s early years and a novice teacher’s ability to produce focused lessons, apply feedback from mentors, and take responsibility for her own success and continuous improvement.
Daly’s emphasis on characteristics shown by novice teachers led me to make a kind of crazy connection between what it takes to succeed in teaching and recent research about traits of successful athletes. As described by David Epstein in The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, an athlete’s capacity to improve with training is more important than traits we traditionally associate with athletic success, such as great strength and speed. Perhaps the same principle applies in teaching. Maybe how much a teacher—even before being placed in front of students— is willing and able to change in response to training and feedback is a good predictor of future success.
A few caveats: After railing about the lack of firm empirical evidence behind some reforms I realize the line of thought I’m proposing is not even on research agendas. I also realize we must be careful comparing physiological changes in athletics with the behaviors and dispositions important in teaching. But bear with me. I think the connection I’m drawing in this limited case merits discussion.
Let’s define “baseline” as someone’s performance level at the point they enter formal training – say, when an athlete joins a varsity team or a teacher candidate starts a preparation program. Obviously, athletes and future teachers have many skills and talents at that point; the trick is to identify which are most important for future success. Some advocates argue that one measure of a teacher candidate’s baseline skill level, high school GPA, should be the prime determinant entry to traditional teacher preparation programs.
However, a key theme of Epstein’s book is that the amount of effort and growth in response to training is as important for identifying talent as the skill level an athlete has before formal training, a point consistent with Daly’s blog post. Epstein talks about the hidden potential of people to grow at explosive rates when exposed to training as “an idea that muddles the notion of innate talent as something that appears strictly prior to training.” Perhaps we should focus more attention on developing such “trainability” measures so that we can better identify talent, regardless of a teacher candidate’s age or stage in life.
It seems to me quite possible that there are such “trainability bombs”—people with tremendous potential for explosive growth once exposed to training—among entering college students with unimpressive high school GPAs who could become great teachers. And I’m sure there are also a lot of students with relatively high GPAs who, regardless of their training, will never become great teachers. The key is to figure out how to tell these two groups apart, which teacher trainability measures might provide. This is not an easy pursuit but one with potential value to the profession.
So how do we go about putting great teachers in every classroom without narrowing the criteria so tightly that they squeeze out those with untapped potential? I think we start by celebrating the complex interplay of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and practices that go into good teaching and accept that we need more nuanced measures of talent.
As Daly wrote:
“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should forego selection entirely or write off the importance of teacher preparation. But I think we need to admit that the impact of teacher preparation is tempered by a simple truth: Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and not everyone can do it well. It is not a matter of having a certain set of qualifications or completing basic training. It is more like quarterbacking: a job that presents a dizzying array of challenges in quick succession, which only a subset of skilled practitioners can negotiate successfully. Performance varies widely.”
The three- and four-year-olds at Promise Christian Preschool in Lafayette were busy playing at the water table, painting letters, and pretend grocery shopping on a recent Tuesday morning.
Terri Stowell was just as busy, madly writing notes on a sheaf of papers as she examined toys and books, monitored hand-washing routines and observed teachers as they talked and played with students. Stowell, lead quality rating specialist for the non-profit Qualistar, spent more than three hours at the preschool collecting much of the information she would need to award the center a rating of one to four stars.
It was the first time the center had sought a Qualistar rating, which is a well-respected but voluntary program that costs providers about $1,000 per classroom. Director Leana Zlaten, who secured grant money to pay the fee, was hoping for at least two stars, and maybe three. In May, she will get her answer.
And then in July, everything will change.
That’s when the state is expected to launch a free mandatory rating program to replace Qualistar’s 14-year-old system. While Zlaten’s stars should transfer seamlessly into the new five-level rating system, the vast majority of the state’s preschool and child care providers will find themselves in a place they’ve never been before.
That is, with a public rating indicating their facility’s quality.What’s the point?
Until now, child care providers, whether “centers” or “family child care homes,” were required to be licensed by the state but nothing else. Unless they pursued a Qualistar rating on their own or parents did a lot of legwork, there wasn’t much to distinguish one from another.
On a national level, “Quality Rating Improvement Systems,” often called QRIS, have been the trend over the last decade and experts herald them for improving the quality of early childhood programs and better informing parents how local child care facilities stack up. In Colorado, there is both excitement and confusion about the new system, which has been in the works since 2010.Lead teacher Cristina Maginot squirts soap and water on the children’s hands so they can lather up before rinsing. Hand-washing procedures were one of the many items that will figure into the center’s Qualistar rating.
