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Updated: 24 min 39 sec ago

Schools get improved ranking in annual health scorecard

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 14:10

A scorecard released today by the Colorado Health Institute found that Colorado schools have made progress over the last year in health policy and programming. Overall, schools were rated “mid-high” in the “Reaching Our Peak 2014: Scorecard for a Healthier Colorado” report, compared to “mid” last year.

Several state and federal legislative changes were highlighted for positively affecting the school health environment over the last year. These include $700,000 in new state funding for the Safe Routes to School programming, after federal funding for the program ended this month. Also cited was a new state law allowing third- to fifth-graders who qualify for reduced-priced school meals to henceforth get the meals for free. (Students in kindergarten through second grade already get this benefit.)

The scorecard also mentioned significant statewide increases in school breakfast participation over the last five years, with additional jumps expected this year and the following year as the state “Breakfast After the Bell” law phases in.

On the early childhood front, the report cites $45 million in federal Race to the Top funding earmarked for various initiatives aimed at improving school readiness. The report also praises the addition of 5,000 new preschool and full-day kindergarten slots in 2013-14 through the Colorado Preschool Program, but cautions that the gains are not keeping up with the need.

Also mentioned in the report is an effort by the Colorado Education Initiative, with financial support from Kaiser Permanente Colorado, to create a new streamlined school health data system called The Colorado Healthy Schools Smart Source. That system will be scaling up over the next year. In addition to legislative and policy trends, the schools section of the report highlights a program on the Eastern Plains that arms students with disposable cameras to document healthy and unhealthy aspects of their lives.

Besides rating schools, the annual Reaching Our Peak scorecard measured progress in four other categories, including aging, communities, health care and workplace. The only one besides schools that made improvements this year was communities, which moved from “low-mid” to “mid.” Aging stayed the same at “low” and workplace stayed the same at “mid.” Health care moved from “mid-high” to “mid.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Teacher, staff turnover rises in Dougco

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 10:06

Creative financing

Lower-than-projected marijuana tax revenues for school construction are the latest example of education’s disappointing experience with taxes on things like gambling and drugs to help fund schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Bang for the buck

A charter-friendly think tank found charter students — despite a lack of equal funding — on average meet or beat their peers enrolled in district-run schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Staff churn

Teacher and staff turnover has risen in the Douglas County schools but is on a level similar to the rest of the state. ( Castle Rock News-Press )

School bid advances

A proposed charter high school in Falcon School District 49 gained approval from the district's board of education Tuesday night, but it will not be tied to voter approval of a November bond issue. ( Gazette )

More time in Texas

Mike Miles, something of a reform darling when he was Harrison's superintendent, has won a contract extension as superintendent of the Dallas schools. ( Dallas Morning News )

Young philanthropist

An Erie second grader spearheaded a $2,700 fundraiser to help rebuild a school playground damaged by arsonists. ( Boulder Camera )

Perception and reality

A new study suggests that American principals overestimate the number of poor students in their schools, compared to international standards of economic disadvantage. ( NY Times )

Lawyering up

The Louisiana battle over the Common Core State Standards is going to court, with a suit filed Tuesday against Gov. Bobby Jindal, who's had a controversial change of heart on the issue. ( Huffington Post )

Categories: Urban School News

“Sin taxes” an unsteady revenue source for education

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 17:25

Revenue from marijuana taxes earmarked for Colorado school construction looks like it may be just a quarter of the amount projected this year — and that’s just the most recent example of education’s disappointing experience with taxes on things like gambling and drugs to help fund schools.

Education interest groups and policymakers generally haven’t pushed for such taxes and are skeptical of the reliability of those revenues. But gambling interests repeatedly have tried to attract votes by promising that education would get a slice of various schemes to expand gaming. Yet another such measure is expected be on this November’s ballot.

Why do non-education interests like to tie schools to ballot measures?

“If education is polling well, they figure out a way to tie education to it,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, a research organization.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, agreed that tying such tax proposals to education is a useful marketing tool. “They know that will help sell their measure,” she said. “People like sin taxes because they don’t themselves as being taxed. They think it’s fine for other people to be taxed.”

The problem for education leaders is that such targeted taxes don’t pay the bills.

“There aren’t enough sins in the state to fully fund the K-12 system,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.

Taxes on marijuana were initially projected to bring in $40 million a year, but the real figure may be closer to $10 million in the current budget year.

While marijuana tax revenues are expected to grow over time, the slow start is reminiscent of a 2008 constitutional change that was predicted to provide more than $50 million a year for community colleges from gaming taxes. The actual revenues are projected to be just $6.7 million in 2014-15.

“There aren’t enough sins in the state to fully fund the K-12 system.”
- Sen. Mike Johnston

“Dollars from sin taxes are so fragmented. … It’s always such a piddling amount,” Urschel said. “It’s never a solution to the funding of K-12.”

But others think education has little choice but to rely on such revenues. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires public approval of all tax increases, and proposals to raise taxes for education historically have fared poorly at the ballot box.

“The legislature in Colorado cannot have a real and open debate on school finance and then fund it,” said former Sen. Bob Hagedorn, an Aurora Democrat who is a backer of this year’s casino initiative. “We’ve had to get creative in ways to find additional revenue.”

Marijuana revenues not living up to hopes

Amendment 64, the 2012 constitutional change that legalized adult recreational use, requires that the first $40 million in excise tax revenues go to the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. In 2013 voters approved Proposition AA, a companion ballot measure that authorized the 15 percent excise tax rate on transfers of marijuana from greenhouses to retail stores, plus a 10 percent tax on retail sales.

Hopes & RealitiesMarijuana/Construction

  • $40M projected
  • $10M actual

Gaming/Comm. Colleges

  • $50M+ projected
  • $6.7M


  • $100M projected
  • ??? actual

But BEST is projected to receive only about $10 million in the current budget year.

Tax revenues – and hence money for BEST – have been lower than projected for a variety of reasons. For starters, revenue projections for a business that didn’t exist legally were very difficult to make.

Experts and observers cite factors such as many users continuing to buy medical marijuana, which is taxed significantly less that recreational marijuana, and the fact that many local governments haven’t permitted sales of the drug as reasons that revenues haven’t lived up to expectations.

Another factor may that the excise tax hasn’t been collected on some transfers of marijuana inventories to recreational stores.

A complex marijuana tax law passed in 2013 established the tax on marijuana grown for retail sale, but it did not create a tax on medical marijuana. But only stocks of medical marijuana existed before recreation sales became legal last Jan. 1. So, following the law, the Department of Revenue allowed businesses to make tax-free, one-time transfers of medical marijuana inventory to retail operations. That had the side effect of reducing projected revenues to the BEST program by an undetermined amount.

“That is one factor why the excise taxes were lower,” said Larson Silbaugh, an economist with the Legislature Council, the General Assembly’s staff research arm.

The Department of Revenue wasn’t able to provide a number for the amount of tax-free transfers. But Matt Samuelson, a Donnell-Kay Foundation staff member who follows the BEST program, predicted that “it’s going to be a significant number, a seven-figure number.”

While there were no guarantees, that $40 million figure was widely assumed to be what BEST would receive.

“Everyone had been straight up assuming there would be $40 million,” said Mary Wickersham, former chair of the state Capital Construction Assistance Board and now director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver.

