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
Saying that the culture and practices that have risen up around the SAT drive "the perception of inequality and injustice in our country," the head of the College Board announced this week a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional. In addition, low-income students will now be given fee waivers allowing them to apply to four colleges at no charge. (The New York Times)
SCHOOL COUNCIL BOOSTER: "Our students need the voice of parents," writes Juliana Stratton, Parent Representative and Chair, Kenwood Academy Local School Council, in a letter to the editor urging people to run for seats on the school councils. "They need all of us working with the faculty and administration to make sure that decisions that are being made are in the students' best interest." (Tribune)
SCHOOLS LEAN GREEN: The Illinois State Board of Education has announced the state’s three winners of the Illinois Green School Award program, which recognizes schools that save energy, reduce costs, protect student and staff health and wellness, and offer environmental education. The three recipients are Woodland Primary School in Gages Lake, Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School in Oak Lawn, and Evanston Skokie School District 65 in Evanston.
IN THE NATION
CHARTER EMPIRE THREATENED: Eva S. Moskowitz, a New York City charter school founder, is locked in combat with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who repeatedly singled her out on the campaign trail as the embodiment of what he saw was wrong in schooling, and who last week followed his word with deed, canceling plans for three of her schools in New York City while leaving virtually all other charter proposals untouched. (The New York Times)
For those waiting to see who might apply to take over Denver’s struggling Kepner and Manual campuses, the wait’s over.
The list of potential new schools coming to Denver in 2015-2016 is now public, with 24 individuals or organizations submitting letters of intent to Denver Public School’s “Call for New Quality Schools.”
Among those vying for a spot at Manual is Andy Mendelsberg, the principal at East High School. As anticipated, Mendelsberg submitted a proposal for a ninth grade academy at Manual, with a focus on STEM education.
Manual’s current principal Don Roy submitted a proposal as well. The vision layed out does not significantly deviate from the school’s current format, stating it would be a comprehensive high school with a vision to educate “the scholars and revolutionaries that our society needs to abolish inequalities.”
Only one other application explicitly mentioned Manual–a proposal for a technical academy focused on STEM education, with the option for students to receive an associate’s degree.
Two letters expressed interest in Kepner. One, submitted by Kepner’s current assistant principal Mark Harmon, proposes a bilingual, “bi-cultural” school for the campus.
The other letter, submitted by Denver charter network STRIVE, indicates that they will determine whether to submit a final application based on community feedback. STRIVE also submitted applications for two other schools, which would bring the network’s total to 12.
The letters are non-binding but indicate those who may interested in the campuses. Completed applications for most (excluding Manual and Kepner) are due March 14, with final approval or denial coming in June.
The complete list, which is available here, also includes applications for two KIPP schools in the Far Northeast as well as several for elementary schools in near northeast Denver.
Sen. Mike Johnston is introducing a bill that would allow districts to not use student growth data when evaluating principals and teachers during the 2014-15 school year.
The proposal would be a significant – if temporary – change in the system created by Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation law that the Denver Democrat successfully steered through the legislature four years ago.
The SB 10-191 system requires that principals and teachers be evaluated every year, half based on “professional practice” and half based on student academic growth as shown by scores on both state tests and a variety of local tests.
The law also requires that teachers rated as ineffective or partially effective for two consecutive years lose non-probationary status.
District systems that conform to the law debuted statewide this school year. But it’s a “practice” year in the sense that low evaluations don’t start the clock for teachers.
Under current law, the system is set to go into full effect in the 2014-15 school year.
Johnston’s bill, expected to be introduced shortly, would give districts the option of using or not using academic growth next year. So districts could choose to make growth count for half of evaluations, or they could base evaluations solely on professional practice. Districts also could choose to use growth data for any percentage below 50 percent.
Teachers’ professional practice is rated by evaluators (usually principals) based on six quality standards (such as content knowledge and classroom environment), each of which has multiple detailed elements. It’s a common misconception that the student growth portion of teacher evaluations is based solely on results of statewide tests. That’s not the case, given that most teachers teach subjects not covered by statewide exams. So student growth is measured by a variety of assessments, which can vary by district.
Under Johnston’s new bill, teachers who receive ineffective or partially effective evaluations would be docked for one year toward loss of non-probationary status, as is currently scheduled.
Under the bill, the original SB 10-191 system would go back into effect in 2015-16, with teachers and principals based half on professional practice and half on student growth.
Johnston told Chalkbeat Colorado that a key reason for the proposed change is the coming switch in state tests from the current TCAP system to the new CMAS system, which will include multi-state PARCC tests based on the Common Core Standards in language arts and math.
