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Updated: 57 min 29 sec ago

Rise & Shine: Summer heat brings complications for schools

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 07:53

Test talk

A state survey found significant worries about the burden of state tests but conflicting opinions about what to do next. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

As Pueblo's new superintendent kicks off her first year, she's grappling with the news that Pueblo's schools made little progress on last year's state tests, especially in the district's lowest performing schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

How are school districts spinning this year's TCAP results? A sampling. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

School chow

The hurdles to healthier school lunches abound but some of them are very straightforward: more pots, room to cook and staff training. ( KUNC, Denver Post )

But schools are going to have to make the shift statewide as new nutritional guidelines go into effect. ( Denver Channel, KDVR )

Not cool enough for school

Schools are shifting their schedules to keep kids out of schools during the hottest days of August, but what are the implications for students and their learning? ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Got the first day jitters?

Jeffco's new superintendent spent the first day of school in a whirlwind tour of schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

St. Vrain students are heading back in a couple days to schools, many of which got major facelifts. ( Daily Camera )

And a new charter school in southwest Colorado opened its doors Monday, ( Cortez Journal )

Holyoke schools, where Chalkbeat profiled the teachers last month, will see eight new faces at the start of classes. ( Holyoke Enterprise )

Cost of a kid

The amount of money it takes to raise a child continues to rise, reaching $245,340 this year. ( AP via Denver Post, 9News )

Bad teacher

Parents and teachers rallied to support a teacher facing discipline after changing a student's diploma. ( KDVR )

Longterm goals

Denver Public Schools is narrowing its focus to five goals, the third iteration of a vision plan first started nine years ago. The board votes tonight on the plan. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

New Jeffco superintendent emphasizes community engagement, visibility during first day tour

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 19:23

Jefferson High School principal Michael James started the school year by challenging his new freshmen to beat the upperclassmen to a cheering contest.

The freshman lost, but, James consoled them that over time their voices would become louder and their spirit stronger.

“I know it’s a challenge to have your first day of school in a new building,”James said.

Jefferson High School is the smallest high school in Jefferson County, with about 550 students. It is this small, close-knit culture that makes the school so special, James said.

“I am one of those principals that is going to push you in many different areas, and one of those areas is involvement,” he said. “I want you to raise your leadership. I want every one of you to be able to say ‘I am a student leader.’”

These freshmen weren’t just meeting new students and staff. Today, they met Jefferson County Public Schools’ new superintendent, Dan McMinimee.

There’s a lot at stake for the new district leader, a former Douglas County Public Schools assistant superintendent.

McMinimee came into leadership during a tumultuous time for the district. Tensions between the board and parents, teachers and community members reached an all-time high when Cindy Stevenson bowed out four months before her retirement, after 12 years as superintendent. Stevenson left, citing distrust between her and the board’s new conservative majority, leading residents demanding a recall of its board members.

His road to appointment wasn’t an easy one. After a split 3-2 vote from the board in May, community members raised concerns about his credentials and whether McMinimee is worth his $280,000 salary.

His message to the students echoed his own charge as district leader — they should become actively involved in their schools.

“You make the decision, today, whether you’re going to be engaged in the Jefferson community,” he said to the 200-some students, teachers and staff gathered in the school’s auditorium.

A principal for seven years, McMinimee said visibility and community input in decision-making are two of his top priorities this school year.

When it comes to getting parents and students involved in decision-making at the school level, McMinimee said empowering principals will be the most important thing.

“I think one of the big things that I do really well is high visibility and high access,” he said. “I think that’s important for people  – especially in a district the size of Jefferson County — to feel like they have access to the superintendent and board of education.”

McMinimee spent Jeffco’s first day back visiting seven schools, including Jefferson High and Edgewater Elementary, which have two of the district’s highest number of students on free-and-reduced lunch.

“If there are challenging circumstances, we need to provide the resources to make sure that building principals get an opportunity to do the things they need to do with their staff to make it a great place for kids,” he said. “Authentic engagement really happens at individual schools,”

After the school assembly, James and McMinimee met to talk about the school’s goals.

