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Updated: 3 min 17 sec ago

Rise & Shine: How some schools are using grit in the classroom

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 10:15


More than 60 education bills have been introduced so far this year, about two thirds of them in the House. But only five bills of note have gone to the governor, and another 10 have been killed. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )


Can grit, the idea of tenacity in the classroom, be taught? Some schools think so. Here's how they're doing it. ( KUNC )

Higher ed

A new bill, introduced by Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, proposes a new formula for dividing state support among Colorado colleges and universities. If passed, it would put more money into the resident tuition discounts known as College Opportunity Fund stipends and also base some college funding on student retention and graduation rates. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

The legislation could help some students who face the reality of taking on staggering debts. Among all students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2012, seven in 10 left with debt. ( NPR )

Ferrandino's plan has the support of The Denver Post's editorial board. They wrote: "... we support in broad terms the concept that Colorado House Speaker Mark Ferrandino is promoting in seeking to rewrite the higher education funding model. However, with less than eight weeks left in the session it's not clear there's enough time to fully vet the specifics." ( Denver Post )

Movers and shakers

Some Colorado schools and districts are increasingly making changes to mitigate the effects of frequent student moves, in part because of the potential impacts student mobility have on state accountability measures. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

money matters

As lawmakers this week get their final look at revenue projections for the next fiscal year, Colorado superintendents and school boards are rallying their parents to put pressure on the General Assembly to restore more education funding. ( Denver Post )

Classroom lessons

Colorado's poet laureate visited students in Moffat County. He consulted with students from all different walks of life on their poetic aspirations. He acknowledged that anyone from anywhere can follow the discipline, though some may have unfair advantages. ( Craig Daily Press )

After six hours of obstacles, including a furnace motor that burnt out, high school students at a Colorado Springs school learned many life lessons during the 2014 Iron Pour. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

Flood Recover

Less than one month into his first school year as principal of Lyons Elementary School Andrew Moor became a communication hub for his community during last year's floods. Now, he's rebuilding a school community. ( Longmont Times-Call )

Categories: Urban School News

As students move in and out, districts and schools try to catch up

Sun, 03/16/2014 - 21:30

Becky Zachmeier, the principal at Cowell Elementary in southwest Denver, knows where each child in her building is. She walks the halls all day, checking in on them and their progress.

But she doesn’t always know whether they’ll be back the next day.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Zachmeier pulled a quiet fifth grader aside to ask him, “what’s happening tomorrow?” His family is moving, but he doesn’t yet know what school he’ll be in come Monday. If he moves, it will be his seventh school move in five years.

Research indicates that those moves could have major impacts on his success with everything from academics to behavior. And schools and school districts are increasingly making changes to mitigate the effects of frequent student moves, in part because of the potential impacts student mobility have on state accountability measures.

“Frequent school changes are linked to likelihood of dropping out,” said Judith Martinez, the state’s director of dropout prevention. And for those who don’t drop out, “with each move they lose three to six months of academic progress.”

High poverty schools like Cowell, where over 95 percent of students live in poverty, will often see mobility rates of more than 20 percent, as families move around for work and affordable housing. Frequent school moves are also typical for homeless students and children in the foster care system, whose experiences have driven much of the understanding about what it takes for transitions to be successful.

“If [students] are not placed accurately, it can contribute to some behavior issues or course failures,” said Martinez. Those effects are compounded for students, like the boy mentioned, who move frequently.

Zachmeier said she sees those effects in the students in her school, including the boy and his sister — also at Cowell — who both struggle with emotional and behavioral issues

“We’ve gotten him to a point where he can be in classes and where he can be successful,” said Zachmeier, who asked that no student names be used. She is worried all of that work will go out the window if he has to move, especially since the uncertainty of his family’s move is already impacting his performance. “With moving, [he and his sister] have been off the wall.”

The impacts of mobility also extend beyond the students who move. Schools that see a large proportion of students moving in and out deal with a host of logistical challenges that threaten to overwhelm their staff time and systems.

Zachmeier and her staff have to request that previous schools send them student records, which include critical information about special education status and test scores. But those can take weeks to arrive, so she and her teachers have to use their own judgement about student needs.

And students often show up expecting to be placed in a class that same day. But Zachmeier says that’s not usually possible.

“You can’t just walk down the hall with the new kid,” she said. Many students arrive without even basic school supplies, and placing a student in the middle of a class without warning the teacher can disrupt class for students already present.

Big systems, big problems

Most student transfers in the state occur in just seven districts and nearly a quarter occur in three of the state’s largest districts: Denver, Jeffco and Aurora.

Many metro-area districts, including Denver and Jeffco, have undertaken district-wide initiatives to ease transitions, including streamlining the records request process and creating a pacing guide for all district schools.

“One of the most awful things, destructive things that happens to kids that move a lot is that they can lose instruction and critical pieces or they’re relearning things, rather than moving forward,” said former Jeffco superintendent Cyndi Stevenson.

Now, students moving between Jeffco schools should land within about a week of where they were in their previous school.

The district also established practices to ease students’ entry into new classes. Students are tested within days of arriving at a new school, using either internal assessments or standard skills tests like Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) used statewide.

“You do as much as you can to get [students] in the right place instructionally,” said Stevenson. Then, in the school, teachers and school leaders find out “where they have gaps and we try and fill them.”

And it’s not just Front Range districts. Mesa Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction did a whole-district curriculum alignment three years ago and officials say it has made a big difference.

“Whenever when you have mobility in a district, if our teachers in our systems aren’t in alignment, kids can grow up with gigantic holes,” said Lesley Rose, Mesa’s executive director of elementary schools. “We thought that wasn’t right for our families.”

Mobility and accountability

The impact of student moves on districts are apparent in the results of the state’s accountability system, with many low-performing districts posting high mobility numbers.

All but three school districts facing the end of the state’s timeline for making drastic performance improvements have mobility rates above the state average. Many had mobility rates over 20 percent, meaning more than one in every five students would move during the school year.

“Some schools of thought [say] that districts with high mobility rate, that contributes to their performance challenges,” said Martinez.

Vilas and Karval, the two districts who will see the clock run out on their turnaround efforts this year if they don’t improve, were both in the top 15 most mobile school districts in the state for several years in a row. Both districts have large online schools, which have a track record of high mobility and low performance.

The state only started tracking mobility in 2007, in an effort to fill a need  identified by school districts. Districts felt it was a crucial metric that was not considered in evaluating performance (officials said mobility is sometimes internally tracked by districts but not in state accountability systems).

Top level fixes

Officials at the state and national level have made changes in recent years aimed at both reducing mobility and easing the transition between districts.

One significant move was the introduction of statewide codes for courses, with the goal of easing credit transfers between districts.

For example, explains Martinez, “let’s say in Walsenberg, they have a course they call ‘solar flares, sunbursts and snow caps.’” If a student were to move to another school district, officials might not know whether it meets their requirements for a science course students need to graduate.

“Now with the common course code, you can name your course anything what you want but it will still count towards [that requirement],” said Martinez.

There have also been efforts at the national level to minimize transitions for the traditionally highly mobile foster care population.

The 2008 Fostering Connections and Adoptions law requires caretakers to keep foster students in the same school when their placements change, as long as it is in the students’ best interest. It also mandated, in the event of a transition, that the student’s record be transferred promptly, a process which currently can take as long as a month.

A similar decades-old law, the McKinney-Vento Act, provides similar provisions for homeless students.

But officials and observers agree that for both laws, enforcement is difficult and inconsistent, with each district adopting a different approach.

The strengths of being small

The influence student moves have on schools is most readily apparent in small, rural districts where the movement of just a few students can increase the rate of mobility substantially. In fact, the highest mobility districts in the state are predominantly small rural and remote districts like Agate on the eastern plains, the smallest school district in the state.

But while the districts may be small, student moves can have large impacts. Several districts saw substantial mid-year funding cuts due to drops in enrollment.

Those cuts hit hard in districts where, according to Martinez, their ability to help students is limited by resources.