Those tests will first be given in the spring of 2015, but results won’t be analyzed and available until at least the autumn of that year. That makes it difficult to use those results for evaluations of teachers in the 2014-15 school year.
The change in tests also will create a gap in growth data, which is built from student test results across multiple years.
Johnston also said the system just needs more work in order to effective and fair for teachers.
In an email sent to his Senate mailing list, Johnston wrote, “In every district – no matter the size, the resources, the geography, or the demographics – I have heard incredible stories about the effort our educators have put into implementing this legislation. … With meaningful evaluations has come meaningful development, and educators have consistently praised their administrative teams for sparking some of the best professional conversations of their careers.
“At the same time, I have heard deep anxiety about the confluence of new standards, new assessments, and new educator evaluations, all of which come online in the next school year. While there has been growing support for the quality standards linked to the new evaluations, there has also been legitimate worry about the implementation of student growth measures in the midst of a transition to a new state assessment.
“I share these concerns. And after long, thoughtful conversations with hundreds of practitioners across the state and the Department of Education, I believe we must give educators the time and space they need to succeed.”
Johnston has the support of the Colorado Education Association for the bill and has bipartisan sponsorship, including Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, who was a cosponsor of SB 10-191. CEA strenuously opposed that bill but has been actively involved in helping build the new evaluation system.
The data gap also affects that state accountability and rating system for districts and schools. An earlier piece of legislation, House Bill 14-1182, proposes a method for handling the problem without stopping the “accountability clock” for low-performing districts and schools that will face state intervention if they remain in the lowest rating categories for five years. (See this story for background on that bill.)
Johnston said discussions about the accountability bill alerted him to the possible need to tweak the evaluation system.
The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Wednesday passed chairperson Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia's proposals to let local school boards - or if not them, then the voters of a district - decide whether a charter school will be established and supported with their tax dollars, no matter what an appointed state commission decides. (Illinois School News Service)
Chapa LaVia's bill would prevent a decision by the Commission to overturn a charter application denial by a local school board from being implemented, unless district voters side with the state and approve the charter school.
SAVING CERAMICS: An online petition by a former student has been started to save Lane Tech High School's award-winning Ceramics Department. Artists and educators at Lillstreet and ArtReach are also urging the administration CPS to reinstate all ceramics classes at Lane Tech. "Please do not deprive future classes of Lane Tech students of the vital and full programming of the Ceramics Department," an open letter from the non-profit ArtReach at Lillstreet says. A Facebook page, Support Lane Tech's Ceramic Department, also has been started.
LSC DEADLINE: Chicago Public Schools is extending its Local School Council election candidate-filing deadline from Feb. 26 to March 14. (Hyde Park Herald)
IN THE NATION
STUDENTS SUE STATE: Teacher tenure laws are being challenged in California by a group of nine public-school students who are suing the state, claiming state laws mandating teacher seniority end up protecting incompetent teachers. (CBS News)
TEACHING CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY: A report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project shows that coverage of the civil rights movement in U.S. classrooms remains woefully inadequate—three years after a first-of-its-kind study found that more than half of the states fail at teaching the civil rights movement to students. Generally speaking, the report found that the farther from the South – and the smaller the African-American population – the less attention paid to the movement in schools. Read the report here.
The deadline for local school council candidate nominations is next Friday, but so far less than a third of schools even have enough parent candidates to fill available seats on the governing boards.
In order to encourage parents and community members to run for the councils, CPS launched an interactive online map today that shows the number of candidates – and vacancies -- at each LSC in the district.
“We created this tool to provide those who are interested in running for their LSC an understanding of what schools are still in need of candidates,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. “I encourage parents and community stakeholders that want to make a difference at the school level to submit their LSC nominating form.”
CPS extended the original Feb. 26 deadline for nominations until March 14 in order to get more parents and community members involved.
CPS data from March 4 shows a wide range of interest from parents and community members at schools across the city. The most contested parent race, according to the data, is Skinner North Elementary School, on the Near North Side, where 17 parents have filed to run for six available spots on the LSC.
Meanwhile, not a single parent has filed to run at 86 schools, including Harte Elementary and Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, King College Prep in Bronzeville, Shields Middle School in Brighton Park and DeVry Advantage Academy High School in Avondale.
Checks and balances
Similarly, just over half of all schools don’t have enough candidates to fill available seats for community members. At 144 schools, not a single community member has submitted an application to run.
Swift Elementary School in Edgewater has garnered the most interest so far among community members, with seven nominations.
Elections at elementary schools will be held on April 7, while elections for high school LSCs will take place the following day.
Each LSC is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative. Elected LSC representatives will serve a two-year term that begins with the 2014-2015 school year.