“We are all in favor of continuing to march toward quality,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.
Still, like other early childhood advocates interviewed, she said the new system represents a huge undertaking with an ambitious timeline.
“People are definitely concerned because there’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “It’s still a system in flux.”
With less than three months to go before the launch, many questions remain. For example, it’s unclear whether the system’s name will change from its working title, “Next Generation Quality Rating Improvement System,” or whether child care providers will earn stars, numbers or something else.
Another unanswered question is which contractor—Qualistar or Simplydigi.com Inc. —the state will choose for a $2.5 million contract to conduct some of the new ratings. With these and several other decisions pending, there’s also a possibility the launch date could be pushed back.
While state officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services, which has authority over the new system, agree that there still many unknowns, they are taking an optimistic tone.
“I am feeling so excited at the moment,” said Karen Enboden, child care QRIS manager for CDHS. “I think this is absolutely the right step for Colorado.”Racing to the top
The Next Generation system, which is being funded with part of a $44 million federal Race to the Top grant, will roll out in two phases. Starting in July, center-based programs will be the first group of providers to earn ratings. These programs, which include non-profit and for-profit preschools and child care centers as well as early childhood classrooms run by school districts, represent 86 percent of licensed capacity for children 0-5.
Possible ratings: Level 1-5
Components: (for levels 3-5)
1. Workforce Qualifications and Professional Development
2. Family Partnerships
3. Leadership, Management & Administration
4. Learning Environment
5. Child Health
6. Optional (includes points for home language, additional professional staff, professional leadership)
Possible ratings: Provisional and 1-4 stars
1. Learning Environment
2. Family Partnerships
3. Training and Education
4. Adult-to-Child Ratios and Group Size
5. Program Accreditation
Family child care homes, defined as home-based sites serving two or more unrelated children at the same time, will have the option to participate in the new system this year, but it won’t become mandatory until July 2015.
While many experts laud Qualistar for being one of the pioneers of early childhood quality improvement, they also note that the organization never was able to capture a critical mass of the child care sector because its ratings are costly. Currently, less than 10 percent of licensed providers in Colorado have Qualistar ratings, according to Gladys Wilson, the organization’s executive director.
“They never reached that tipping point,” said Thurber.
Many providers with Qualistar ratings receive funding from foundations or other funders to cover the fees. Not many providers raise the money themselves.
It was clear from Stowell’s half-day visit, which she planned to follow with a return visit to meet with Zlaten the next day, why ratings aren’t cheap. They represent a complicated and time-consuming process, well beyond the more basic considerations of licensing. They weigh student-teacher ratios, teacher credentials, parent surveys and even questions like how the walls are decorated, whether toys reflect age, race and gender diversity and whether teachers use language to help children develop reasoning skills.Terri Stowell, right, interviews lead teacher Cristina Maginot about the preschool’s schedule, materials and practices during her recent visit.
Enboden said ratings will be free under the new system, at least until the federal grant expires at the end of December 2016. In addition $7-8 million of the grant funds will be available to help providers improve their facilities and practices so they can obtain better ratings.
Under the current Qualistar system and perhaps under the new system as well, the motivation to improve often comes before the rating as well as after. For example, Zlaten and her staff made several changes before Stowell’s visit, which occurred unannounced during a one-month window. They moved furniture around the large classroom, opening up a sunny area near the windows for free play and circle time.
At the same time, there were some things they couldn’t easily improve. They knew the playround, which Stowell said is a problem area for many facilities, would cost them some points. While it appeared perfectly acceptable to a casual observer, Stowell found several issues as she measured equipment spacing and looked for hazards like easy-to-open gates, protruding bolts and wide gaps between rails.
“The inside, that’s what we focused on,” said lead teacher Cristina Maginot.
Overall, the facility, which provides scholarships to about a quarter of its students, had much to recommend it — small class sizes, conscientious teachers and a lots of engaging activities.
Enboden said the goal is for 20 percent of the state’s licensed child care facilities to earn a rating of three, four or five by the end of 2016. A state-run parent portal where families can look up Next Generation ratings could be up by January 2015.Qualister rater Terri Stowell measures the slide height as part of her assessment of the playground.