“They may not have a systemic method in place so that a student who comes in is ready to go,” said Martinez. Instead, they employ smaller-scale strategies afforded by their size. “Rural districts do a good job of using students as ambassadors, [to communicate] even things like what’s the good lunch day, the inside track.”

While that won’t address academic deficits for the student, it can make a big impact on reducing the chance of dropping out.

“Students may not engage with the school immediately,” said Martinez. Having a way into the school community, whether through ambassadors or extracurricular activities, can help prevent students from feeling disconnected.

It’s a strategy Zachmeier uses at her urban school as well, to offset the effects of family moves.

“We constantly lose kids and get kids but we try to build community [anyway],” said Zachmeier. She and her teachers organize frequent trips to a local roller skating rink to reach out to students and families. She has also started working with Lake Middle School, the school Cowell feeds into, to provide family healthcare.

The challenges of frequent moves means that more responsibility falls on parents. Zachmeier meets regularly with parents about their student’s performance and the school’s efforts. She has an open door policy and is trying to figure out how to get more parents in the school helping out.

“It’s coming,” said Zachmeier, but not as fast as she’d like. The structure of her school means “we’ve got get more parents in to do the work of the school.”

Categories: Urban School News

Speaker Ferrandino pitches new higher ed funding formula

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 20:19

The questions were flying like balls out of pitching machine Friday when House Speaker Mark Ferrandino defended his new higher education funding bill at a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

Questions and comments by member Hereford Percy summed up what many of his colleagues: “What are we fixing?” and “Do we have time to do it adequately?”

Ferrandino’s bill proposes to create a new formula for dividing state support among Colorado colleges and universities, putting more money into the resident tuition discounts known as College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends and also basing some college funding on student retention and graduation rates.

“For too long the budget was focused on the institutions and the needs of the institutions,” said Ferrandino, sitting alone at the witness table in the Capitol’s cavernous Old Supreme Court Chamber. ”We need to look at what are the needs of the public.”

The University of Colorado and the University of Northern Colorado would lose funding under the plan, along with Adams State University, according to a spreadsheet Ferrandino has circulated.

The biggest gainers would be the Colorado State University System and Metropolitan State University of Denver. The bill would produce only modest additional revenue for the community college system. Colorado Mesa University, Fort Lewis College and the Colorado School of Mines also would gain funding.

The Denver Democrat’s bill has been rumored for weeks, was first circulated widely early this week and was introduced formally on Thursday as House Bill 14-1319 with more than 40 cosponsors.

Ferrandino, who’s serving his last year in the General Assembly, wants a bill passed into law this session. It would go into effect for the 2015-16 budget year. The measure does include a provision allowing CCHE and the institutions to review the bill over the summer and suggest possible changes to the 2015 legislature.

“We have eight weeks in the legislative session left,” Ferrandino said. “I know some people think that’s not a lot of time [but] if there’s a will there’s a way.”

Higher education lobbyists “do a very good job of making sure that nothing changes the status quo too much,” he said. “The only way I see for this conversation to really happen” is for the bill to be considered this session, he said.

Several commissioners were skeptical of the rush, saying a shift in how colleges are funded needs a longer conversation.

Happy Haynes / File photo

“This is a huge endeavor [for] eight weeks,” said commissioner Happy Haynes. “Help me visualize what the work plan looks like to reach resolution, a work plan that involves any of us sleeping.”

Ferrandino stuck to his guns and stressed he’s open to changes in the bill. “I want to emphasize here that this is the start of the conversation,” he said.

Calling the current funding system “something of a black box,” Ferrandino said state support needs to be better aligned with state policy goals like increasing enrollment of underserved students, doing a better job of retaining students and raising the numbers of students who receive degrees.

“People don’t have that high a view of higher education,” he said. “I believe something like this changes that conversation with the public. Their view is you give money to the institutions and it’s squandered, it’s wasted [on] highly paid executives, football stadiums.”

He also said, “I like change. I like taking the apple cart and turning it over and seeing what happens.”

Commissioner Patricia Pacey quipped, “I don’t want to upset the apple cart unless I think the new apple cart will produce a better product.”

Commissioners also were skeptical that the bill would produce significant change.

The measure would allocate more than half of state support based on enrollment through COF stipends, and only 3.9 percent on funding would be based on student retention and 6.1 percent on degree completion, according to a Department of Higher Education analysis.

“I still have a hard time understanding what this bill is trying to improve upon,” said commissioner Luis Colon. “I just don’t see what the incremental improvement is.”

Several commissioners noted that state has an existing higher education performance-funding plan, which is supposed to go into effect in a few years if certain budgetary targets are met.

Ferrandino said that program is too small to influence institutional behavior but would remain on schedule if his bill passes.

(State support, by the way, supplies only about a quarter of higher education funding, with the rest of institutional revenue supplied by tuition.)

Pacey, who’s an economist with experience in government finance, said she needed more information. “Can we expect something more substantial in the next week or two?” she asked. “Can we get some scenarios across different institutions?”

A word from the institutions University of Colorado President Bruce Benson / File photo

Ferrandino left after spending more than 90 minutes with the commission. He was followed at the witness table by two of the state’s more prominent presidents, Kay Norton of UNC and Bruce Benson of CU.

“Certainly we at UNC agree with the fundamental goal of the proposed legislation … that policy ought to drive funding and ought to be student focused,” Norton said. “What we don’t agree on is how to have a thoughtful conversation,” indicating the remaining weeks of the legislative session don’t provide enough time.

Benson said, “We do have a problem with the further inequities that would be created” by the bill. “The most troubling issue with the bill is the impact it will have over time. When are we going to hit another bump in the road, when we will have another downturn.”

The bill does a provision that would cushion loss of support by individual colleges when overall funding drops. And if state support dropped more than 15 percent in a year, future legislatures could suspend use of the bill’s formulas.

Ferrandino said he hopes to meet with college and universities leaders late next week, prepare amendments based on that meeting and then get back to the commission.

Read the bill text here.

Categories: Urban School News

Lawmakers leave big decisions for last

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 14:27

Each legislative session has its own rhythm, but one thing is true every year – the heavy lifting gets done in the session’s second half. That’s certainly the case for education bills this year.

School finance, the 800-pound gorilla of 2014, and virtually every other education bill of any interest are still far from decided.

Monday will be the 69th of the 120 calendar days the state constitution allows for each year’s session. Because lawmakers rarely convene on Saturdays and Sundays, that leaves 38 weekdays to work before the legislature must adjourn by midnight on May 7.

More than 60 education bills have been introduced so far this year, about two thirds of them in the House. But only five bills of note have gone to the governor, and another 10 have been killed.

A lot of bills have been passed by one committee – usually House or Senate education – and now are parked in one of the appropriations committees. Such spending bills – and measures proposing spending in other areas of state government – will be prioritized and culled by legislative leaders after the March 18 revenue forecasts give lawmakers a better idea how much money they have to play with in the 2014-15 budget.

Based on what survives that thinning, it looks like the Senate Education Committee could be pretty busy in late March and into April, give the larger number of education bills coming from the House than moving in the other direction.

The legislature does have a detailed list of deadlines for when bills are supposed to finish various steps in the process, but those often are waived, and there are separate, later deadlines for bills in the appropriations committees.

And still more bills may be on the way. Measures expected – or rumored – may involve teacher evaluation, early childhood, online education, college scholarships and teacher licensing.

For those of you keeping score at home, here’s the status of key education bills, starting with school finance and key policy measures, then listed alphabetically by topic.

School finance

More than half a dozen bills deal with this issue, and they involve not just school funding but also related matters such as enrollment counts, charter school facilities, spending transparency and kindergarten funding. The big measures are House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, and House Bill 14-1298, the annual school finance act. This is complicated stuff – see this story for details of the debate.

The Building Excellent Schools Today construction program also is part of the finance discussion. Bills giving lawmakers greater oversight part of the problem and changing the calculation of local district matches already have gone to the governor. But broader questions about use of BEST revenues are still in play.