That number certainly was tossed around a lot last spring as the 2014 legislature debated overall school funding. Lawmakers sometimes correctly hedged the amount as “up to $40 million,” but that qualification often got lost in the debate.

Samuelson, who said he always felt the estimate was too high, said, “I’ve always had concerns about the $40 million number as a talking point.”

Beyond talking points, there even was some vigorous fighting over how to use the money. BEST supporters wanted all of it go to the state’s school construction fund. But there also were bids to use the money for construction of kindergarten classrooms or for charter school facilities. In the end, BEST got most of the money, and charters got a small slice.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, tried to remove the earmarks from the marijuana excise revenues. “I told them the number would be smaller” than forecast. But I didn’t win that one,” said Steadman, vice-chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

Instead of the $40 million, legislative economists last month issued these estimates for excise tax collections:

  • $3.6 million for the second half of the 2013-14 budget year
  • $10.1 million for the current 2014-15 budget year
  • $10.6 million in 2015-16
Kathleen Gebhardt / File photo

“It’s going to be a long time before we see $40 million,” said Kathleen Gebhardt, a current member of the BEST board.

Despite the squishiness of the $40 million figure, Johnston said, “I think it was very worth having the debate” ahead of time over how to use the money. “This was the legislature’s correct place to step in, so I think it was very worthwhile.”

Officials who track marijuana revenues agree that the revenue picture may improve, but that’s difficult to predict as well.

In their June revenue forecast, legislative economists wrote, “The marijuana revenue forecast is based on only four months of data. … There will likely be changes in the price and consumption of marijuana as the adult-use market matures.”

Natalie Mullis, the legislature’s chief economist, said, “We are a lot more confident in our forecasts than we were a year ago” but that it may take as long as a decade for marijuana revenue forecasts to be as reliable as those for other taxes.

Any excise taxes above $40 million plus retail marijuana taxes go into a special fund that’s used for enforcement, health education, research and other programs related to marijuana. Retail tax revenues also are lower than projected.

A small slice of that money, $2.5 million, is supposed to go to the Department of Education for grants to schools districts to help train school nurses in recognizing signs of student marijuana use and in counseling.

Jeff Blanford, CDE chief financial officer, said, “Currently, we expect to receive the full $2.5 million, but we are also aware that may change.”

Why BEST supporters worry about the shortfall

The BEST program, created in 2008, combines revenues it receives from leases and royalties on state-owned lands with local district matching funds to pay back lease-purchase agreements that are used to build new schools and do major renovations, mostly in rural and smaller districts. The program also makes direct cash grants for smaller renovation projects.

But state law caps annual debt payments to $40 million a year. The program basically has reached that limit, meaning no big projects will be funded in the foreseeable future. BEST has recommended $67.9 million for 2014-15, significantly less than the $105 million in projects for 2013-14 and the $273 million in projects for 2012-13.

Urschel said it’s “frustrating that some of our capital construction is dependent on a growing and unpredictable industry.”

Johnston said he’s “hoping” it might be possible to find more BEST funding during the 2015 legislative session. “We’re in the midst of an all-of-the-above discussion.”

Gaming expansion no boon for community colleges

Amendment 50, a constitutional change passed in 2008 with nearly 59 percent of the vote, is a top example of a sin tax that hasn’t lived up to its promises of helping education.

Front Range Community College in Westminster

The measure increased betting limits and allowed longer opening hours at casinos in the historic mining towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, the only places in the state where casinos currently are permitted by the constitution. (There also are two Native American casinos in southwestern Colorado that aren’t subject to state jurisdiction.)

To sell the plan to voters, drafters of the amendment dedicated a slice of the expected additional gambling tax revenues to the state’s community colleges. The group behind the amendment even named itself Coloradans for Community Colleges.

Nancy McCallin, president of the community college system, recalled, “The gaming industry came to us after they decided to include us.”

She said community colleges endorsed the amendment because, “At the time is was important for us to have an alternative revenue stream. Yes, we got onboard because it was extra money.”

The state voter guide issued before the November 2008 election estimated the plan would raise $29 million for community colleges in the first year, rising to $63 million in the fifth year.

But the taxes raised only $6.5 million for community colleges in 2012-13, according to the Office of State Planning and Budgeting. Revenue is expected to be $7 million when the books are closed on the 2013-14 fiscal year, $6.7 million in 2014-15 and $8.8 in 2015-16. Estimates by legislative staff economists are slightly lower.

McCallin said she always felt the estimates were too high, noting, “It’s very difficult to project revenues” from a new tax.

After the new gaming rules went into effect, two unforeseen factors combined to reduce revenues, McCallin added. Those were the recession and a smoking ban that affected casino patronage.

Education a favorite cause for gambling promoters

Even before Amendment 50, promoters of various plans to expand gambling tried to attract voters by earmarking future revenues for education.

Ballot measures in 1984, 1992 and 1996 proposed allowing casinos in Pueblo, various eastern plains towns, Parachute and Trinidad, and all promised some revenue for schools. None of them passed, showing that voters don’t always go for sin taxes.

What’s currently labeled Initiative 135, which would allow creation of casino-style gaming at the Arapahoe Park racetrack in the metro area and in the future in Pueblo and Mesa counties.

The campaign committee behind the plan calls itself Coloradans for Better Schools, and it’s supported by Mile High USA Inc., the company that owns the Arapahoe Park racetrack and a subsidiary of Rhode Island-based Twin River Casino.

The group’s website promises the initiative “will provide more than $100 million in new funds every year to enhance K-12 education in our state – without costing taxpayers a dime.” The money would go into a K-12 Education Fund, which would be distributed directly to districts on a per-pupil basis, bypassing the state’s weighted school finance formula. The campaign says would be used for such things as reducing class sizes, buying new technology, enhancing school safety and improving facilities.

Former Sen. Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora /File photo

The plan’s public proponents are Hagedorn and former GOP Rep. Vickie Armstrong, along with former Republican House Majority Leader Chris Paulson.

Paulson said, “We’re pretty confident we’re being conservative” about the $100 million estimate. Hagedorn called it “no small amount of money” even in the context of basic state and local K-12 funding of more than $5.9 billion a year.

Josh Abram, a legislative staff analyst who is helping prepare the 2014 voters’ guide to ballot measures, said his office estimates the plan would bring $80 million to schools during a partial year of implementation in 2015-16, including a one-time $25 million upfront payment by Arapahoe Park. Revenue could be $114 million in the first full year, 2016-17. (The ballot measure doesn’t include a dollar amount but says schools would receive 34 percent of adjusted gross casino proceeds – the money left over after winners are paid.)

The preliminary staff analysis assumes growth in gaming, based on the fact that Arapahoe Park is near population centers, but it also assumes existing casinos will lose business.

“About half of the money that the new casino is going to obtain from gamblers is a dollar not spent in the other towns. … There will be cannibalization,” said Abram.

The proposal already has sparked fierce opposition from mountain casino interests, whose spending helped defeat a similar measure in 2003. (That proposal wouldn’t have benefited education.)

“We really don’t understand how they got to their number,” said Michele Ames of the opposition committee Don’t Turn Racetracks in Casinos. “We’re just not clear on where the $100 million number comes from.”

She added, “It implies a rather large growth of gamblers in the state of Colorado that doesn’t seem realistic. … Their proposition is that they won’t affect the mountain casinos. That implies we’re going to double or triple the amount of gamblers.”

The Department of State is reviewing the 136,342 petition signatures submitted by the Better Schools group to determine if there are the 86,105 valid signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.