“We want to raise the bar for every student,” James said. “We want students to realize that a diploma is the most important gift to receive.”

James said he hopes McMinimee and Jefferson High students and staff can work toward those same goals throughout the school year.

McMinimee said one of his toughest challenges this year will be acclimating to Jeffco’s climate and culture.

“Dr. Stevenson was here for 12 years, so she leaves a tremendous legacy of knowledge around what’s going on in schools and who’s doing what,” McMinimee said. “She probably hired most, if not all, the principals in these schools. I think that familiarity is a big challenge to overcome.”

He said, from there, he hopes the board, teachers and parents can come together to develop common goals.

The board will meet later this month, and McMinimee said he is looking forward to getting to know its members and the community in the coming months.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to meet with them at all, except for my interviews way back in May,” he said. “I hope what comes of that meeting is a sense that we have some great goals that we’re going to be working toward, and we’re going to work together moving forward.”

Categories: Urban School News

New Pueblo leader pledges to go through TCAP scores “child by child” in order to make gains

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 17:26

Pueblo City Schools’ new superintendent Constance Jones got some really bad news earlier this month, but she isn’t looking back.

The bad news: Pueblo students made no progress on the state’s reading, writing or math tests last spring.

But instead of worrying how the district reached those results, the new leader said her mission is to work with principals to understand the academic needs of each of the district’s 18,000 students as the state begins to administer new, more rigorous assessments in the spring.

“I’m not going to focus on the drops nor try to go back and track and analyze programs,” Jones, who began her tenure as superintendent July 1, said. “The most important thing I can do is to help principals and teachers use the information we have today and break it down to the individual child. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses to the standards? Until we do that, we aren’t going to see significant gains across the board. We’re going to go child by child.”

While school district’s across the state had similar outcomes, Pueblo is near the end of the state’s accountability clock and has a deadline to improve or face state sanctions.

The school district’s struggles were the subject of a three-part series published by Chalkbeat last week.

The slight dip in proficiency scores coupled with slow academic growth, or how the state measures how much students learn each year, does not bode well for the district.

While the district as a whole did meet its reading goals, several of the city’s neediest schools, including Roncalli Middle School, the Bessemer Academy, and Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, still lag far behind.

The state is still months away from publicly releasing its official ratings of schools and school districts, careful observers would note there isn’t much good news in Pueblo’s recent data.

Jones, who joined the school on July 1, replaced Maggie Lopez, who retired after leading the district for four years.

Before leaving, Lopez — and other school officials — defended their four years of school improvement efforts and were confident Pueblo students would continue to make enough progress on state tests to beat the state accountability clock.

One of Lopez’s key strategies was to build alignment throughout the district in curriculum and evaluations. Jones said she’ll use those systems to build upon.

“There are systems in place,” Jones said. “But public education is a continuous improvement process. You’re never to the pinnacle, it will never be perfect.”

One example of an initiative Jones plans to rollout this year is a new literacy program that is closely aligned to the new standards will be implemented this year in as many grades as financially possible.

“We’re going to be very focused and we’re going to be very purposeful in our teaching and learning,” Jones said. “And if we are, each individual child will make the gains.”

Categories: Urban School News

Some districts take on the heat with altered schedules, calendars

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 14:58

With an increasing overlap between back-to-school season and the dog days of summer, some Colorado school districts are taking aggressive steps to address hot classrooms and listless students — including starting the year with shorter days.

But while these scheduling changes may help solve the heat problem, they have implications for a variety of other things, ranging from instructional time to parent work schedules.

In the Poudre School District, which starts today for two grade levels and tomorrow for the rest of the district, elementary and middle school students will be released two hours early for the first two weeks of school. Meanwhile, at the south end of the state, Pueblo City Schools has moved its August start date to September 2 for most schools, largely to avoid the worst of the late summer heat.