Other big issues

Testing is a simmering issue this year. House Bill 14-1202, which started as a district opt-out bill, has been converted into a proposed testing study and is in the House Appropriations inbox.

Two bills address the “data gap” that will be created after the state moves to the new CMAS tests in the spring of 2015. House Bill 14-1182 would give districts and the Department of Education flexibility in district and school accreditation during the testing transition. The bill has passed the House and Senate Education. Another measure, yet to be introduced, would provides some flexibility next year in the teacher evaluation system.

House Bill 14-1268, a controversial proposal to change some of the mutual consent provisions of the evaluation law, is awaiting its first hearing in House Education.

On the higher education front, Senate Bill 14-001, the proposed tuition cap and college and university budget increase, is pending in Senate Appropriations. The measure has wide support and is expected to advance. And House Bill 14-1319, a potentially contentious measure to change the higher education funding formula, was introduced Thursday.

The following sections list bills by number, with brief descriptions and status information.

Boards & districts
  • House Bill 14-1118 – Creation of a $2 million fund for grants to rural districts that offer Advanced Placement classes. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1204 – Exemption of some small certain from certain state paperwork requirements. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1291 – Allows charters to hire armed security guards. In House Education
  • House Bill 14-1314 – Gives charters a greater role in district mill levy override proposals. In House Education
Early childhood
  • House Bill 14-1039 – Requires integration of early childhood data with state K-12 data. In House Education
  • House Bill 14-1076 – Proposes a $12.5 million incentive program for quality improvements in preschools. In Appropriations
Higher education
  • House Bill 14-1124 – Makes certain Native American students eligible for resident tuition rates. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1154 – Equalizes pay rates for full-time and part-time community college faculty at a cost of $86.2 million. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-114 – Allows CSU Global Campus to enroll freshman and sophomore students. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1094 – Creates an August sales tax holiday on purchases of school supplies. Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1156 – Expands eligibility for free school lunches. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1288 – Requires parents to receive health information before opting out of immunizations required for school enrollment. Awaiting House floor debate
  • House Bill 14-1301 – Increases funding for Safe Routes to School program. In House Transportation
  • House Bill 14-1102 – Increases by up to $6 million funding for gifted and talented student programs. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1131 – Makes cyber bullying a misdemeanor. Passed House
  • House Bill 14-1276 – Provides grants for training students in CPR. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-002 – Moves Safe2Tell anonymous tips program to the Department of Law. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-150 – Expands the Colorado Counselor Corps program and increases funding by $5 million. In Appropriations
  • House Bill 14-1175 – Requires CDE to conduct a study of minority teacher development, recruitment and retention. In Appropriations
  • Senate Bill 14-124 – Creates a $2 million program to train leaders for turnaround schools. In Appropriations
Past the post

The only important policy bill signed into law so far is Senate Bill 14-004, which allows community colleges to offer four-year bachelor of applied sciences degrees in technical and vocational fields. A similar bill died amid acrimony in 2013, and SB 14-004 is a classic example how easily a bill can sail through the legislature if compromises are reached before the session starts.

Two bills making mid-year K-12 funding adjustments also have been signed. Those measures were needed to account for enrollment changes and other factors.

Already dead

One job lawmakers are prompt about performing every year is killing bills, including ideological measures proposed by members of the minority party. And sometimes legislators ask for their own bills to be killed after figuring out the measures didn’t have support.

Bills that would have created a timeout on implementation of new standards and tests, allowed school staff to carry guns on campus, established a tax credit for private school tuition and paid bonuses to highly effective teachers who worked in low-performing schools all have been “postponed indefinitely,” which means exactly what it sounds like.

House Bill 14-1110, which would have set recording requirements for school board executive sessions, was killed Wednesday at the Senate sponsor’s request.

Measures proposing compensation for school board members, scholarships for early childhood educator training and tweaks to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association also have died.

This story doesn’t reference several technical bills related to education. See the Education Bill Tracker for a full list of this year’s education bills, links to texts and the latest status. The Tracker also shows all the bills that have been killed, when that happened and which committee did the deed.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Late start boosts grades, attendance

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 08:55

Vaccination show-down

After a six-hour hearing and a late night vote, a bill to make opting children out of immunization more difficult passed the House committee. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, AP via 9News, Denver Post )

Where have all the teachers gone?

Fewer Coloradans enrolled in teacher prep programs last year, including in specialties already struggling with a deficit of qualified teachers. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Lawmakers near and far

A bill to increase funding for school counselors joined a growing list of bills waiting on the legislature to make 2014-15 budget decisions. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Colorado senator and former Denver superintendent Michael Bennet sponsored legislation supporting early childhood education, which passed Congress this week. ( Gazette )

And at the nation's capitol, a Denver official testified in support of charter school legislation. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )


After disagreement over a student's testing led a parent to pull her out of school, Denver released new guidance on opting students out of tests. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

P.E. meets Plato

A P.E. teacher says get out and get active! Oh and Plato said it too. And so did Kennedy. And Thomas Jefferson. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Hit that snooze button, kiddo

According to a study that will elicit cheers from high school students everywhere, later school start times for high school lead to higher grades and test scores and better attendance. ( AP via Denver Post )

Give me the money!

Mancos School District in southwestern Colorado joined a suit to force lawmakers to increase education funding, as the lead plaintiff. ( Cortez Journal )

Categories: Urban School News

House panel passes contentious vaccination bill

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 01:06

A House committee late Thursday voted 9-2 to advance House Bill 14-1288, which would require parents who want to opt out of vaccinating their children to certify that they’ve received medical information about the benefits and risks of those shots.

The bipartisan vote came after a hearing of more than six hours before the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee, a session that got increasingly passionate and heated as the evening wore on.

The session, which started more than two hours late because of a lengthy House floor debate, drew a crowd comparable in size to those that showed up for recent hearings on testing and standards and on guns in schools.

Vaccination has become controversial in recent years for some parents, who believe shots are triggers for a variety of illnesses. On the other hand, public health groups fear declining vaccination rates could lead to resurgence of infectious diseases such as measles and pertussis and that unvaccinated children can pose a threat to other kids with compromised immune systems. Medical researchers also have found no link between immunizations and such conditions as autism.

HB 14-1288 is backed by more than 30 state medical, education and advocacy groups, ranging from the Colorado Children’s Campaign to Children’s Hospital to Democrats for Education Reform, not to mention hospitals and medical societies.

Colorado has a relatively high rate of unvaccinated children, 4.3 percent, according to bill sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver.

State law requires certain vaccinations for enrollment in licensed daycare centers, schools and colleges. But parents may opt out of vaccinating their children for religious or medical reasons, or merely because of a “personal belief” opposed to vaccination.

HB 14-1288 would require parents who want to use the personal belief option to either obtain a form signed by a medical professional certifying the parents have received written information about the risks and benefits of immunizations or have completed an online vaccination information program. The bill wouldn’t eliminate the personal belief opt out.

There were stark contrasts among the 45 witnesses who testified, with businesslike panels of doctors, childcare professionals, educators and parents supporting the bill. A much larger cast of opponents, many of whom identified themselves just as mothers or fathers, told sobering and emotional stories of their children’s severe reactions to shots, of autism, of disabilities and even of death.

(At the end of the evening, Pabon read the long list of supporting organizations, saying, “We kept the pro testimony very short. … We could have easily packed the room with proponents.”)

The contrasts were exemplified by two witnesses.

Dr. Jim Todd, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and the University of Colorado Medical Center, said, “Our analysis of Colorado data over many years shows that vaccines are safe and effective,” noting “there’s a lot of misinformation that circulates.”

But Michael Gaeta, an acupuncturist and nutritionist, argued, “Vaccines do more harm than good” and that vaccines “have not eliminated or prevented any diseases.” Gaeta and several other opposition witnesses criticized the alleged self-interest of drug companies in pushing vaccines.

Opponents also argued that the notifications would just be used to pressure parents to have their children vaccinated. Others said they suspect the bill is just a step toward outlawing parental opt-out. Most of the opponents arrived at the witness table with stacks of reports and other paperwork for the committee. Critics also called the bill an attack on personal liberty and parent choice.