Read the final text of proposed amendment here.

Education funding wasn’t really part of the discussion when the state’s two major gambling enterprises, the Colorado Lottery and the mountain-town casinos, were created. Voters approved the lottery in 1983, and a subsequent 1992 amendment restricted most of the revenue to open space and outdoor recreation projects. Casino gambling was approved in 1991, and a substantial portion of the revenue goes to historic preservation and the mountain communities.

Categories: Urban School News

Report: Charter school students do better on NAEP — despite less funding

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 15:22

Taxpayers are getting a better bang for their buck when students attend charter schools, a new report from the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform concludes.

The charter-friendly think tank, in its latest report, found charter students — despite a lack of equal funding — on average meet or beat their peers enrolled in district-run schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is administered every two years to a representative sampling of students in fourth and eighth grade. The Arkansas researchers compared results of students at both district-run and charter schools and how much each institution received in tax dollars to determine the taxpayer’s return on investment. 

The report found charter schools to be more cost effective: For every $1,000 invested, charters on average gained an additional 17 NAEP points in math and 16 points in reading compared to district-run schools.

Colorado charter schools were slightly above the national average in their return on investment, according to the report.

The authors concluded this happens for one of two reasons. Either students in charters, with fewer public dollars, score significantly higher on the NAEP or students in charters, with significantly fewer public dollars, score equal to or slightly lower on the NAEP.

The institution, which is financed in part by the Walton Family Foundation, stopped short of recommending more public dollars should be sent to charter schools.

“We can conclude from our evidence, that charter schools are more productive at current funding levels,” said researcher Patrick Wolf. “They are operating more efficiently. But if the funding gaps were closed, all bets would be off. Charter school performance could increase, stay the same, or shrink. We just don’t know.”

Both the NAEP and school finance data used in the report are from 2011. The report did exclude some states because they either don’t have charter schools or they don’t break out their charter school data in NAEP results. Between one and four percent of a state’s student population are enrolled in charter schools. The NAEP sampling reflects that.

In Colorado, NAEP data was collected and used in the Arkansas report from about 260 charter students and 2,400 district-run students who took the test in 2011.

Disclosure: Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of The Walton Family Foundation. 

Report: The productivity of charter schools DV.load('', { width: 620, height: 600, sidebar: false, text: true, pdf: true, container: '#DV-viewer-1227010-the-productivity-of-public-charter-schools' });
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Colorado slips in child well-being ranking

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:30

farm to school table

A northern Colorado school district is launching a food hub in an effort to get more local food into school cafeterias around the region. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

bad news

Colorado slipped in a national ranking of child well-being. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

charter on the horizon

An application for a new charter high school in Falcon School District 49 is up for consideration by the school board tonight, but the school would still be dependent on the passage of a bond issue that would pay for the school's building. ( Gazette )

colleges not ready

As schools around the country adopt the Common Core as an attempt to prepare students for college, a new report says colleges themselves aren't aligning their programs to the standards. ( Hechinger Report )

Categories: Urban School News

Report: Well-being of Coloradan children worsened in last year

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 08:31

Despite improvements in education and health, Colorado’s children’s overall well-being is worse than almost half the nation’s, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The annual report rates states using metrics in four areas, including education, economic well-being and health. Colorado ranked 22nd overall, a slip of one spot from last year.

According to the report, 18 percent of Coloradan children were living in poverty in 2012, up from 14 percent in 2005. The percentage of children whose parents lack secure employment rose from 24 percent in 2008 to 28 percent in 2012. Despite these shortfalls, Colorado’s national ranking in economic well-being rose from 19th to 18th place.

The state’s education ranking dropped from 9th in the country to 11th, despite an improvement in the number of children attending preschools, fourth-grade reading proficiency, eighth-grade math proficiency and the number of high school students graduating on time.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Teaching and Learning Unit, said the state has made several changes in education over the last couple of years, so it is hard to see the impact yet.

Colsman did, however, attribute improvements in reading and math proficiency to the state’s new academic standards and an emphasis on tracking and promoting early literacy through the READ Act.

“We’ve had a focus on literacy for a number of years,” she said.

In health, the state’s ranking improved from 45th in the nation to 39th. But that improvement came despite some troubling indicators in the areas of health and well-being. For example, 30 percent of children lived in single-parent homes in 2012, up from 27 percent in 2005. There was also an increase in children living in highly-impoverished areas, up from 2% in 2000 to 9% in 2012.

Tara Manthey, communications director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC), said Colorado’s ranking is relative to the progress of other states. For example, Colorado’s child poverty rates are increasing at a much higher rate than many other states, which in turn affect its rank.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the CCC, said the report creates a jarring comparison between gains in education and losses in childhood poverty and economic security.

“Despite (increases) in childhood poverty, we’re seeing more kids in school, better scores in reading and math, and more (high school) graduates,” Jaeger said. “We need to celebrate the gains we’ve seen in these areas, especially with the hard times these families are facing.”

Read the full report here.


Categories: Urban School News

In quest to put more local foods in school cafeterias, district treads new ground

Mon, 07/21/2014 - 15:52

Last fall, Denver Public Schools had a zucchini problem.

The district’s school farms had produced a bumper crop of the vegetable, some of which had been damaged by hail. Administrators couldn’t use it all as a fresh ingredient in school meals, but they didn’t want it to go to waste either. That’s when they turned to their northern neighbor, Weld County School District 6, for help.

Under the leadership of Nutrition Service Director Jeremy West, the Weld 6 team  grated and packaged 445 pounds of the product, most of which was returned to Denver for later use in zucchini muffins. Those muffins were served to DPS students one day in February.

“It’s great having that kind of partnership,” said Anne Wilson, the Farm to School coordinator for DPS. “Had he not been able to process it, we might not have been able to use it.”

Grating zucchini for students in another community may sound like an odd project for a school district, but it fits perfectly into West’s ambitious plans to turn the district into a food hub that will help put more locally-grown foods on the plates of Weld 6 students as well as those in other districts.

While food hubs come in many forms—often stand-alone wholesale distribution centers–their general purpose is to aggregate, process and redistribute local products to area customers. Such operations can help buyers circumvent some of the problems that otherwise make local purchases challenging. These include connecting with small local growers, cobbling together the necessary quantities of ingredients, navigating storage and delivery logistics, and tackling time-consuming food prep tasks such as washing and chopping hundreds of pounds of produce.

A food hub is hardly typical terrain for a school district, but many think it’s a worthwhile endeavor with the potential to break new ground in the farm-to-school movement. Deborah Kane, national director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, described West’s food hub plans as unique, then added, “not just unique, but brilliant.”

She said school districts across the country regularly call her program wondering how to source and obtain local products. Often, her answer is, “Try to find a food hub.”

In Weld 6, several factors appear to make the concept a good fit, at least theoretically. In addition to a huge central production kitchen, a rare breed in the school food world, the project complements the district’s recent conversion from heat-and-serve food to scratch-cooked meals.

There’s also the district’s location in one of Colorado’s most bountiful agricultural counties. Weld County has 3,525 farms, more than any other Colorado county, and is second only to Las Animas County in total farm acreage, according to the USDA’s 2012 Agricultural Census.

“We just have a great opportunity in Northern Colorado to really tap into local agriculture,” said West. “If we can’t get it done here, I’m not sure where we can get it done.”