Poudre district officials, aware that their early release “heat days” won’t please everyone, have emphasized that it’s a pilot effort that will be re-evaluated this fall.

“We’ve said to our community, ‘We’re trying this out. Come along with us on this journey,’” said Danielle Clark, the district’s director of communications.

Parent Shannon Smith, whose son is in eighth-grade, said, “I understand why they’re doing it, but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of nuts.”

In Pueblo, besides changing the calendar, administrators have met several times over the summer to discuss heat mitigation in case the district gets hit with any scorchers in September. Their plans include creating water stations in school hallways, having custodians arrive early in the morning to let cool air in and rotating students through cooler areas of schools.

“We are taking a very proactive position this year,” said Scott Jones, the district’s director of public relations. “It’s Pueblo….It can get very hot.”

Like many communities across Colorado, both Pueblo and Fort Collins suffered through sweltering heat last August when school started. The high temperature was 99 degrees in Fort Collins on Poudre’s August 20 start day last year and 94 degrees in Pueblo when that district’s students started six days later. The high temperatures stuck around in both districts for the first two weeks of school.

This year, the forecast for the next two weeks is considerably more moderate, with temperatures expected to be in the 70s and 80s in Fort Collins and the 80s and 90s in Pueblo.

Acknowledging the irony, Clark said, “There’s always Murphy’s Law, right?”

Simple question, complicated answer

Bert Huszcza, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Business Officials, said that complications due to hot weather stem from the fact that districts have increasingly pushed their start dates earlier in August.

“A lot of it’s tied into the testing that’s mandated,” he said.

Poudre parent Julie Trombley, whose two daughters are in fifth and eighth grade, is glad that administrators there are addressing the heat issue, but wonders why the district can’t start school after Labor Day or invest in more capital improvements to cool the schools.

“We’ve had a few years of ‘Oh, this is so hot,’” she said. “It just seems like a continuing problem.”

While starting school later in the summer was one of 15 solutions that Poudre’s heat advisory committee considered during 20 hours of meetings last fall, Clark said it was problematic for a variety of reasons. Few committee members wanted to extend the school year into June, delay the end of first semester until after winter break or tinker with instructional time before established state and national testing dates. An altered calendar also created potential mismatches between Poudre’ s vacation calendar and that of Colorado State University, where many district parents are employed.

“It’s a very simple question with a very complicated answer,” she said.

As for the 18 hours of instruction that will be lost to heat days this year, about half  of that time will be recaptured by an additional day of instruction that replaced what was formerly teacher work day. Teachers will decide how to make up the additional time on their own.

Cool it

The impact of heat on Colorado schoolchildren varies widely—and often depends when their schools were built and how subsequent capital improvement funds were allocated.

Huszcza said air conditioning is standard issue in most new schools, but isn’t in older buildings. And while some districts have retrofitted their old buildings with air conditioning systems, it can be costly and difficult.

“You’re talking about facilities where there’s no place to put venting,” he said.

Jefferson County Public Schools, a suburban district with many newer schools, is one of the lucky ones. It has air conditioning in 135 of its 155 schools. Those that don’t have it are all “mountain schools” at elevations above 7,500 feet.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools also has air conditioning in all 59 schools, Mesa County Valley District 51 has air conditioning or swamp coolers in all 43 schools, and Adams 12 Five Star has air conditioning in all 49 schools.

But other districts, including Denver, Poudre and Pueblo, have many buildings that are neither air-conditioned nor cooled using other systems. In Poudre, only nine of 50 schools have cooling systems.

“That will bring your temperature down but it’s not air-conditioned like your house,” said Clark.

In Denver, where classes start for most students next Monday, 79 of the district’s 187 schools have no air conditioning or only partial air conditioning. All those schools have received portable cooling units this year.

In addition, ventilation systems have been checked to confirm proper air flow, fans are being placed in hallways and classrooms and custodians at those schools may arrive as early as 5 a.m. to let in cool morning air. If the heat gets really bad, individual principals have the option of releasing students early.