But the last witness, Sundari Kraft of a group called Vaccinate for Healthy Schools, said children need “freedom from” the risk of infectious diseases as much as some parents need “freedom to” opt out.

Supporters said the bill wouldn’t discriminate against people who have sincere objections but is rather aimed at those parents who opt out purely for convenience because they don’t want to take the time to have their kids vaccinated, for instance.

Things got heated late in the hearing when witness Mary Hendrick intimated that committee member Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, has a conflict of interest because his wife works for a pharmaceutical company.

Chair Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, calmly came to McNulty’s defense, saying, “I have no reason to expect that Rep. McNulty would have anything but the utmost integrity in voting on this bill.” (Another witness tried to raise the same issue later, but McCann cut her off, again very politely.)

Another element of the bill would have required schools to publicly report the percentage of students who aren’t vaccinated. That provision was criticized by opponents as something that could lead to bullying of kids who haven’t had their shots. The committee approved an amendment that only would require such information be provided on request.

Read the bill text here and a legislative staff summary here.

Categories: Urban School News

Enrollment in teacher prep programs declines

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 18:04

Fewer people are enrolling in programs to become teachers in Colorado, according to the latest report by the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

The annual report on state teacher preparation programs found the drop in enrollment cut across age groups and program type. The decline also impacted specialized fields that already experience a deficit of qualified candidates, including science and special education teachers and bilingual educators.

Teacher preparation programs have come under fire in recent years, with critics saying that acceptance requirements are too weak and that programs fail to prepare teacher candidates for the classroom.

Programs that saw particularly drastic declines (upwards of 25 percent) include Colorado State University in Fort Collins, University of Denver, online-based University of Phoenix and Jones International University.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • One specialty experienced a slight increase: mathematics.
  • Teacher librarian and instructional technology programs saw the largest declines, of 50 percent or more.
  • Minority students were somewhat underrepresented, compared with their representation in other four-year higher education programs in the state.

The full report is available here.

Categories: Urban School News

Counselor funding joins list of bills in holding pattern

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 18:00

A bill that would double funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps was passed 4-2 by the Senate Education Committee Thursday and was sent to join the growing stack of bills waiting for the legislature to sort out its 2014-15 spending priorities.

The corps grant program provides funds to district to increase their counseling staffs and improve counseling services. The corps currently receives $5 million a year, and Senate Bill 14-150 would double that amount, as well broadening the number of eligible schools and imposing some new administrative requirements. (Read the bill summary here.)

Created by a 2008 law, the program has been targeted at schools with higher-than-average dropout rates and enrollments of at-risk students.

Some 126 schools in 59 districts have received funds to date, and more than 100,000 students have been served, program administrator Misti Ruthven told the committee. She said dropout rates have decreased and graduation rates have increased at schools that received grants. (For details, see the program’s annual report here.)

Schools currently receive three-year grants. SB 14-150 would extend the term to four years, funding an additional 50 counselors a year.

Samantha Haviland, president of the Colorado School Counselors Assocation, said the state has one counselor per 400 students, compared to the recommended ratio of 1-to-250.

Two Republican committee members, Mark Scheffel of Parker and Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, voted against the bill, saying they’re concerned about its requirement that the program meet “nationally accepted guidelines and standards.”

The measure joins a growing list of spending bills, education-related and otherwise, that are on hold in the House and Senate appropriations committees. Legislative leaders will start culling that list after release of quarterly revenue forecasts next week gives them a better idea of how much money lawmakers have to spend in 2014-15.

Categories: Urban School News

Denver official testifies on charter school practices before Congress

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 16:14

Denver’s head of innovation, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, joined officials from Ohio, California and national charter school organizations to encourage Congressional support of charter schools.

Whitehead-Bust praised the work of Denver charter schools, saying “charters do add quality seats to a system that needs them.” Although House representatives praised Denver’s charter program, it has proved more controversial closer to home.

She continued:

While Denver has shown steady improvements across all measures and all school types since 2005, charter schools have simultaneously and consistently outperformed other school models. Since 2010, our charter school enrollment has grown by 17 percent annually. Charter schools are in demand in part because their autonomies give them the opportunity to try innovative and promising new practices. If isolated to the province of charter schools alone, such promising practices would only impact 15 percent of students in Denver. But because of Denver’s approach to equity and collaboration, these promising practices are able to spread quickly to schools across governance types…I encourage Congress to align its work with the reauthorization with the important role of charter schools at the forefront of your mind.

The full testimony is available here, including questions from House representatives following Whitehead-Bust’s testimony.

Categories: Urban School News

Denver releases new opt-out guidance for schools after parent conflict

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 15:21

Denver Public Schools officials on Wednesday evening issued new guidelines for how schools should treat families who have opted-out of state assessments after a conflict between a parent and the principal at a Hilltop neighborhood middle school.

The recommendations, which allow students to attend regular classes while skipping early morning tests, comes almost halfway through the time period the state allots for schools to proctor the tests. The district is also issuing the memo amid a growing cacophony of assessment protests: Since the fall, teachersparentsschool leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing in schools.

But as more parents have asked that their students be exempted from the state exams, schools have sometimes struggled with how to reconcile the demands of parents and of the law, which requires students to be tested.

“It is important for families to understand the value of assessments and the district’s responsibility to follow the law,” wrote Susana Cordova, the district’s chief academic officer, in an email to Denver principals. “Each school is responsible for assessing students in attendance during the testing window.”

However, she continued, “Students refusing to participate in testing should still be allowed access to all other non-assessment activities.”

Parents who want to opt-out their students of the state exams argue that there is legal precedent that allows them to do so, despite a Colorado law that requires students to be tested in third through tenth grades.

So far, the debate over testing in Colorado has seemed to be concentrated in suburbs like Douglas County. But while still relatively small — the total opt-outs from the 2013 round of tests amount to about 1 percent of students — the emergence of spats in Denver may indicate that momentum among parents to opt out is growing.

Meanwhile, parents who wish to have their students abstain from the test are encountering pushback from districts, said Angela Engel, a former Colorado teacher turn author and parent activist. 

Susan Johnson, the Denver parent whose conflict with her child’s school prompted the new guidance from DPS, is one parent who recently joined the opt-out movement.

“I never liked the tests,” she said during an interview Wednesday. But this year is the first she decided to opt her children out of the exams.

Johnson, following the guidance of organizations like United Opt-Out, sent a letter earlier this month explaining her decision to opt-out her children to both her daughter’s middle school and her son’s high school.

She said she didn’t receive any grief from staff at Denver’s South High School.

“They encouraged me to send my opt-out letter to the school board,” Johnson said.

But on Tuesday, she removed her sixth-grade daughter, Sarah, from the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences after her suspicions were aroused that the school was not respecting her request to exempt her daughter from TCAP testing.

Johnson, who is also the school’s PTA treasurer, said she dropped Sarah off at 10:55 a.m. Tuesday, after testing was completed for the day.

In a video shot on a cell phone shortly after Johnson believed her daughter was in class, Johnson found  Sarah, in an office with school staff.

“Excuse me, I explicitly said my daughter was not to be spoken to about this test or coerced in any way,” she told a school employee.

Johnson then asked her daughter if they denied her access to her class. Sarah nodded.

“Get your backpack, let’s go,” Johnson told Sarah.

As Johnson and her daughter left the room, an unidentified DPS employee stood and recited testing protocol.

“Legally, she can’t be in a testing room and interacting with other kids who have already tested same sessions that day,” he said.

Denver school officials declined to discuss the incident at Hill in detail.

But, the school’s principal was following a literal interpretation of guidance provided to him from Colorado Department of Education that said all students who are present during a testing period are required to take test from district and state officials, a district spokeswoman said.


<a href=””>CDE_TCAP_Guidance2014 (PDF)</a></p></p>
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<p><a href=””>CDE_TCAP_Guidance2014 (Text)</a><br /><br /></p>

And the district acknowledged the incident highlighted the need to help school leaders understand what to do if parent demands conflict with state guidance.