A gradual launch

Conversations about a possible food hub in Weld 6 began about three years ago. West heard about the concept from members of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and was intrigued. The district had recently re-opened its long dormant central production kitchen, which, in addition to 11,500 square feet of food prep space, had about 20,000 cubic feet of refrigerated storage and 85,000 cubic feet of frozen storage.

“The thought was, ‘How can we make that concept work in a functioning kitchen that already has staff, that already has some infrastructure?’” said West. “That’s why it became attractive to look [at].”

Currently, there are five food hubs in Colorado, according to the USDA’s food hub directory. These include cooperatives in Denver and Fowler and private companies in Colorado Springs, Delta and Fort Collins.

Around the same time West began learning about food hubs, staff at the Weld County Department of Public Health Environment were also becoming interested in the concept. For them, the primary goal was to keep more Weld County products in the region.

Leslie Beckstrom, healthy eating and active living coordinator for the department, said while there were also preliminary conversations with two area food banks about housing the food hub, District 6 ultimately proved to be the most workable option.

“They have three months in the summer, which also coincides with the large growing season here in CO,…when there’s not a whole lot going on,” she said. “There’s some really nice overlapping unused capacity so to speak.”

This crate of chopped onions in the freezer in the Weld 6 kitchen represents the type of product that the food hub could eventually sell to customers.

Initially, customers of the “District 6 Food Hub” will probably include other school districts in northern Colorado, particularly some of the dozen that participate in a group-buying cooperative with Weld 6. But big districts like Denver Public Schools, which has already contracted with West on a couple small processing jobs, are also potential customers. So are institutions such as hospitals, nursing care facilities and food banks.

All told, it’s expected the “District 6 Food Hub” will take about three to five more years to roll out.

“It’s still a toddler,” laughed West.

Krista Garand, supervisor of school nutrition for the Durango school district, knows the feeling. She’s also in the process of taking baby steps toward what she described as a “food hub-like activity” but not a full-fledged food hub.

With the help of a $100,000 USDA grant she’s creating a new receiving center out of some poorly used space next to the high school cafeteria. The new center will give Garand more space to receive and stage local products for both Durango and four neighboring districts that collaborate on farm-to-school programming.

“The potential of it is that we can take larger deliveries, store them properly and trace them a little more closely,” said Garand.

Why local?

Many Colorado school districts, including Weld 6, already seek out local products through their farm-to-school programs, although what’s considered “local” varies widely. A recent national “Farm to School Census” found that 26 percent of respondents defined local products as those from within the state, while 21 percent said they should come from within 50 miles and 13 percent said within 100 miles.

Currently, some districts spend around a quarter of their food budgets on local items, ranging from Palisade peaches to grass-fed beef. In Weld 6, that number is 22 percent, but West hopes it will eventually grow to 50 percent with the help of the food hub.

Some of that local yield may even come from the district itself eventually. This summer West and his staff are working to rehab several unused greenhouses at two of the district’s high schools. There’s also a district-owned plot of land that he has his eye on as well.

The rationale for local food depends on who you ask, but many people believe that just-harvested local items taste better than those picked in far-away fields and shipped long distance. There’s are also arguments around reducing environmental impact and teaching consumers about their region’s seasonal rhythms.

But perhaps one of the biggest reason for buying local is the economic impact.

“Part of Farm to School, especially in Colorado, is honoring the fact that we are an agricultural state number one,” said Julia Erlbaum, a member of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and founder of Real Food Colorado.

“If you’re buying local ingredients that money is staying in your local environment.”

Beckstrom said some farmers also feel strongly about seeing their products stay local.

“Being able to grow it and sell it to Weld 6 and they know it’s going to feed local kids has that really good heart feel to it,” she said.

There’s also no doubt that demand for local products is growing among consumers, even in school cafeterias. Garand said it’s not unusual for her to hear from parents who plan to send their children through the lunch line on days when local products are featured. These include things like beef, potatoes and wheat that’s incorporated into a pancake.

Testing, testing

As West’s food hub plans unfold, he’s taken on several test projects to help determine what services to offer eventual customers. In addition to the zucchini job for DPS, he also worked with the Windsor school district to convert that district’s surplus frozen butternut squash into a squash soup. In both cases, Weld 6 kept a small amount of the final product as payment.

In addition to the zucchini, Weld 6 ran some tests for DPS to see whether bell peppers could be frozen for use in the district’s stuffed pepper entree. West said such jobs have helped the district not only test out potential products but also given him a sense of how much labor it takes to do complete various processing tasks.

With many districts, even big ones like DPS, lacking the spacious, well-equipped facilities that West has, it’s possible that the Weld 6 Food Hub will offer prepared foods to customers too.

“If they like our chili and we’re making mass quantities of chili for our students, what would it look like for us to also make additional chili that we sell?” asked West.

Making the money work

While the zucchini-for-labor barter system has worked well enough during the initial phase of the food hub’s gradual launch, the long-term plan calls for a dedicated food hub manager and a model that’s financially self-sustaining.

Up until now, grants from the Colorado Health Foundation, the USDA Farm-to-School program and the Colorado Department of Agriculture have helped with planning and start-up activities. And Beckstrom said it’s likely additional grant funds will be needed to create the manager position.

“It’s going to require some seed money,” she said.

Still, Beckstrom is optimistic that with a food hub manager, the operation will eventually turn a profit that can help the hub grow and expand.

“I do think it’s possible,” she said. “That’s why I’m really impressed with Jeremy because he kind of has that entrepreneurial spirit in him and that’s what it’s going to take for a food hub within a school district environment to…thrive.”

Erlbaum said given that a school district’s primary mission is to feed school children, the creation of a food hub in that context necessitates a slow, strategic approach.

“School districts… need to be able to stay within their budget line,” she said.

Erlbaum said among potential revenue sources for a district-based food hub are increased school meal participation, driven by tastier, locally-sourced items, and fees for hub services provided to customers. West said there’s also the potential to lower food costs through volume buying as more districts sign on.

“Our gain is that we get better pricing and more local into our system,” he said.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Gambling group is hijacking education funding issue, claim ballot question opponets

Mon, 07/21/2014 - 09:48

Teacher talk

Four teachers and a superintendent share the highs and lows of teaching — and recruiting good teachers — in rural schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Horse Race

Opponents to a possible state ballot question that would constitutionally allow the expansion of casino gambling to horse race tracks say supporters are hijacking education funding to see their issue pass. ( Colorado Statesman, KDVR )


Secrecy and exclusion — and possible Colorado Open Meetings Act violations — among Greeley-Evans board members led to the resignation of Superintendent Ranelle Lang, costing the tax payers nearly a quarter of a million dollars. ( Greeley Tribune )

"Keeping" a promise

President Obama is expected to announce today 60 of the nation's largest school districts have signed on to his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. Those schools will be responsible for expanding quality preschool options and provide early intervention services to African-American and Hispanic students in higher grades. ( New York Times )

Let's Fly A Kite — err, fire a rocket

Students at Denver's East High School partnered with their younger peers to build rockets as part of a summer STEM program. ( 9News )

Good news for good behavior

A Boulder school plans to implement a behavior program that rewards student for good behavior with gift cards rather than punish them for bad behavior. School officials report there was a 9 percent drop in students being sent to the office last year during the school's test run. ( Boulder Daily Camera )

shelter city

The Denver Post's editorial board says Mayor Michael Hancock's decision to seek federal funding to help temporarily house a fraction of the thousands of Central American children caught illegally crossing the U.S. border. ( Denver Post )

Who's on first?