“My hope is that parents will have more information so they can make informed decisions,” said Wilson.
Like many early childhood advocates, she said most parents decide where to send their children based on cost, convenience and word of mouth recommendations, not necessarily provider quality.
The City and County of Denver, which has hundreds of Qualistar-rated facilities, may be somewhat of an exception. That’s because the Denver Preschool Program, which provides preschool subsidies to families of four-year-olds, has put a premium on preschool quality and pays for Qualistar ratings as well as improvement measures.
“Denver’s far ahead of the rest of the state,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.Embedded in licensing
One of the biggest differences between Qualistar and the Next Generation QRIS is that the rating system will now be embedded in licensing. In other words, all center-based and family child carehome providers with a valid license, which requires basic health and safety measures, will automatically get a rating of one.
There will be no requirement to pursue a two, three, four or five, but some observers believe providers won’t want to settle for the lowest score once they see their competition attaining higher levels of quality.
“Peer pressure,” said Thurber.
Providers will be able to advance to a level two if their staff members complete state-approved online trainings and enroll in the state’s professional development information system. In addition, providers will have to complete a self-assessment of their program and create an improvement plan. The Department of Human Services will oversee awards of ones and twos.The “ECERS” manual is the environmental rating scale that Qualistar raters use during preschool visits. A related tool, called the “ITERS,” is used during visits to facilities that care for infants and toddlers.
To earn a level three, four or five, providers will go through a process similar to the current Qualistar process, which includes a site visit like the one Stowell recently conducted. Depending on the outcome of the contract award, it’s possible that Qualistar’s ten rating specialists will continue to rate programs seeking one of the highest three ratings.
One differences between the Qualistar system and the Next Generation system will be the scoring methodology for the three higher ratings. In addition, while Qualistar raters look at every classroom in a facility, the new system will look at 50 percent of classrooms. Finally, Qualistar ratings typically last for two years while Next Generation ratings will extend for three.Grandfather me in
While some center directors are no doubt nervous about their new obligations under the Next Generation system, some can rest easy during the first year or two. That’s because providers with existing Qualistar ratings will keep their existing numerical rating under the new system. In addition, providers that are accredited by yet-to-be-determined national bodies, as well as Head Start sites that have undergone federal reviews, will also transition into the new system with scores of either three or four depending on whether they meet certain criteria.Children play at the water table during free play at Promise Christian Preschool.
The grandfather provision, officially called “Alternative Pathways” in the new system, is part of the reason some providers are choosing to get Qualistar-rated this spring. Not only will they avoid the uncertainty of a new system in its roll-out phase, they have the opportunity to come in with high rating from day one.
Thurber said a number of providers in Larimer County have worked to get Qualistar ratings this year for that very reason. In Zlaten’s case, it helped that the Qualistar system was a known quantity.
“We know what Qualistar is like. We don’t know what the state’s [rating system] is like, so we thought, ‘Let’s do Qualistar,’” she said.
Thursday night at a University of Chicago panel with the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the prediction that Chicago Public Schools are on track to have an 80 percent graduation rate in four years. (WLS)
An 80-percent graduation rate in Chicago public high schools would be a big improvement, but CPS cautions this would exclude students attending charter schools, special ed schools, the alternative schools where disruptive students are sent and schools in jails.
SALARY CUT: Chicago State University trustees extended President Wayne Watson's contract Friday and also reduced his salary to comply with a new state law that lowers the amount public university employees can earn if they are drawing a pension from a prior state university job. (Tribune)
IN THE NATION
RENT PLAN FOR CHARTERS: Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to charge rent to charter schools, but education experts say his proposal might be difficult to put into effect. (The New York Times)
AGRICULTURAL EDUCATION: A national curriculum for secondary agricultural education has spread to 655 teachers in 32 states since it started five years ago, and officials hope to continue that kind of growth. (Education Week)
Denver school officials have selected a new leader for struggling Columbine Elementary School. Parents will be able to meet with the school’s new principal at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
Jason Krause, who taught at Columbine before entering the district’s leadership pool, will return to the northeast Denver school next year as its principal, according to a letter to parents provided to Chalkbeat Colorado. He will be the school’s fifth principal in seven years.
Krause will replace Beth Yates. The current principal’s supporters were shocked when she announced the district was going to replace Yates, whom teachers and parents described as “relentless.”