“We have apologized to the family for what happened at Hill yesterday,” said Kristy Armstrong, DPS’s spokeswoman. “Our assessment staff has received further clarification on how to accommodate students whose families choose to opt their students out of the portion of the school day devoted to state assessments. Students whose families choose to opt out of state assessments are welcome to participate fully in classroom activities during non-testing time.”

Denver’s new guidance mirrors established policy in neighboring Aurora Public Schools.

“When parents decide they will not allow their students to take TCAP, we ask for them to share their decision in writing, and then we keep the letters for our records,” said Georgia Duran, an APS spokeswoman. “Often parents choose to keep their students home during testing time, but we encourage parents to allow students to attend school. If a student does attend school, we have the student work with another class, and we provide individual work for the child.”

Opting students out of tests is not new. Since 1997, state law has required public school students in specific grades to take the standardized tests in math and English language arts.

However, as states have begun to introduce new exams tied to Common Core State Standards, parents have increasingly begun to organize across the nation to protest.

Engel, the author and activist, likened the opt-out movement to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights and Women’s liberation movements.

“Parents are sick and tired of the commercialization of our child’s education,” Engel said, explaining just one of the many arguments of parents who want to opt-out their students. “They are not for profit. The policies around high-stakes testing is making a lot of money for the test publishers like Pearson. Kids don’t have lobbyists. It falls to the parents to protect their interest. Too many commercial interests including consultants, data managers and curriculum publishers are benefiting.”

The conflict over the role of testing has pitted parents like Johnson against many state and district officials, who point out that testing is necessary to drive schools’ progress and undergird a complex system of school and teacher accountability that the state has built over the past several years.

Colorado schools are rolling out the state’s new standards, which incorporate the national Common Core math and English language standards. Beginning in April, some Colorado students will be tested on science and social studies standards. And a year from now Colorado students will be assessed using the new PARCC tests, which will assess students on the Common Core math and English language standards in nearly a dozen states. 

“Next year will be worse,” Johnson said, referring to the PARCC tests.

In light of the debate, Colorado’s General Assembly is considering a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue. And on Tuesday, the State Board of Education Chairman Paul Lundeen, who is also running for a seat in the state House, introduced a resolution that if passed would call on the legislators to abandon the state’s participation in the PARCC tests.

How Colorado could move forward with its accountability reform efforts if the state abandoned the high-stakes testing could prove difficult. But parents like Johnson might be OK if the system was dumped.

Johnson believe the accountability measures are misguided and is obstructing quality learning. That’s just one of many reasons why she doesn’t want her children taking the test.

“Teachers have been forced to change the way they teach,” she said. “Who can blame them? Their livelihood is on the line. They insist they’re not teaching to the test. But you can see they are. If I were a teacher, I would.”

Categories: Urban School News

Famous people of influence have been saying it for centuries: physical education is key

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 15:00

Colorado parents need to take a more active role in these so called education reforms occurring in our schools. Last November, Colorado failed to pass Amendment 66, which was supposed to put nearly a billion dollars directly into our classrooms, bypassing the school administrators. Supporters even provided commercials stating we could bring “gym class” back for a mere $133 a year per household!

Quality “physical education” is a valuable content area which educates our children on the concepts required to live an active and healthy lifestyle. This is Colorado! Go outside and go for a walk! Henry David Thoreau said, “Me thinks that the moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow.” President Thomas Jefferson said, “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.”

In 2004, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation found that 92 percent of parents consider P.E. and health as important as English, math and science. Although core content areas are expected to provide evidence of student growth, due to local control issues or values, Colorado does not assess nor evaluate physical education programs. Many school administrators expect physical education teachers to demonstrate growth in math and literacy rather than physical education content.

President Harry S. Truman said, “We should resolve now that the health of this nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the nation.” According to the CDC and Health Policy Solutions, Colorado’s childhood obesity rates have increased by the second fastest rate at 23 percent in three years. One could assume this is due to Colorado having one of the least funded education systems in the country and the influx of education reforms, which focus on the “core” content areas in order to achieve higher scores on state assessments.

President John F. Kennedy stated, “Intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong.” Colorado is one of only two states in the country that does not require any physical education from kindergarten to 12th grade. High school graduation requirements in Colorado vary from ZERO to three credits, with the average being one and a half credits.

Plato said, “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” What type of physical education program did you have in high school? There are basically two types of a secondary physical education program in our schools: “new school” and “old school.”

“New school” physical education programs are standards-based and include lifetime fitness and active and healthy lifestyle. These programs include a large variety of mainly individual fitness/sport type activities, where students benefit from the knowledge and concepts to participate for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, there are very few “new school” physical education programs in Colorado that offer a comprehensive variety of activities due to funding and lack of priority.

“Old school” physical education programs include very large class sizes that include: roll out the ball (weight), athletic centric, power lifting, and represent what many adults had when they were growing up. Team sport skill development is the featured goal of an “old school” program. But how much do baby-boomers bench press these days? When less than three percent of high school athletes continue to play their sport after they graduate, and only three in ten thousand high school boys’ basketball players actually get drafted to play professionally, why are team sports still the focus of many of the secondary physical education programs across the country? In short, these “gym” classes with fifty to seventy students in them are easier to manage. All a student has to do is show up appropriately dressed and simply participate without causing problems.

President Thomas Jefferson said, “Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.” One of the most alarming trends occurring around the nation is the practice of waiving or exempting students from physical education because they are in some other EXTRA curricular activity; they do not take into account the actual content being taught or the physical and mental benefits provided through brain research in a quality physical education class. Don’t get me wrong, extracurricular activities are very important and teach some important concepts that assist with the education of the whole child, but they are extra. Colorado also allows for extracurricular coaches to be hired without any kind of teaching certification. They may have gained their experience playing the particular sport they are hired to coach but are not provided with the professional development required for quality physical education.

Physical education was created in order to develop our young men for military service. President John F. Kennedy said, “A country is as strong as its citizens, and I think mental and physical health, mental and physical vigor go hand in hand.” It was President Kennedy that renamed the President’s Council for Physical Fitness to include ALL Americans. Currently, 75 percent of high school students that would like to enter a career in a service profession do not qualify physically and military and policy academies are forced to reduce the physical requirements because of this.

As far back as 300 BC, Herophilis said, “When health is absent, Wisdom cannot reveal itself, Art cannot become manifest, Strength cannot be executed, Wealth is useless, and Reason is powerless.” Colorado’s school children are in school for seven hours a day; with all this knowledge and the resources available, shouldn’t our schools assist students by teaching them how to live a healthy lifestyle?

Parents: if you would like for your children to develop healthy lifestyle habits, you should ask the important questions around how these habits are being developed in their school. If more parents would ask the important questions concerning their priorities for their children, then our local control school administrators, school boards and legislators would have to focus on improving the system towards educating the whole child.

Categories: Urban School News

Cyberbullying advances, student data privacy stalls, board executive session bill dies on hectic day

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 21:35

The 2014 student data privacy bill was delayed, a cyberbullying measure advanced and a contentious bill on school board executive sessions was killed Wednesday as both houses and three separate committees worked through a big stack of education bills.

It was one of the longest daily calendars of education bills so far this session. Also advanced were a bill that would allow Colorado State University Global Campus to expand its reach, and the measure that would give the state’s district and school rating system more flexibility to handle the “data gap” that will occur after Colorado launches new tests in 2015.

That measure, House Bill 14-1182, sailed out of the House March 3 on a 59-0 bipartisan vote. But all three Republicans on the Senate Education Committee voted against it on Wednesday, indicating that the bill may get more debate in the Senate.

Here’s a look at the day’s developments in education.

Data privacy bill held over until next week

Common Core Standards, state testing and student data privacy have emerged as hot issues this year. A bill to delay standards implementation has been killed, and it looks like the only action on testing may be creation of a task force to study the issue.