As Colorado launches its first turnaround network for failing schools, Chalkbeat's Indiana bureau examines how that state has handled five of its lowest-performing schools. It's investigation found rampant confusion over who is in control and hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in jeopardy. ( Chalkbeat Indiana )

State of the Union

The new leader of the nation's largest union, the National Education Association, has inherited a tenacious relationship with the White House. And it appears the relationship will only continue to strain. ( MSNBC )

testing testing

As the nation debates the merits of standardized testing, a professor shares tests — without high-stakes attached — can be useful to inform instruction and increase retention of knowledge in students. ( New York Times )

Categories: Urban School News

What We’re Reading: School segregation, Chicago-style

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 17:33
  • In Chicago, high schools are segregated by students’ prior academic achievement. (WBEZ)
  • A postscript about the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s schools is a tragedy all around. (New Yorker)
  • The billionaire, right-wing Koch Brothers are trying — and succeeding — to influence what schools teach. (HuffPo)
  • In Philadelphia, out-of-date textbooks put poor students at a disadvantage when prepping for tests. (Atlantic)
  • The president of the Eagle Academy Foundation argues that standalone middle schools should be abolished. (Daily Beast)
  • The struggling Detroit Free Press is doing away with its high school journalism program. (CJR)
  • An educator says recruiting more teachers of color won’t solve schools’ problems. (Jose Vilson)
  • Against trends, here’s an argument in favor of ed tech that isn’t student-centered. (Annie Murphy Paul)
  • A parent argues against the culture of competition among children. (Deadspin)
  • Sweden ran with vouchers and doesn’t have improved student performance to show for it. (Slate)
  • In New York City, some schools disproportionately punish students with long suspensions. (New York World)
Categories: Urban School News

A portrait of the challenges of rural teaching, in teachers’ own words

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 14:21

HOLYOKE, Colo. — Nic and Allie Balog’s decision to take teaching positions in the Holyoke School District, a small district on the eastern plains, was based at least in part on a case of mistaken identity.

“There’s a Holyoke, Mass., which looks a lot different” from the rural Colorado town of about 2,000 inhabitants, just 20 minutes from the Nebraska border, said Nic Balog. “The whole time I was driving out here [for my interview], I was like, ‘What is this oasis in eastern Colorado that I’ve never heard of?’”

But in the end, the couple was drawn by the lure of the small town and decided to stay.

Rural administrators say they must rely on this sort of rare lucky catch to attract teachers to their remote districts, where pay is often lower than in urban centers and the towns offer fewer amenities. And the even greater challenge, convincing teachers to stay, often requires administrators to look outside the school building for solutions.

Holyoke’s superintendent Bret Miles recruits candidates like the Balogs who he thinks will find a reason to stay, although he says he’s often happy to get anyone. One tactic he’s had some success with is finding local candidates, either by getting alternate teaching licenses for folks who have other expertise or by drawing back locals who have left. Nearly a third of Holyoke’s teachers graduated from the school where they teach.

Chalkbeat spoke with a group of Holyoke teachers about what drew them to Holyoke — and what made them stay.

Abby Einspahr, math teacher, Holyoke Junior High School

I grew up here. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher…[But] I did not decide to stay here. I decided to go into Lutheran education.

But when her position in a private Lutheran school in California was cut, she ended up back in Colorado, teaching in nearby Yuma. Then the high school principal in Holyoke lured her back. That’s a common practice in rural districts, where teachers are often poached from nearby schools, creating a game of musical chairs of open teaching positions in rural areas.

Einspahr returned to her hometown where she hadn’t lived for several years, which created its own set of social challenges:

The friends I did have coming back are at a different phase of their life. They’re married with kids and coming back single is hard.

It also meant returning to a community where the lines between work and personal are blurred.

I changed greatly from who I was in high school and who I was in college to living in California for six years. I was completely different person, coming back here. I have kids in my class going, “Well, your brother, right?” They have perceptions of me based on my siblings, my parents, my cousins, my grandparents. I have nieces and nephews in school.

Einspahr just finished her first year back in Holyoke but she still isn’t sure whether she’ll stay.

Maury Kramer, math teacher, Holyoke Senior High School

In many rural and remote districts, administrators turn to talent that already exists in their community to recruit teachers. Kramer is one of those, a former auto technician who now teaches the higher levels of math at the high school.

I grew up here in Holyoke. I really failed at college the first try and ended up raising a family. So I moved back here to work with my dad on the farm and that went to trouble in the eighties. So I just had to work around here and raise a family, raise six kids through the school system.

After, while they were starting to go to college, because of my job and things changing there, I knew I wanted to find something else. Helping them with homework and every job I’ve had I’ve been teaching or training students in some way or another. So that kind of led me to [teaching]. So I went back to school online in 2003, finished in 2008, tutored for a couple years, finally started here in 2011.

He uses his deep roots in the community in his classes, to deal with students and pull in the town’s history.

It’d be really hard for me to teach where I don’t know anybody. Here, I know everybody in town. I also know what kids’ parents do and I can make math more applicable to them. So kids whose folks work in construction, we can talk about the triangles in the house, how they work in the rafters or…using the Pythagorean Theorem rather than a laser or a GPS or something.

And he often knows kids’ families and their issues and can adjust to students’ needs.

Sometimes you don’t know everything but you know something is going on so you can be a little less restrictive of them.

Nic and Allie Balog, social studies and special education teachers, Holyoke Senior High School

Sometimes, the barriers are as simple as a lack of housing. When the Balogs first moved to Holyoke to take up teaching positions, there was only a single house in the entire town available for rent. The house lacked amenities and was in rough condition.

Nic Balog: When the wind blew, the curtains would blow open and move [even with the windows closed].

Eventually, the couple purchased a house, that was in better shape.

Nic Balog: It probably kept us here, to be honest…Conveniences like the garbage disposal and air conditioning made Holyoke a lot more livable.

But the transition wasn’t easy, especially for Allie Balog.

Allie Balog: I’ve never been away from my family. I know it’s only two and a half hours. But for me that was still hard. And not only that, I love to shop and go out and do things. I couldn’t do any of that. That was what I felt at first.

But I think doing it together, we always had each other at the end of the day, you know playing cards in our house for three months straight, because we didn’t have anything to do.

When the couple first accepted the position, they arrived with a group of five other young teachers. Today, only one of that group still teaches in Holyoke, along with the Balogs.

Allie Balog: We have a life here and I don’t know if that’s true for the others. You have to try really hard to fit in with people. Once you do and you are willing to do that, people are willing to do the same back to you.

Bret Miles, superintendent, Holyoke School District

Getting teachers is harder and harder for rural districts, as pay stagnates and cuts made during the recession linger.

It used to be that we’d sit down and say, “Any elementary opening, we’ll be able to fill that.” Social studies, no problem, we’ll fill that anytime of day…Now, all of them are really hard to find. We’re going into the last week of June and we haven’t filled our social studies opening, which used to be no-brainer.

We’re trying to make the work environment so attractive that people will just want to stay. So we try to improve technology, we try to make sure we focus on a collaborative structure for how we make decisions in the district.

We have to have all those other things working because we don’t pay as well as in the city. That’s a really a school finance formula issue, partially.