Shuffling schedules

While many Poudre parents agree that classrooms were hot and uncomfortable last August, this year’s heat day plan creates hassles of a different sort. For some families, it’s the inconvenience of making alternative child care or pick-up arrangements. For others, it’s the scheduling puzzle of earlier sports practices.

“If I had a K-5 kid I’d be really mad,” said Smith, who works full time.

For a fee, the district’s after-school care program is providing child care in district schools during the two-hour heat day window. While some parents are upset about the early release schedule, Clark said feedback from surveys indicated that parents wanted an established plan, not last-minute announcements about isolated early release days or days off.

For Smith’s 14-year-old son, it’s cross-country practice, not after-school supervision, that will likely pose the biggest challenge during the heat day period. Instead of the usual 2:45 p.m. start time, his coach will hold practice at 6:15 a.m. for the next two weeks.

“He’ll get up at 5 o’clock,” said Smith.

 

Categories: Urban School News

As TCAP era ends, school districts tout gains and one looks forward to new tests

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 14:34

Late last week the Colorado Department of Education released the latest — and last — round of student results from the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, or TCAP, and ACT. As a state, students showed no progress on the TCAP. In fact, most grades saw slight dips in math, reading, and writing.

Meanwhile, the state’s composite ACT score a third of a point.

Despite the across-the-board dips, some school districts, including those on the state’s accountability watch list, have taken the opportunity to highlight individual gains in specific areas.

Here’s a sample of what some school leaders had to say via statements emailed to the media last week:

Sheridan third graders posted an 18 point gain in 2014. And the district had gains in math at all grade levels, including an 11 point gain by eighth graders. Math has been an area the district has consistently had issues with. Last year, they implemented a second math period at its middle school. Deputy Superintendent Jackie Webb said the number of partially proficient students is decreasing as the district heads into its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock. But the work isn’t over.

“Are the final achievement levels where we want them to be? The answer is no. But progress starts with establishing success and these last two years of data have shown that Sheridan students are fully capable and continuing to meet higher expectations. Overall, we are very pleased with these results.”

Meanwhile, District 49 leaders in Colorado Springs said they’re pleased with the results of their own internal assessments and are looking forward to the state’s new online-based assessments that students will take in spring. “While not satisfactory, [TCAP results] sharpen our urgency to begin the CMAS era with even better results for our students,” said Peter Hilts, chief education officer.

“The new tests are an increasingly valid target for student assessment, they are a more accurate proxy for where students actually are.”

Jeffco Public Schools officials pointed out their TCAP scores “remained relatively stable.” Newly minted Chief Academic Officer Syna Morgan highlighted math and ACT increases while pointing out the the tests are just one data point.

“In math, we saw great gains with our Jeffco eighth and ninth graders who gained three to four points in proficiency from last year. Jeffco continued to outpace the state on the Colorado ACT scores by raising the score from 21.2 in 2013 to 21.5 in 2014. While the TCAP results provide one view of the academic performance of Jeffco students, we look forward to providing a body of evidence to show the full picture of student success.”

While TCAP proficiency rates have stalled in Denver Public Schools, the composite ACT score for the district continues to climb. It jumped about a half a point this year to 18.4. Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement:

“While we still have much work to do to realize that goal, it’s encouraging to see more and more of our students reaching these important college readiness benchmarks. Now we need to take our efforts to the next level so that we’re ensuring every student reaches his or her potential.”

Douglas County Public Schools continued to outpace the state in both TCAP proficiencies and the ACT, said Superintendent Liz Fagen. But, like Jeffco, Fagen said TCAP is just one data point. Her statement also highlighted that Highlands Ranch and Ponderosa high schools outscored several of the world’s best countries on the international PISA tests.

“Providing a world-class education for all students is our goal and TCAP scores are one data point. However, we know that a quality body of evidence is the best picture of how our students are doing on the outcomes we value most — we are committed to measuring what matters most using the best strategies for our students.”