A data security proposal, House 14-1294, had its first hearing Wednesday in the House Education Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, the bill would impose eight data security requirements on the Department of Education – all things the department says it’s doing already. The bill wouldn’t impose any new requirements on school districts and only would require CDE to create a “data security template” that districts could use.

Several witnesses argued that the bill doesn’t go far enough and urged addition of requirements for districts.

“The focus should be expanded to the local district and student level,” testified Paula Noonan, a former Jefferson County school board member. Other witnesses included several Jeffco parents who were active in the campaign against the inBloom data system that Jeffco was using but since has junked.

“The technology has simply gotten ahead of the leadership of our state and our schools,” Flynn said. “This has caused parents to lose trust in the public education system.”

Committee chair Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, noted that the bill can’t be expanded to cover local districts because its formal title, which restricts what can be included in the bill, is limited to data administered by CDE.

Murray said she was sympathetic to what the witnesses said but that felt data security requirements for districts need “a much bigger and longer discussion” than is possible this year. “At some point we need a mandate,” she said.

She and other committee members do have some amendments for the bill, but the committee didn’t get to those because the hearing ran past the lunch hour, and another panel had the meeting room reserved starting at 1:30 p.m.

Hamner laid the bill over for amendments and a vote at the committee’s meeting next Monday.

Read a legislative staff summary of the bill here, and the full text here.

Cyberbullying bill passes – with complaints

The House gave 54-10 final approval to House Bill 14-1131, the measure that would make cyberbullying a separate misdemeanor in state law.

The bill prompted emotional testimony during House Education Committee consideration and was the focus of a partisan fight during preliminary floor debate last Monday.

The measure sets a two-tier penalty system. Cyberbullying would be a class 2 misdemeanor, but the crime would be a more serious class 1 offense if bullying took place because of “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

A class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by 6-18 months in the jail and/or a $500-$5,000 fine while a class 2 misdemeanor can get 3-12 months in the jail and/or a $250-$1,000 fine.

On Monday Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, proposed an amendment making all cyber bullying a class 1 offense. He lost that fight, voted for the bill Wednesday but said he still doesn’t like the two-tier language.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, also voted yes but complained, “this bill does not provide equal protection of all children.”

Both said they hope Senate colleagues will try to amend the bill. The final vote was 54 in favor and 10 other Republicans voting no.

Read the bill here.

School board executive sessions bill killed — for now

House Bill 14-1110 has emerged in recent weeks as one of 2014’s more controversial education measures.

The bill would have imposed new requirements for recording of school board executive sessions and required boards to keep logs generally describing issues discussed behind closed doors and how much time was spent on each subject.

The bill was prompted partly by the extensive use of executive sessions by the Douglas County board and the suspicion by board critics that members were using closed meetings to discussion policy issues that aren’t supposed to be discussed in private.

But the legislative debate focused on the broader issue of whether the bill would compromise the long-standing legal doctrine of attorney-client confidentiality.

The bill survived such criticism in the House and passed 34-31.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony on the bill March 3 and was supposed to vote Wednesday. Sponsor Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, cut the session short by asking the committee to kill the bill, which the panel did.

Hodge explained after the meeting that she didn’t have enough votes on the floor to pass the bill but might try a new version later this session – if she can come up with language to assuage opponents. Asked about the opposition, she said, “Those darn lawyers,” and smiled.

Republicans have questions about accreditation “data gap” bill

One of 2014’s more important – if technical – measures is House Bill 14-1182. The proposal, developed by the Department of Education, proposes that district and school accreditation ratings issued next fall, which will be based on 2013-14 test results, apply to both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

The department feels the bill is necessary because results from the new 2015 CMAS tests won’t be available in time for the department to calculate ratings in the fall of 2015 and because student growth data, which requires more than a year of test results, also won’t be available. (Get more details in this story.)

The bill would allow districts that feel their ratings should be changed in 2015 to appeal to CDE and provide additional data. The bill also would give the State Board of Education additional flexibility in choosing intervention measures for schools that reach the end of the five-year “accountability clock.” (The board already has such flexibility for low-performing districts.)

The flexibility measures would be in effect for only a year.

Unlike their House colleagues, GOP members of the Senate Education Committee had questions during Wednesday’s hearing, and all voted no. Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley suspects such flexibility might be needed for more than a year. Sen. Mark Scheffel of Parker was worried the bill gives the State Board too much power. Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins explained – at length – that she opposes the bill because it’s part of the whole standards-testing-reform education system that she’s against in general.

So the 4-3 committee vote indicates the bill may see more floor debate in the Senate than it did in the House.

Expansion of CSU Global gets committee approval

Witnesses supporting Senate Bill 14-114 gave an encore performance of testimony presented in the Senate, and the House Education Committee responded by passing the measure 11-1 on Wednesday.

The measure would give Colorado State University Global Campus authority to enroll freshman and sophomore-level students in its online-only programs. The bill is a carefully crafted compromise with the community college system, which feared expansion of Global would poach its own online and campus students.

So the bill has several restrictions, including one that prevents Global from enrolling Colorado freshmen students younger than age 23.

Murray thought Global should be given free rein and proposed an amendment to eliminate the age restriction. That would have unraveled the compromise that has kept the community colleges neutral on the bill and unleashed a lobbying firefight.

The committee apparently wanted to avoid that, and the amendment failed 2-10.

Five other mostly technical education bills were on Wednesday’s calendars. Check the Education Bill Tracker for what happened to them.

Categories: Urban School News

State board hints at different paths forward for two very different struggling districts

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 17:21

The two low-performing districts that presented their improvement efforts to the State Board of Education on Wednesday offered a study in contrast: Adams 50 is a Denver metro-area district serving nearly 10,000 students. Vilas RE-5, a rural district in the southeastern part of the state, serves fewer than 140 students, half of whom attend school online.

The differences between the two school districts, both of which face a looming deadline to dramatically improve their student outcomes or face state intervention, are forcing state officials to grapple with how they will tailor turnaround efforts to meet divergent district needs.

Wednesday’s state board meeting was an opportunity for  officials to hear directly from districts about their efforts to improve before the state’s so-called “accountability clock” runs out. Officials hope the talks will inform state board members’ thinking when they make decision about accreditation and potential interventions when districts’ time runs out.

Vilas, whose students are divided roughly evenly between a K-8 online school and a K-12 brick and mortar campus, could face a state decision regarding its accreditation as soon as next fall. Westminster, which adopted a district-wide competency-based learning program, has an additional year to show considerable progress.

During Westminster’s presentation, nearly a dozen district and school officials clustered around the table separating them from board members to present their case. They showed the progress the district has made, showing that none of the district’s schools are ranked in the state’s lowest tier, down from seven of the district’s 18 schools that received the ranking four years ago.

Westminster leaders also pointed out their efforts to improve early childhood education access and overhaul data systems that state and district officials said were lacking.

Board members praised those efforts and several, including Debora Scheffel, appeared sympathetic to Westminster officials’ point that their efforts were showing success that state accountability systems could not capture.

“How can CDE support your efforts?” Scheffel asked.

“Cut back on tests and stick to one model” was the refrain from Westminster officials.

Both district presentations are available here, along with additional documents provided by CDE.

What to do about the online school?

When state board members returned to their seats following a short recess, they faced a very different group of district officials, including Vilas’ superintendent Joe Shields and the district’s two other administrators who lead the online and brick and mortar campuses.

Robert Hammond, the state commissioner of education, set the tone for much of the discussion around Vilas’ future as he introduced the district to the board.

“One of the biggest challenges for Vilas is the online school,” Hammond said. “If the online school was not part of district, it would probably jump out of improvement.”

Last year, the district, with the help of the state, shut down its online high school and helped its students, few of whom came from the area, transition to other schools.

Vilas’ new online coordinator also highlighted other efforts to overhaul the online program for elementary and middle school, including hiring an interventionist for struggling students and overhauling the reading curriculum.

“Sometimes you have to slow down and go back to grow,” said Carrie Veatch, who joined the district last fall. “I wish we were in year one because now we are getting somewhere.”

Before, Veatch said, the approach was “if they had a pulse, [we would say,] ‘come on and enroll.’” Now the district screens students to make sure they are a good fit.