And the competition for a small pool means districts are competing with each other for candidates.

At the baseball game in Haxtun last weekend, I spoke with the elementary school principal there. It took her five offers to hire a fifth grade position. We found out two of them had interviewed in every school in northeast Colorado [including Holyoke] and only one of us gets him.

So Miles has started to search for teachers farther afield.

Tomorrow, we will interview international candidates because we haven’t had a math teacher application…we’re Skyping with someone in the Philippines.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Colorado Springs officials acknowledge problems at youth correctional facility

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 10:42

safety patrol

Colorado Springs youth correctional officials acknowledged safety problems at a juvenile facility, and the contract to provide educational services at the facility is also changing hands. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

open arms

Denver officials are applying for a grant to help convert a residential treatment facility into housing for unaccompanied immigrant children. ( 9News )

picking a yardstick

The University of Colorado's Board of Regents discussed how to best measure its progress towards its strategic goals. ( Daily Camera )

at an impasse

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is among a group of legislators trying to simplify the college financial aid process, but the bill is likely to get stuck in Congressional gridlock. ( Vox )

how a bill becomes a law

More than 100 Latino high school students participated in a mock government program at Colorado State University. ( Rocky Mountain Collegian )

lend a helping hand

A new respite care center aims to help families of children with special needs. ( 9News )

Categories: Urban School News

Just a reminder: Find out more about integrating arts into your classroom tonight!

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 16:08

Are you spending the summer looking for inspiration about how to make your school a more creative place when the new year starts? Interested in weaving the arts more seamlessly into your instruction, but not sure where to start? Or just looking for some great local art?

Then join us tonight for our  event “Coloring Outside the Lines: Integrating the Arts into Your Classroom.” We think it’s going to be really cool and hope you will also.

Registration starts at 4:30 at the Clyfford Still Museum, and from there you’ll embark on a scavenger hunt through Golden Triangle art galleries.

Then at 6:15, we’ll re-group at the museum to have a discussion about how to get more arts instruction into your schools and classrooms. The discussion will include panelists Barth Quenzer, whose teaching approach we profiled earlier this week, as well as Diana Howard, a retired Denver principal and founder of several arts integration schools, and the Still Museum’s Tori Eastburn. (If you can’t make it for the art walk, you’re still more than welcome for the panel.)

To whet your appetite for the event, take a cool interactive tour of Quenzer’s classroom here.

Hope to see you there!

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Poll finds education minor issue in gov race

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 10:08

Dougco evaluations

After a review requested by the Dougco teachers union, state officials found no evidence that the district’s teacher evaluation system violated state law. The review was the first under a 2013 law that requires the state to respond to complaints about district evaluation systems. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

Paying for preschool

A Denver City Council panel has voted 3-1 to advance a proposed ballot language asking voters to hike and extend a sales tax to fund the Denver Pre-School Program. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Teacher placement

The Colorado Education Association has filed formal notice that the Denver Classroom Teachers Association will appeal dismissal of the union lawsuit that challenges the teacher placement provisions of Colorado educator evaluation law. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

What matters

Voters responding to a poll about their preferences in the governor's race also were asked about issues, and only 5 percent listed education and 1 percent cited education funding as the most important issues in deciding how to vote. All issues polled in the single digits except for the economy, which was the top issue for 20 percent. ( Denver Post )

Philanthropy rebounds

Colorado foundations donated $646 million to charitable and community causes in 2011, up 25.4 percent from 2009, according to a new report. More than a third of that went to education-related causes. ( DBJ )

Helping students read

A Golden publishing house is putting a new focus on graphic novels aimed at teachers who increasingly are using such books to teach reading. ( Westword )

Helping hand

Volunteers in the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain districts are working to fill 9,825 backpacks with school supplies for low-income students, and they need more donations. ( Boulder Camera )

Tracking truants

The Westminster school district has been awarded a $430,000 Expelled and At-Risk Student Services grant from the Colorado Department of Education for programs to help reduce explosion and truancy cases. ( Westminster Window )

Early learning

A report by the New American Foundation recommends that preschool programs be integrated fully into elementary schools, with comparable hours and funding and with fully trained teachers. ( Washington Post )

Common Core

North Carolina lawmawkers have rejected pressure to junk the Common Core State Standards, instead opting to study the standards and improve them later. Colorado is following a similar study path on testing. ( Washington Post )

Categories: Urban School News

State review rejects union claims against Dougco teacher eval system

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 18:15

In a review requested by the Dougco teachers union, state officials found no evidence that the school district’s teacher evaluation system violated state law.

The review, which kicked off in May, was the first of its kind to come out of a 2013 law that required the state to respond to complaints about district evaluation systems. It was prompted by a grievance filed by the local teachers union, which alleged the district procedure did not meet with state law and resulted in inconsistent evaluations.

Courtney Smith, the head of the teachers’ union, questioned the findings, saying she was “shocked” by the outcome. In an email to teachers, she said, “Despite a definitive finding from…nationally-recognized experts in the field of teacher evaluation creation and implementation that the DCSD system is both invalid and unreliable, CDE has chosen not to act and instead will allow a dysfunctional and demeaning system to remain in place.”

The union’s complaint was based on two reports by the consulting group Teaching Learning Solutions, who were initially hired by the district to review its processes.

District officials said, in a statement, that they were pleased with the outcome.

The state’s review centered on three primary areas: whether the system aligns with state standards for teachers, how well evaluations are validated, and whether the district’s process for evaluating teachers was transparent.

On the first two counts, the state said the district presented that they met the expectations of the law and did not ask for any additional work from the district. However, the state review indicated the process for reviewing teachers’ scores was not clearly communicated to the district’s teachers.

Read the full letter from Robert Hammond, Colorado’s education commissioner:

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Categories: Urban School News

Denver council committee OKs preschool ballot question

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 16:39

A proposed measure that will ask voters to increase and extend a sales tax to fund preschool tuition credits for Denver families is one step closer to the November ballot.

The Denver City Council Government and Finance Committee approved the ballot question this morning, 3-1, kicking off a bureaucratic timeline to Election Day. Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz was the lone no vote.

Denver voters narrowly approved the .12 percent sales tax to fund the Denver Preschool Program in 2006. The program provides tuition credits to Denver 4-year-olds based on a calculation that includes family income and the quality of program they are enrolled in. The program also ranks the quality of partnered preschool sites and provides professional development to early childhood educators.

If voters approve the question, the sales tax will increase to .15 percent, or 15 cents on every $100.

The tax is set to expire in 2016. But supporters of the tax are now armed with data they believe proves the merit of the program and are prepared to ask voters in November for more money and a 10-year extension.

“We have 31,816 reasons why this is an effective measure,” said Councilman Albus Brooks, referring to the number of students who have received a tuition credit since the program launched.

Brooks is the sponsor of the council ordinance that would refer the question to voters and co-chair of the forthcoming campaign.

And the $55 million spent on those credits have paid off, supporters told the council subcommittee.

Nearly 100 percent of students who received a program tuition credit left their respective program in 2013 ready with the literacy and math skills they’d need in kindergarten, according to the Denver Preschool Program. And about one in nine had the appropriate vocabulary. Further, the first class of the program to reach third grade outperformed their peers who did not receive a tuition credit from the program on the state’s reading test.