Adams 50 school district leaders say they’re on to something with their competency-based model. The district, another of the state’s lowest performing, showed gains in 19 of the 24 TCAP tests, more than any other district in the Denver-metro area, said Superintendent Pamela Swanson.

“The latest results are further evidence that our [competency-based system] model is the right approach to educating all our children. While comparisons with other districts help to illustrate a positive trend, we won’t be satisfied until all our students are learning to their full potential.”

Categories: Urban School News

Feelings mixed on where to go from here on testing

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:59

A study done for state Department of Education has found significant worries about the burden of state and district testing but reported somewhat mixed views about the details of what should be done next.

Educators, administrators and parents who were surveyed for the study generally agreed that last spring’s round of testing went better than anticipated and produced limited difficulties, especially for students. There was agreement that schools need more computers and other devices for online tests, and that the number and length of tests should be trimmed.

“They want fewer, shorter tests,” Sheila Arredondo, one of the researchers who worked on the study, told the State Board of Education during a briefing last week.

There was less agreement on how to accomplish those things, and there were significant differences of opinion among urban, suburban and rural districts.

The State Standards and Assessments Task Force will be briefed on the study today. The review was launched late last year by CDE as public and legislative concerns about testing were building ahead of the full launch of new online tests in 2015. The task force subsequently was created by the legislature. (Get more details on the group here.)

WestEd, a California-based education-consulting organization, did the review at no cost to the state. (WestEd and similar regional comprehensive centers around the nation are federally funded.)

Do your homework

The study was designed to gauge educator and parent attitudes about tests and was not intended to review the content of state academic standards or tests nor provide a cost-benefit analysis of assessments.

In a first phase, researchers conducted 11 focus groups and did a survey of district testing coordinators last winter and spring before the start of annual testing, which this year included new online social studies and science tests and practice PARCC tests in 96 districts.

In the second phase, after testing was finished, researchers had follow-up conversations and interviews, conducted another focus group and re-surveyed district assessment coordinators. Out of 178 school districts, 87 coordinators completed the nine-question survey, 72 percent of those from rural districts, 14 urban and 13 percent suburban.

A report summary cautioned, “Results may not generalize to the larger population. Districts [were] weighted equally – rather than by student enrollment, thus views of rural districts with small student populations have proportionally higher impact on results.”

What the survey found

Here’s the report’s top-level summary of the feedback received about options for changing the testing system:

  • Online testing – Don’t revert to paper-and-pencil tests.
  • Technology – Districts need emergency funds to buy more computers, laptops and tablets.
  • Length of assessments – There’s strong support for fewer, shorter tests.
  • Number of tests – There’s also substantial support for optional school readiness tests and reduction of testing to federal minimum requirements – basically language arts and math tests from 3rd to 9th grade and once in high school.

Surveyors posed several questions and suggestions to district testing coordinators during the second round of work. Here’s a summary of the responses to key questions. Respondents were given four test-reduction options and asked to rate each on a five-step scale.

  • Technology readiness – The top priority for respondents was emergency funding to buy more computers and devices.
  • Amount of testing – Some 45 percent “strongly” supported elimination of new school readiness evaluations, followed by 43 percent in strong support of cutting Colorado testing back to only what the federal government requires.
  • Length of tests – Some 46 percent strongly supported shortening social studies tests while 43 percent had the sentiment about language arts and math tests.
  • Top concern – Asked to rank the biggest testing implementation issues for primary and secondary schools, respondents listed “too many assessments” as the top concern.

People who were surveyed also were asked yes-no-neutral questions on other issues, including:

  • Flexibility – Allow districts to give English tests online but math tests on paper if they choose. 38 percent support, 37 percent oppose, 25 percent neutral.
  • Third-grade tests – Give paper-and-pencil tests to students in 3rd grade, the first year students take standardized tests. 43 percent support, 39 percent oppose, 18 percent neutral.
  • High school test reduction – Eliminate all high school standardized testing expect ACT. 46 percent support, 40 percent oppose, 14 percent neutral.
  • High school test timing – Give science and social studies tests in different years, rather than both in 12th grade. 65 percent support, 13 percent oppose, 22 percent neutral.