Veatch has also introduced more structure to classes, including requiring students to turn in homework on a deadline rather than by the end of the quarter. Struggling students are required to participate in weekly intervention classes, a change which has driven some families from the district.

“Some families have said, ‘we came to online because of the flexibility,’” said Veatch. She hopes families will adjust to the added structure. “This will become part of the status quo.”

Veatch said the district was seeing positive trends, including rising student achievement, higher grades and more participation.

“We’re doing things right,” she said.

But questions lingered about the viability of the Vilas online program. State board member Elaine Berman raised the possibility of closing the district’s K-8 online school.

“I am going to be very optimistic that online students are going to do better,” said Berman. “But if they don’t, are you prepared to have the online school separate from the brick and mortar school?”

Shields said they would make that decision based on this spring’s test results.

“We don’t want to do it if we don’t have to,” he told Chalkbeat in an interview following the board meeting. He plans to look at end-of-year internal testing data and make a recommendation to the school board in May.

But the final decision will be made in August when TCAP scores are released.

The challenges of rural turnarounds

Vilas’ presentation also raised questions about what the possibilities are for rural turnaround efforts. Board members probed the inner workings of small rural districts, asking about Vilas’ financial viability and how staff copes with state reforms.

“I’m always curious how small districts manage to make it financially,” said Berman. She and others commented on the burden of systems like educator evaluations on small districts.

Board member Angelika Schroeder asked Vilas officials about their work with the local BOCES, which are collaborative regional systems that provide services to many rural districts.

“What kind of work are you doing together?” Schroeder asked.

Shields said they worked with the BOCES and nearby districts more than in the past.

“There used to be a great deal of animosity,” Shields said.

While rivalry between districts has prevented collaboration through the BOCES system in the past, they are becoming a tool for many rural districts to adapt to state standards.

State board members praised the district for its efforts and discussed the difficulty of overhauling rural districts.

“In other states, if a district falls below 500 [students], they close them down or force consolidation,” said board member Marcia Neal. “You can’t do that in rural Colorado.”

She said distances were too great and in many areas, “the rural school is a driving economic factor in community.”

Categories: Urban School News

Bill could liven up higher ed discussions

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 23:10

This year was supposed to be a legislative session of sweetness, light and more money for Colorado’s colleges and universities.

Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $100 million increase for higher ed, both for institutions and financial aid, a significantly higher percentage increase than he suggested for K-12. (Total state dollar spending on school districts, of course, dwarfs higher ed budgets.)

Democratic lawmakers liked the idea so much they plucked it out of the governor’s budget and put it in its own bill, Senate Bill 14-001. That measure also includes a 6 percent cap on tuition increases in 2014-15.

A key part of the proposal is that all colleges will receive an 11 percent increase based on the current formula for distributing money to institutions. That formula is a combination of various old factors. Policymakers have been reluctant to tinker with that formula, which tends to disadvantage faster growing institutions, for fear of reigniting old intercollegiate battles over money.

While colleges are likely to get their money next year, those old feuds could be stirred by a bill being floated by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. The speaker, a genuine budget wonk, is serving his last term.

A draft of that bill was circulated to colleges on Monday evening, and it could stir old disagreements about funding shares.

State aid comes to colleges and universities in two forms. One is called the College Opportunity Fund (COF), and it’s supposed to represent stipends paid to resident undergraduate students to reduce college costs. The second is called fees for service, and it’s supposed to represent money the state pays to institutions for such “services” as graduate education, providing remote areas of the state and enrolling underserved students.

In practice, the dual system is primarily a way for the state to avoid having to count tuition payments as revenue that would be subject to limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Ferrandino’s proposal would more tightly define fees for service, and weight those payments based on such factors as institution size, research activity, graduate education, retention of students and degree completion. And it would set higher COF stipends for lower-income students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants.

There’s a lot of other complicated math in the bill, which wouldn’t go into effect until 2015-16, if it’s introduced and passed.

There isn’t much reaction yet to the bill draft. State colleges and universities, ever vigilant about protecting their financial interests, employ squads of analysts and lobbyists to scrutinize proposals like this, and you can be certain those folks are doing just that. A period of negotiation over the bill’s provisions is the likely next step.

The higher education system, which doesn’t have the same constitutional cushions as K-12, has been hit with two periods of significant budget cuts since 2000. But colleges, unlike public schools, can charge tuition, and those rates have steadily risen in recent years as institutions have tried to stay afloat. Tuition now provides roughly 75 percent of revenues.

Read the draft bill here.

Categories: Urban School News

State board chair drops a little PARCC surprise

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 21:39

Paul Lundeen, chair of the State Board of Education, informed his colleagues Tuesday that he plans to ask them to vote next month on a resolution calling on the legislature to repeal a 2012 law that required Colorado to sign up with a multistate testing group.

Lundeen’s surprise (at least to some board members) came at the end of a daylong meeting, “I respectfully call for action by the General Assembly and the governor during this legislative session,” he said. “It is time to demand action from the General Assembly to repeal the statute” that led to Colorado committing to use of language arts and math tests being prepared by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

He said he’d ask the board to consider such a resolution during its April 9-10 meeting.

Lundeen made the announcement near the end of a 10-minute speech in which he criticized the Common Core Standards (“Colorado must remain true to its independent standards”) as “an increasing burden of standardized assessments.”

The 2012 “PARCC law” (only 14 lines of text in an education laws cleanup bill) was controversial then because lawmakers – led by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver – basically forced the board to join the multistate testing group. Earlier that session lawmakers rejected the board’s request for $26 million to develop new Colorado-only tests.

Testing and the Common Core have become even more controversial since then.

The effect of a board resolution – if Lundeen gets one passed – might be minimal. The board historically doesn’t have a lot of sway with lawmakers, particularly when the board is divided, as it would be on this issue. Johnston would be expected to oppose any change in the state testing system. And lawmakers likely would be reluctant to take up such a controversial issue with less than a month to go in the session. (They have to adjourn by May 7.)

Lundeen, a Republican, is likely a short-timer on the board. He’s a candidate for the state House from a safely GOP seat in El Paso County and has been endorsed by the incumbent.

Testing also came in for criticism at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, when Keith King, a Republican former legislator from Colorado Springs, appeared before the board to complain about testing – “there are just really too many mandated tests” – and warn that new standardized tests are threatening the autonomy of charter schools. King, an influential figure on education issues while in the legislature, operates an early college charter.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the board’s public comment session was taken up by the usual assortment of citizen witnesses complaining about or praising the Common Core. (This has become a fixture at board meetings since last summer.)

Sonja Semion, who heads Stand for Children Colorado, brought along a unique visual aid to show that group’s support for the standards – a printout containing more than 7,000 signatures from citizens who signed a Stand online petition supporting the standards.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat ColoradoPetition submitted to State Board of Education by Stand for Children.
Categories: Urban School News

Community input, teacher voice drive overhaul at a struggling elementary school

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 20:36

When district officials threatened to replace the entire staff of Ashley Elementary, Donna Simms went with other parents to the school board to protest.

“The way they came in and said, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s going on’” angered parents, said Simms.

But unlike some situations in which the district moved ahead on its plans without community consensus, in this case the district backed down. They replaced the principal but agreed to work with the current staff and teachers to come up with a plan for the school’s principal.

That decision, Simms said, helped save the school, which has over 95 percent of students below the poverty line and has struggled with low performance for years.

“Had we not spoken up, I think a lot of the families that have been with the school for years and years would have left,” said Simms. “We agreed as a community to stay for this year to see what’s happening and see if what they said was going to happen really did happen.”

The result is a plan that would give the school what is known as a innovation status, meaning it is freed from a number of district mandates. The plan, which observers say is unusual in the amount of community input that shaped it, includes cutting class sizes, incorporating technology and adding time for non-core subjects.

It received the go-ahead from the state board Tuesday morning and has garnered praise even from critics of Denver’s innovation schools process.

The full plan, clocking in at over 160 pages, is available here.