The councils are responsible for approving schools’ budgets, developing and monitoring annual School Improvement Plans, and hiring principals.
Valencia Rias-Winstead, a consultant for LSCs and a long-time LSC representative herself, said the councils are an important system of checks and balances.
“What we’ve found is that whenever you have parents that are at the decision-making table that are knowledgeable about the complete and accurate status of their school, they can help make good decisions,” she said. “Nobody knows the school like the parents, the teachers and the community.”
Rias-Winstead said there has been a noticeable drop in contentious LSC elections since they were created more than 20 years ago.
“People sometimes have to get riled up” in order to consider running, she said. “It’s when you have a principal’s contract coming up or problems with leadership, or unpopular decisions about uniforms or discipline, that you have contested elections.”
Jamila Johnson, a deputy press secretary for CPS, said she expects an uptick in nominations as the deadline approaches. “A lot of people wait until the very last minute,” she said.
Johnson said CPS has been encouraging parents and community members to run for LSCs by working with clergy, elected officials and the media.
“We are seeing our numbers grow every single day,” she said. “Of course when you have more candidates you have more people with ideas. You want to have people who really care and want to get involved at the school level.”
If a school doesn’t attract enough candidates to fill vacancies, CPS will hold a supplemental election to fill the seats, Johnson said.
The school district expects to update the data used for the online, interactive map early next week.
For more information or to download a nomination form, visit www.cps.edu/lsc, or call (773)-553-1400.
In an unusual step for districts facing a looming state accountability deadline, one rural district is completely overhauling its schools in an attempt to stave off state intervention.
In an effort to reverse years of low performance, Lake County School District, a central Colorado district that serves a slightly higher rate of impoverished students than Denver, is in the first stages of moving entirely away from its traditional academic model in its elementary and middle schools.
The elementary and middle schools will be joining a national coalition of so-called “expeditionary learning” schools, which focus on high-level thinking and real-world ties to classroom learning. If that’s successful, district officials, with teacher approval, could bring the model to the high school in 2015-2016.
Lake County is among a number of struggling districts that the state has given a timeline to show dramatic improvement or face intervention. But, state officials and observers say, it is one of the first rural districts on that timeline to take a comprehensive, proactive approach to turnaround.A new direction, and a host of challenges
Teachers at the district’s elementary and middle school say that the adoption of the expeditionary learning model is a much-needed shift in direction, but the road to get to that decision has been rocky.
Dan Leonhard, a third grade teacher at West Park Elementary, remembers that when he first joined the district three years ago, teachers used a patchwork of strategies and materials that failed to get students thinking at high levels.
“Everyone just worked their tails off trying everything they knew and throwing everything they could at these kids,” said Leonhard. “It changed across levels, across teachers the way it would be taught.”
After his first year, the school’s scores actually declined. So last year, the district’s new superintendent and Leonhard’s former principal Wendy Wyman made changing classroom instruction her priority, talking to teachers and trying to get at the root cause of the district’s low performance.
“We did a lot of walk-throughs of classrooms,” said Wyman. “One of the things we learned through that process is that we wanted more support for curriculum and instruction.” Wyman started by bringing in both state and privately-run teacher trainings and by sending teachers to other districts to see what was working — or not.
But she wanted to make sure that any major changes were tailored to the particulars of the community, which includes Leadville, a popular outdoors destination.
“[It was] about coming up with a process that really matches who we are in Lake County,” said Wyman.
She and school leaders started by making small adjustments, including hiring instructional coaches for the elementary schools and starting to adopt state exemplar curriculum.
But at first, the small changes just provoked more uncertainty for teachers. Teachers and the administration felt directionless as they tried one strategy after another.
“It was just ideas and ideas and ideas,” said Leonhard. “There was just kind of a cluster of things to do without a vision of where we’re going to be.”Looking at the possibility
Many staff felt there were too many things that needed to be fixed to do it piecemeal; the district needed a wholesale, cohesive new direction. Several administrators, including Wyman’s replacement as principal at West Park, Stephanie Gallegos, had experience with expeditionary learning and raised it as a possibility.Lake County’s turnaround “mountain” with paths up the mountain indicating the district’s focus areas for improvement. It was painted by a West Park Elementary art teacher.
Students at expeditionary learning schools spend six months to a year completing a comprehensive unit on a single subject, known as an “expedition,” that crosses academic fields and culminates in a trip to a relevant location or in a visit by experts to the classroom.
Gallegos said the model just seemed right for the district, because of Leadville’s mountainous location and the ability to pull in experts on real-world topics like mining and the ski industry.
Plus, “expeditionary learning has some of the best professional development I’ve ever had as a teacher,” said Gallegos. She made educating her teachers in the model a top priority, even personally covering their classes so they could visit other schools or participate in trainings.