Erin McMahon, an instructional superintendent, noted, in her letter to parents, the improvements Yates has made at Columbine this year. But McHahon went on to say student achievement has not improved enough.
“There have been modest improvements in academic achievement this year, which are a great starting point,” McMahon wrote. “However, this work must be deepened and accelerated.”
Some parents argued the lack of consistency at Columbine has been the reason for low test scores.
Krause is a proven school leader that has boosted test scores at Smith Renaissance School, McMahon said.
As part of the transition process, Denver Public Schools will form a steering committee to work with Krause through the spring.
Here’s the letter that was sent to parents announcing the school’s new leader:
A lawsuit that claims Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights violates federal constitutional guarantees of representative state government can proceed, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The suit, Kerr v. Hickenlooper, was filed in 2011, but the case has been focused on procedural issues up to now. The Friday ruling settles some of those.
The eventual outcomes of the case – which could be years away – could have important implications for state government operations and for school funding, the focus of intense debate during the current legislative session.
The TABOR amendment, passed by voters in 1992 and requires (among other things) voter approval for tax rate increases. The plaintiffs argue that violates provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the 19th century law making Colorado a state that guarantee a “republican” form of government, one in which elected representatives make legislative decisions, including on taxation.
The 32 plaintiffs include legislators, former lawmakers, other elected officials and private citizens. Some interesting names in the group include Lakewood Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee; influential former GOP lawmaker Norma Anderson of Jefferson County and State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver.
While the case has been pretty much below the public radar, it has drawn a lot of interest from public policy and advocacy groups on both the left and right. Among groups filing friend of the court briefs were the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado PTA.
Only two legal questions were at issue in the ruling – whether the plaintiffs have legal standing to file the suit and whether the case is a “political” matter that can’t be decided in court.
The appellate panel found the plaintiffs have standing and that the case isn’t automatically a political issue that should be thrown out at this point.
Read the ruling here.
WESTMINSTER — When Pam Swanson learned the State Board of Education was interested in hearing directly from leaders of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, she volunteered to go first.
“We have some promising things to share,” said the superintendent of the Adams 50 school district.
So at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Swanson, her board of education president and other district officials will have a chat with the state board about Westminster schools’ successes and struggles as the northwest metro school district enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock.
Since 2010, the state has linked the accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.
The conversation, scheduled for 40 minutes, will be the first of many for the state board. The seven member panel has plans to meet each of the 11 school districts nearing the end of the clock between now and June.
No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. What could happen if and when a district hits the end of the clock is still open to debate. The state board of education heard a list of possible consequences and remedies from the Colorado Department of Education in November, which spurred the idea for the forthcoming conversations.
The aim of these meetings, as well as other supports the state has offered the districts, is to help forestall those interventions. However, the state board is also trying to tease out what sort of ramifications these interventions would have on school districts.
State board chairman Paul Lundeen hopes these meetings will provide the governing body, which is responsible for approving a school district’s accreditation, more context about each individual school district’s rating and provide feedback on how the state can better assist the state’s neediest schools.
“It’s more than window dressing,” Lundeen said. “We really hope to seek out the nuances so we can be helpful.”A qualitative view
The first thing the State Board of Education wants to hear from district leaders during their turnaround conversations is what’s working.
In the four years since the state began rating schools and districts, Adams 50 schools have done an almost entirely about-face.
During the 2009-2010 school year, nearly 75 percent of Adams 50 schools were ranked among the bottom two categories — “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” Today, none of the Adams 50′s schools are classified as “turnaround.” And less than 25 percent of its schools are considered “priority improvement.”
In fact, the Westminster school district has a smaller percentage of low performing schools than Denver Public Schools, which last year was rated as an improving school district and no longer has to fear state intervention.
Swanson, who was appointed to lead the district in 2012 after serving as interim-superintendent since April 2011, points to a systematic overhaul and consistency as key components of the district’s success.
In 2009, Adams 50 abandoned the traditional grade-level approach and adopted a competency-based system. The district has kept teacher and leadership turnover low. There’s a new online program and an innovation school. Parent-teacher conferences have also been overhauled in partnership with the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. And this year the district adopted a new math program that allows teachers to analyze proficiency in real time.
Swanson’s presentation will kick off with a seven-minute video highlighting several of these changes with the hope it will give the state board a qualitative view of the district’s efforts, she said.