Innovation schools

Denver’s innovation schools have proved to be controversial, with critics saying that the plans schools submit often lack rigor or specificity and often fail to produce results. But Ashley’s plan has garnered praise even from those critics.

“Their’s was the only proposal that seem to have buy-in and be substantive in some way,” said Van Schoales, who heads education advocacy group A+ Denver. “A lot of these proposals are superficial. You can tell they’re going through the motions, that they haven’t had conversations with their staff about how they want the school to get better.”

A recent report produced by A+ Denver, CU-Denver and local unions showed that innovation schools produce mixed results, often failing to outperform similar traditional schools and falling below state averages.

Schoales says that’s because of the relative lack of scrutiny in the innovation schools process.

“Almost everyone gets innovation status,” said Van Schoales. In fact, a 2013 lawsuit alleged that Denver’s school board inappropriately approved innovation plans for two new schools, which were not allowed for under the 2008 innovation schools law.

Innovation schools should be required to submit a comprehensive vision for their school, says Schoales.

“If the proposal was a disaster, then [the school's] probably going to be a disaster,” he said.

How to have a conversation

District officials, school leaders and community members agree that the decision to have the school community lead the transformation is part of the reason for how strong Ashley’s plan is.

“That was a brilliant idea,” said Jennifer Keel, Ashley’s parent liaison who has been with the school for 30 years. “We were able to take our strengths from the past and bridge them into our goals and our aspirations for the future.”

It’s an example of a successful outreach strategy in a district that in other cases has been accused of alienating parents, teachers and community members.

At Ashley, parents and teachers were initially suspicious of the process, believing the district would go ahead with predetermined plans. But the principal’s openness to their ideas brought them around.

“I was one of those that was very, very, very hesitant,” said Simms. She participated in the principal selection process and in the subsequent school design.

For one, the candidate the district selected, current principal Zachary Rahn, raised red flags for Simms.

“We had a feeling that because he came through the DPS system and the DPS training, we were going to get cut under the table,” said Simms. Rahn arrived in the district as a Teach for America teacher and went through a district principal training program last year.

Instead, she said, “he’s been receptive to the input of the staff and the community. He has been upholding what he said he would do and what we wanted to see in the building.”

Innovation status as an afterthought

Paradoxically, the strength of the plan may come from the fact that it was an afterthought, rather than the end goal of the process.

Starting at the end of last spring, the district convened a committee including Rahn, the school’s teachers and a group of parents to begin discussions about what the school should look like.

“The question that we opened it with was, ‘what does your dream school look like?’” said Rahn. “Innovation was never a thought until after.”

Instead, becoming an innovation school was a tool for doing what the community wanted.

“If this is what we want to do, [innovation] is the way to do it,” said Rahn.

The committee also had plenty of time to complete their work, a component district officials say was crucial to having a successful process.

“They started last winter and didn’t finish until September and October,” said Joe Amundsen, a senior manager of innovation schools for the district. He worked with the committee on the school’s design. “Our hope that is schools do go through the similar process of starting in the spring and working over the summer and putting together the plan in the fall.”

He said two other schools going through a similar process, Isabella Bird Community School and the Oakland elementary campus, are on a similar timeline.

Let’s try that again

For many schools, improving means replacing the entire staff and starting at zero. That’s what happened last time Ashley faced an overhaul, in the 1990s.

Keel, who was at the school at the time, said that the staff was called to an emergency meeting and told they would have to reapply. At the time, she thought it was hard on the school but the intense conversations of the past year have made her wonder if that approach was simpler.

“Going through it twice makes me see how important it is to start all over,” said Keel.

With Ashley’s less drastic approach, both Keel and Rahn say they expect the outcome will be the same, with large-scale turnover of the teaching staff. But the timeline will be more gradual, giving people time adjust to the new way of doing things.

“Change is hard for adults,” Rahn said.

The slower process means many teachers have decided for themselves that the school’s new direction won’t work for them, rather than being fired or pushed out.

“There’s a chunk of people who voted for the plan who think it’s right for the school but for themselves it wasn’t right,” said Rahn.

Rahn says the key was to balance making big picture changes with easing community fears.

“Turnaround fails because change is incremental” said Rahn, a message he drove home for teachers starting at the first committee meeting. On the other hand, he understands why school closings and mass firings can be hard on school communities.

For him, it’s still an open question of whether this approach will work.

“Will we get the same results without getting blown up?” said Rahn, but he’s hopeful. “We’re bound to prove the stats wrong.”

Categories: Urban School News

State board denies Sheridan Schools’ accreditation appeal

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 18:50

A struggling school district’s quest to become the first to successfully appeal its low state accountability rating ended today when the State Board of Education voted 6-1 to deny their request.

Despite evidence of a continued effort to improve academic performance of its students, members of the board said the statewide consequences would be too great if they agreed to lift Sheridan Schools’ accreditation rating.

Sheridan officials argued a bump in accreditation would more accurately capture the fruits of the intense turnaround efforts schools have undergone including lowering its dropout rate from 5 percent to 0.9 percent.

Officials from the Colorado Department of Education countered: If the board approved Sheridan’s appeal it would put the state’s accountability framework and processes of collecting and analyzing data into question.

The board agreed with the department.

“It’s clear you’re on the right track … In concept, I’m in support of you,” the board’s chairman, Paul Lundeen, told Sheridan officials. “But, in practicality, I can’t.”

State officials argued in order to bump Sheridan’s rating, the department would have had to allow the district to resubmit graduation rates after a statewide deadline for all schools. Allowing Sheridan to amend its data as it’s convenient to the district would create a precedent that would throw off careful timelines and procedures.

More importantly, state officials argued it would allow districts to retroactively manipulate their data if they weren’t happy with their school accountability rating.

“Sheridan is asking for CDE to create a unique framework that fits their needs,” said Keith Owen, the department’s deputy commissioner. “The state board has responsibility to safeguard the accountability measure.”

Debora Scheffel was the lone dissenting board member. She said she believes the district is supporting its students to the best of its ability.

“I feel [Sheridan] is doing a great job serving a very needy population,” Scheffel said. “The fact they could remove a service and increase their accreditation means they’re trying to serve their students.”

The crux of Sheridan’s argument was that it has more than a dozen students enrolled for a fifth, sixth or seventh year of high school who are concurrently enrolled at both its high school and Arapahoe Community College. Those students have met the qualifications for a standard diploma, but they are seeking an advanced “21st Century Diploma” that requires college courses.

Sheridan officials believes the state should not only track graduation rates, but should acknowledge the “success rate” of Sheridan students who are now taking college courses in pursuit of an advanced degree.

Districts, not the state, set the parameters for graduation requirements. It is also the local board of education and superintendent who certify those numbers to the state. Those numbers are then factored into the school’s annual rating. It is Sheridan’s policies, not the state’s, that have determined the district’s rating, department officials said.

The state board, at times, had trouble following the numbers and logic from both Sheridan and department officials. Questions during the two hour hearing ranged from exactly how many students Sheridan has concurrently enrolled — those numbers ranged from 19 to 24 — to the intricacies of school finance law.

“This is a case of ‘is or is-you-aint,’” said board member Angelika Schroeder. “And I think you’re saying they’re both.”

Sheridan Schools serves about 1,500 students, most of whom qualify for free- or reduced-lunch. The district earned a “priority improvement” ranking from the state’s department of education. The district believes it should be rated as an “improvement” district.

Since 2010, the state has linked its 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.

No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. But Sheridan Schools is one of 11 districts entering either year four or five of the accountability timeline. Sheridan will enter year four of the clock in July when state accreditation ratings take effect.

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough said while he’s disappointed, he understands the board’s decision.

“I guess that’s what happens when you have 178 districts — and not just one — to worry about,” Clough said after the hearing.

Sheridan’s failed appeal was the second of its kind. Mapleton Public Schools unsuccessfully pleaded with the state board to raise its accreditation rating last year.

Categories: Urban School News

District leaders ask for trust amid elementary principal change

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 13:32

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.

Categories: Urban School News



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