“The research is clear: Students who come to school with larger vocabularies and a broader range of experiences simply do better throughout their school years and into their adult lives,” said Sally Augden, chairwoman of the education committee of the League of Women Voters of Denver. “Making early childhood education within the reach of all families, particularly for our low-income children, is the first step in closing the achievement gap.”

Councilman Chris Nevitt agreed.

“This makes perfect sense,” he said. “The return on investment is enormous.”

Councilwoman Faatz, who opposed the ballot question in 2006 and plans to oppose it again, said she doesn’t disagree that early childhood education is important, but she has numerous concerns about how the program is run.

“I don’t believe the city should be involved in education issues,” she said.

Faatz went on to raise concerns about the program’s administration costs and speculated about potential fraud in the program.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech countered, “it’s really hard for greater oversight without higher administration costs.”

If voters approve the ballot question, part of the tax increase would allow the program to increase its administrative costs from 5 percent to 7 percent. The program’s CEO Jennifer Landrum told the subcommittee her four-member team is at capacity and a fifth staff member is needed as the demand for the program grows.

The additional revenue will also be used to reinstate summer programs, keep up with the rising cost of tuition and demand for full- and extended-day programming.

The full council is expected to vote on sending the ballot question to voters at its Aug. 11 meeting. It will also hear public comment at that time.

Categories: Urban School News

Union signals coming appeal of teacher placement ruling

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 14:38

Updated: As promised, Colorado’s largest teachers union filed a notice Tuesday that they intend to appeal a Denver judge’s ruling that left the state’s teacher evaluation law untouched.

The Colorado Education Association (CEA) is challenging the dismissal of a case they filed earlier last year. In their January lawsuit, CEA, along with the Denver teachers union, alleged Denver Public Schools (DPS) abused the mutual consent provision of the law, which requires both principals and teachers to agree to a teacher’s placement. The union said that DPS’ practices violated teachers’ due process rights, while supporters of the state law said the lawsuit was intended to bring down the whole system.

In June, a Denver judge threw out the case, saying it covered ground laid by other similar lawsuits, also previously dismissed.

In the wake of the suit’s dismissal, the CEA promised to appeal. They made good on that promise Tuesday afternoon.

The notice lists the issues the union intends to make a part of their appeals, which are largely a reiteration of its arguments from the original lawsuit. The actual appeal will come later. In the meantime, the case will be transferred from the district court, where it was dismissed, to the state’s appeals court. That bureaucratic process must occur within 91 days, after which a schedule will be set for briefings on the case.

A group of organizations, including the Gates Family Foundation and A+ Denver, who support the law issued a statement Thursday, criticizing the coming appeal.

“We feel this intent to appeal is an unnecessary waste of resources and waste of time for our state—hurting Colorado’s children the most,” they said in a statement.

The full notice is below:

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Why students in poor schools struggle with standardized tests

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 09:05

State of Public Schools

A task force created by the General Assembly met Tuesday to talk about how public schools assess their students, how exams scores impact education reform policies, and whether students and teachers need relief from standardized testing. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Slow But Sure

The task force members left the three-and-a-half-hour meeting with a lot to process, according to the task force's chair Dan Snowberger. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Domino Effect

Companies responsible for creating state and national exams also publish the textbooks that contain the answers. Unfortunately for students, low-income schools can't afford them. ( The Atlantic )

CSI: College

Fourth and sixth grade students are spending three days at Northeastern Junior College learning about forensic anthropology as part of the CSI Investigators Kid College. ( Journal-Advocate )

Finding Federal Loans

According to a study by the Institute of College Access and Success, nearly a million community college students who need help paying for school don't have access to federal student loans ( KUNC )

Categories: Urban School News

Testing study panel faces steep learning curve

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 18:17
“I think we have digested an awful lot today. I think there’s a lot of processing we need to do.”
– Dan Snowberger

That’s how Snowberger, chair of the state’s new Standards and Assessments Task Force, summed up the group’s first meeting Tuesday as the three-and-a-half hour session at the Capitol ended.

The task force, created by a law passed earlier this year, elected Snowberger chair, did some other organizational business and then got a rapid-fire briefing on the ins and outs of the state’s testing system from Joyce Zurkowski, director of assessment for the Colorado Department of Education (see her slideshow here).

Do your homework

Taking in all that information in a short time prompted Snowberger’s comment, along with a similar remark by Nancy Tellez, a Poudre district board member. “We have just taken in a whole lot of information here. I would like a little more time to process it.”

The task force’s assignment is to study the impact of testing on teaching time, the interaction of testing with the state accountability and educator evaluation systems and the feasibility of waiving some assessment requirements, among several other issues. (See the full list of duties below.)

The group is to report findings and recommendations to the legislature by next Jan. 31, giving the 2015 session plenty of time of consider the issue. House Bill 14-1202, the law that created the group, allows the group’s recommendations to include minority reports.

But Snowberger, who’s superintendent of the Durango schools, and some others repeatedly mentioned the desirability of having a single report.

“Ultimately we all share the same goal,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who kicked off the meeting but isn’t a task force member. Ferrandino said he hopes the panel can reach consensus. “It’s a very heavy lift for you guys. The legislature will take whatever recommendations you have very seriously.”

Members had a scattering of questions for Zurkowski, including one from Tony Lewis, representing the board of the Colorado Charter School Institute. He asked about possible federal penalties if a state cuts back on NCLB testing requirements.

“There is about $326 million that we receive from the feds that could be at risk,” Zurkowski quickly replied.

Flexibility and waivers are expected to be among the tough issues the panel will have to discuss.

The task force’s next meeting is expected to be the week of Aug. 3, after a subcommittee comes up with a proposed schedule of meetings and list of topics to be covered at each session.

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Categories: Urban School News

As a state panel convenes to examine state testing, a look at the big issues

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 10:25

On Tuesday morning, 15 Coloradans will gather at the state Capitol to kick off a six-month marathon of meetings intended to dissect and evaluate Colorado’s testing regimen.

Created by the 2014 General Assembly, the panel is tasked with understanding how Colorado’s public schools are assessing their students, how exam results impact certain education reform policies, and whether relief from standardized tests are needed for students and teachers.

Before the panel begins its query, here’s a look at some of the issues.

Why is the commission meeting and what are they supposed to do?

Since last fall, a growing chorus of voices has raised concerns about the amount of student testing in the United States. The protests became louder as states began ramping up their efforts to deploy the new Common Core State Standards (which Colorado adopted) and their aligned tests.

Locally, the suburban Douglas County School District hosted a series of town hall meetings they called “Testing Madness” to discuss with parents what district officials believe is a heavy testing burden levied by the state. The district wants to control which tests and how many they administer to their students. The school board, working with lawmakers, drafted a bill that would allow school districts that meet a certain level of achievement to opt-out of the state’s testing regimen.

Conventional wisdom said the bill was dead on arrival in the Democratically-controlled General Assembly. Democrats in Colorado have strong ties to the many advocacy groups that have pushed the testing-accountability apparatus. But lawmakers, recognizing increased public anxiety around standardized testing, compromised to form a panel to study the issue.

The 15-member panel will now look at a variety of questions regarding standardized testing. But the big three, as outlined by the bill, are:

  • How do the statewide assessments affect teacher evaluations and the state’s school accountability system?
  • How do statewide and local district standardized tests work together — if they do — and how much instructional time is used to administer the tests?
  • And can the state could waive certain testing requirements for local districts?
So, what are standardized assessments and what are we supposed to learn from them?