These changes, she said, take a long term commitment. “Probably longer than the five years the state’s accountability clock suggests,” she said.Holding the momentum
Holding the momentum and staying focused is perhaps Adams 50′s greatest challenge, Swanson said.
And there are several obstacles the district will have to overcome to continue on its path toward better student achievement, she said.
First, the district is still tinkering with its districtwide model of competency-based learning. There’s a continued effort to streamline and benchmark its standards to the Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core State Standards. There’s also a greater need for better data management, which can be overwhelming to teachers and students alike.
The district is also expected to trim its budget as school improvement grant money runs out. Adams 50 did ask voters to approve a mill levy in the fall, but that effort failed.
“No matter how you slice it, it’s going to cost more money to educate students in poverty,” Swanson said. Adams 50 students overwhelmingly qualify for free- or reduced-lunch.
And there’s the matter of state- and federally-mandated tests. Swanson would like to reverse the trend of districts needing to plan instruction around assessments, not the other way around.
“We used to have an assessment window,” Swanson said. “Now we have an instructional window.”
Because nearly 50 percent of Westminster students are identified as English language learners, instructors are finding themselves having to administer more tests. More than 700 students at Westminster High School alone were required to take an individual oral exam in January.
Those assessments, coupled with other mandated tests, devour instructional time, Swanson said.
“We know the students who need the most instruction time have the least of it [because of the number of hours devoted to assessments],” she said.“Something’s not right”
No one from Team Westminster plans to critique the state’s accountability rating system. But if the issue comes up, they’ll be prepared to share their concerns.
“Something’s not right” in the accountability system, Swanson said.
Swanson — along with officials in many other school districts — is concerned about the different measurements the state uses to hold individual schools and districts accountable. Another widely held criticism is that the accountability measurements are a “one-size fits all” approach in a local control state where school districts’ needs and challenges vary widely. And now, officials are concerned that a proposed bill that would freeze a portion of the state accountability framework for two years will make it more difficult for them to prove to the state that they are making progress.
Board chairman Lundeen said while the intent of the conversations isn’t to rewrite the law governing school accountability, he thinks districts meeting with the state board should air their concerns about the frameworks, which he said can be challenging.
He hopes to learn through the next three months how district-specific nuances are bouncing-off state mandates and measurements.
“There are some minimum lines — thresholds — we do not want to cross,” he said. But, if school districts are proving consistent achievement, he’d entertain certain “earned flexibility.”
Regardless of the merits of the school accountability framework, Swanson said she’s looking forward to going beyond the data with the state board.
“We’re ready to share our story and get input from the board on how we can improve outcomes faster,” Swanson said.
The Colorado High School Activities Association today released 13 student-produced videos from every region across Colorado as part of its “You Can Play, Colorado!” contest—a program focused on stopping bullying and delivering messages of inclusion and acceptance for all students participating in high school activities such as sports, speech, music and student leadership.
Students, parents, school supports and, well, every Coloradan are welcomed to vote for their favorite. CHSAA encourages school communities to vote early and often for their hometown video candidate. Each school submitting a video is eligible to receive prize money, with the grand prize school receiving $2,500. One Fan Favorite from each CHSAA classification will receive a $500 prize. On-line voting begins Friday, March 7 and closes Wednesday, March 12. The winning student videos will be announced and highlighted at the March 15 state basketball championships at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“You Can Play, Colorado!” is part of the “We Are CHSAA” positive leadership campaign, an educational experience—in partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance, You Can Play and the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado—dedicated to ensuring that all students are encouraged to participate and be accepted for what they bring to a team or activity, and not excluded for what some might see as differences. To learn more about the “You Can Play, Colorado!” contest and to view the videos and vote, please visit CHSAANow.com/leadership/youcanplay.
Chalkbeat is happy to feature each of these videos, showcasing Colorado students’ diversity, creativity and compassion.
Center High School, Center
CIVA Charter School, Colorado Springs
D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School, Denver
Dolores High School, Dolores
Global Leadership Academy, Denver
Grandview High School, Aurora
Holyoke High School, Holyoke
JeffCo Public Schools
Liberty School Joes
Mofatt County High School, Craig
Monarch High School, Louisville
Pagosa Springs High School, Pagosa Springs
ThunderRidge High School, Highlands Ranch
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IN THE NATION
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