The national organization that coordinates expeditionary learning schools requires that any school adopting its model get approval from its teachers. When it came time to get the teacher go-ahead, Gallegos and Wyman’s efforts paid off — teachers in the district’s elementary and middle schools voted unanimously to adopt the model.
“As soon as that was solidified, there was a huge sigh of relief,” said Leonhard.
Although the official rollout doesn’t start until next year, he and other teachers have already begun to use the curriculum and approach in their classroom. Leonhard tried out a mini-expedition last fall on the impacts of World War II on Leadville. Many teachers at West Park are already using the official math curriculum and they plan to work on the curriculum for English language learners next.
“Before, if you went to someone and said, ‘this is not working’, the response would be, ‘well then try something new,’” said Leonhard. Now, he said, a single approach gives teachers time to focus on improving their instruction.
“It keeps [students] thinking at a much higher level than we could get them to before,” he said.
The district is also partnering with the Odyssey School, a well-regarded expeditionary learning school in Denver, for teacher training and other supports.
Although that partnership is in the early stages, it may also spawn a solution to a perpetual rural dilemma: how to fill open teaching positions.
One potential idea leaders have floated would be for Odyssey to funnel qualified but unsuccessful candidates’ applications to Lake County.
“We have a wealth of amazing talent and rural districts need that too,” said Mary Seawell, who directs rural education initiatives for the Gates Family Foundation. The foundation (which is unrelated to the Microsoft founder) is considering providing funds to support Lake’s adoption of expeditionary learning.Big strides, not baby steps
The total overhaul approach that Wyman and her team have taken is atypical in rural districts.
State experts say that’s because of a misguided belief that when districts reach the end of the accountability timeline or “clock,” anything they’ve tried will go out the window.
“If we’re two years away from the end of clock, we don’t want to make big changes” is the thinking, said Peter Sherman, who heads the state’s turnaround vision.
At the end of five years, districts that haven’t improved may face state intervention, so officials may be wary of investing a lot of resources into programs that might be thrown out later at the behest of the state.
“All of that leads to a lot of disincentive to make bold moves,” said Sherman.
Wyman has welcomed staff from the Sherman’s department to observe and provide guidance for her and her team. It’s an unusual move that Sherman said may improve their case in front of the state board, who will ultimately decide what the state’s role will be.
“A district like Lake [could] say to the board we’ve worked with your staff and we’ve remained nimble,” said Sherman. “All of those things will make for a strong argument for the board to say we have some fine-tuning recommendations but let’s not pull the rug out from under them.”
While that’s not a guarantee — Sherman said results are still important — he hopes it will encourage districts to try big changes.
Major overhauls may also attract attention and help districts pull in the resources many rural leaders struggle to access. Wyman’s overhauls have gotten attention from Denver-based organization including the Odyssey School, the Gates Family Foundation and Get Smart Schools, which is a leadership training program.
“We really believe this is a great district to work in,” said Seawell. “They have a plan and need the resources to do it correctly.”
Her proposal, which she will put to the foundation’s board, includes an advisory board that would pull representatives from Get Smart, Odyssey and other expeditionary learning organizations to provide guidance for Lake’s reforms.
For Seawell, it could be a model for how Front Range foundations can support other rural turnarounds, which generally get minimal outside support.
“It’s not someone coming into save a rural district,” said Seawell. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”Success not guaranteed
Still, no one has seen the data yet to see if the shifts are working. Teachers and school leaders are optimistic that their efforts will make a difference but worry about whether they’ll get the chance to do things right and whether they’ll see results.
“The highest level of concern that the staff has is, if we do this, are we sticking to it?” said Leonhard. “Education is infamous for having a flavor of the month.”
As a way to ward off that possibility, Wyman has made efforts to involve the community in the turnaround effort, including reaching out to the Hispanic community from which the district draws the majority of its students. Wyman is studying districts like Roaring Fork that have some success with outreach and has spent time visiting with community groups in attempt to build goodwill.
“If we’re going to get off of turnaround and be the kind of schools we want to be, it’s important for the community to be right there with us,” said Wyman.
But after years of low performance, many are just watching to see if it works.
“There’s a lot of skepticism,” said Amy Morrison, a parent who has been involved with the district accountability committee. Many parents in Leadville send their kids to Eagle County schools or south to Buena Vista, and Morrison isn’t sure if they’ll come back to the district.
But if it does work, Morrison thinks other communities may follow in Lake County’s footsteps.
“If we can work together, if we can be positive, maybe we can become the model,” she said.
Gates Family Foundation is a Chalkbeat Colorado funder