Standardized tests, like the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) exams that students took this spring, are designed to gauge how proficient a student is to the standards approved by the state and local school boards.

There are broadly two types of standardized assessments: summative and informative.

A summative assessment, like the TCAPs or the forthcoming PARCC tests, is meant to provide education professionals, parents, and students a snapshot of just how much a student learned throughout the year and how they compare to their academic peers.

An interim assessment, such as the Galileo or MAP tests commonly used by Colorado schools, is meant to provide teachers with information to inform their instruction throughout the year. For example, results from a formative assessment might tell a teacher she needs to revisit the difference between similes and metaphors because most of her students failed to demonstrate they understood the difference.

What standardized tests does the state require students to take?

Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, all Colorado students in grades three through 11 will be required to take a summative English and math test. Students in those grades who are identified as learning English as a second language will also be required to take the state’s ACCESS test. Beginning this fall, fifth, eighth and 12th graders will be required to take a science test; fourth, seventh and 12th graders will be required to take a social studies test.

Eleventh graders will also be required to take the ACT test. And all pre-schoolers will be assessed using the school readiness TS Gold program — although teachers, not toddlers, do most of the work with that assessment.

The state does not require any of the formative assessments most districts employ throughout the year.

Who is affected by the results from summative assessments? And how?

Before 2001, there were few if any consequences for the results from the standardized assessments states gave their students. (Colorado began proctoring standardized assessments in the early 1990s.) But the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was passed with broad bipartisan support, attached high stakes — including an increasing level of sanctions for schools that failed to meet the law’s benchmarks — to the results. Since then, other state and federal laws and policies have increased the stakes.

And now nearly everyone in the education ecosystem feels the impact of the results.

Colorado students are perhaps the least affected by their results on the state’s standardized tests. While some schools may use students’ results to group them with peers with similar academic needs, students can’t be held back a year based on their results and their diploma is not on the line.

Beginning in 2015-16, half of a teacher’s annual evaluation will be based on his or her students’ academic growth as measured by multiple scores on state and other tests selected by districts. In the upcoming 2014-15 school year, districts have flexibility in deciding what percentage student growth comprises of a teacher’s evaluation. All districts will have to collect student growth data on teachers, but each can choose to use any percentage between 0 and 50 in the evaluation. (The other half of evaluation is based on supervisor observation of a teacher’s professional practice.) Districts are getting the year of flexibility because the switch to new state tests means there will be a one-year gap in the data needed to calculate student growth.

And schools that post among the lowest scores and do not improve in five years face state sanctions, including being shut down or turned over to a charter operator.

Similarly, entire school districts face state sanctions if they find themselves with chronically low scores. The State Board of Education must strip a school district of its accreditation if the district falls among the lowest 5 percent of school districts in the state. When that happens, the local school board may be asked to close schools, merge with another school district, or dissolve itself into smaller districts.

Who supports the use of summative standardized tests and why?

Supporters of standardized tests include elected officials of both political parties, special interest groups, school leaders and teachers, and parents. Boosters of the testing regime have a common mantra: that which gets measured improves. They believe standardized tests hold the public education system accountable to advance student learning and achievement. This accountability system, they believe, forces school boards, leaders, and teachers to take a hard look at their practices and allows them to figure out what and who is working toward improving public schools — what they believe has been a failed system.

Who opposes summative standardized tests and why?

Opponents of standardized tests also include elected officials of both political parties, special interest groups, school leaders and teachers, and parents. Their opposition, however, isn’t monolithic. Many different people oppose standardized tests for many different reasons. Some believe testing stifles both teacher and student creativity. Others believe the tests eat up too much classroom time that should be used for more instruction. Some believe testing is an important part of the education cycle but oppose the high stakes attached to the test results. And others are fearful of the influence of private businesses making a billions worth of nickels in creating and selling the tests while violating student privacy.

Just how much time is used to take the state’s standardized tests?

Remember, the state only requires certain summative assessments that are mostly given for about two weeks in the spring. In previous years, the state estimated about 3 percent of classroom time is used for students to test. However, that’s not counting any of the interim assessments districts and teachers choose to use throughout the school year. And it’s not counting test prep time when teachers give sample tests to prepare students for the testing environment. State officials have conceded the new computer-based tests will take more time but still argue that it is time well spent.

Meanwhile, recent teacher surveys conducted by the state’s and Denver’s teachers unions estimate total testing time — and all that goes with it — occupies nearly a third of the school year.

What do anti-testing folks propose the state use instead of the PARCC tests?

At this time, there is no unified suggestion. Some ideas for possible alternatives that have been floated include a portfolio approach, in which students are evaluated on a variety of work samples; a scaled-down version of annual exams like the PISA or NAEP tests, which only test a sample of students each year, and have no stakes attached; and simply eliminating standardized exams entirely.

What would happen if Colorado abandoned its current testing regime?

If Colorado lawmakers decided to leave the PARCC consortium of states and/or abandon the Common Core State Standards, the legislative body and the Colorado Department of Education would have to act fast or face federal sanctions. While neither the  adoption of the Common Core nor deploying one of the two tests created for the multi-state partnerships is required, the adoption of similar standards and computer-based tests are. If Colorado didn’t put something similar in place — and quickly — it could put the state’s waiver from NCLB in jeopardy.

Is there some middle ground?

It’s possible — and the conversation certainly is shifting. Previously, Colorado lawmakers and education reform-minded advocacy groups drew a hard line about the need for standardized assessments. However, throughout the year, some lawmakers and policy advocates have considered publicly and privately whether the state’s diet of tests is too bloated. The questions appears to be who can cede ground on their core beliefs about the purpose of testing and what policy solutions can be created to keep Colorado aligned with federal mandates, which don’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

How are the new tests different from what came before?

Very. Not only are the new tests taken electronically — compared to the paper and pencil of yesteryear — the tests ask students to do more. Gone are the open-ended essays in which students could write just about anything. Students on the English portion will now be asked to read multiple passages, watch short films, and write argumentative essays based on reason and facts.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Teen who placed bomb-like device in a Lafayette HS sentenced

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 08:59

Monster Mash

In one teacher's classroom, an imaginary art monster entertains students and encourages their learning. And its evolution says a lot about how the teacher runs his classroom. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Slot machines for schools

Backers of a measure to expand casino gambling and put the resulting tax proceeds towards schools say they have the signatures to get their proposal on the ballot. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

School violence

A teen who placed a bomb-like device in a Lafayette high school received his sentence yesterday. ( Daily Camera )

Toddler tax

In his annual state of the city address, Denver' mayor reaffirmed his commitment to the tax to fund city-wide preschool. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Awards for educators

A Montezuma-Cortez teacher was among those honored by the Boettcher Foundation for their teaching. ( Cortez Journal )

Vying for a spot

Four candidates applied for an open position of the Steamboat school board. ( Steamboat Today )

Summer jobs for the future

In a program meant to reduce drop out rates and build career skills among low-income students, 16 students worked at local companies to gain experience. ( Daily Camera )

Around the network

A summer school teacher uses everything from phonics to Shakira to keep her fourth-graders engaged. ( Chalkbeat New York )

Indiana schools that let too many students graduate who don't pass state tests will face scrutiny this year. ( Chalkbeat Indiana )

A voucher law likely to pass in Tennessee would transform the school system -- and the prospects for one private school network committed to educating low-income students. ( Chalkbeat Tennessee )

Categories: Urban School News

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