See details on responses here:

The testing task force is assigned to make recommendations to the legislature on a variety of testing issues. During their discussion last week, members of the State Board expressed interest in making their own suggestions, and testing is expected to again be a major focus for the board at its September meeting.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Colo. Springs schools prepare for new tests

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 10:00

Thanks, but no thanks

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has asked a lawsuit challenging the “negative factor” used by the legislature to set annual K-12 funding to be tossed out. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

TCAP fallout

The Denver STRIVE charter network saw a big drop in their TCAP scores this year, which raised plenty of eyebrows. The network says it lost focus during an expansion effort. But it also signals potentially rocky roads ahead for many schools as they begin their own implementation of the new standards this year. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

More Colorado students opted-out of the state's reading test last year. But the opposition barely made a statistical dent. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

The Denver Post's editorial board agrees with state board of education member Elaine Gantz Berman, this year's TCAP results are "not acceptable." ( Denver Post )

With the TCAP in the rearview mirror, Colorado Springs schools are preparing for new online-based tests. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

Back to school bills

As teachers face increasing pressures (new standards, assessments, and evaluations), Chalkbeat wants to know if your buying habits are changing because of these efforts to better student achievement. Take our survey here. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

ICYMI

A third of Pueblo's schools are failing. In this three-part series, Chalkbeat examines the district's past, present, and much uncertain future as is struggles to increase student performance before a state mandated deadline expires. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

New beginning, new details for Araphaoe High

Work is nearly complete on a renovated library that was the scene of the Arapahoe High School shooting in which a student entered the building and began firing and killing one classmate. ( Denver Post )

Meanwhile, the shooter, Karl Pierson, was allowed to return to class in September, less than a week after he was demoted from captain of the debate team and said he would kill the coach, who was a school librarian. He had been deemed "not a high-level of threat." ( AP via Fox News )

i-Technology

The St. Vrain school district has provided 6,200 iPad minis to its middle school students. The district hopes to curb the "digital divide" between students who have access to technology at home and those who don't. ( Daily Camera )

Out of room

Jeffco Public Schools is considering a new school in the northwest corner of the district to handle over crowding and a growing population. ( Westminster Window )

The Peanut Gallery

The Denver Post's Vincent Carroll outlines a brief filed by the Colorado Association of School Boards in the Douglas County voucher case. CASB argues Dougco has the constitutional right to locally control its funds. ( Denver Post )

The Atlanta trial, of which 12 former educators are accused of cheating on the state's standardized tests, should bring two questions: How common is cheating on these tests? And short of cheating, what else might be happening in schools as a result of these tests? ( NPRed via KUNC )

Many of the school improvement ideas thought up by free-market reformers sound good in theory, but have flopped in practice. ( New York Times )

Categories: Urban School News

State wants negative factor lawsuit tossed

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 19:00

Attorney General John Suthers has formally asked for dismissal of the lawsuit challenging the “negative factor” used by the legislature to set annual K-12 funding.

“Amendment 23 expressly requires the public school finance formula’s statewide base per pupil funding amount to at least keep pace annually with the rate of inflation. By its plain terms, Amendment 23 does not extend to overall state education funding as plaintiffs claim,” Suthers wrote in a motion to dismiss that was filed in Denver District Court this week. (See full motion here.)

The lawsuit, Dwyer v. State, was filed June 27 by a group of school districts and parents who claim the negative factor is unconstitutional. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story about the suit.)

At issue is interpretation of Amendment 23, the 2000 constitutional provision that requires annual K-12 spending increases based on inflation.

In 2010 the legislature created the negative factor to control school spending as lawmakers continued to struggle with the overall state budget. The legal reasoning behind the negative factor is that A23 applies only to base per-student funding, not to additional funds districts receive to compensate for size, number of at-risk students and other factors. The theoretical funding shortfall created by the negative factor is just under $1 billion.

The plaintiffs argue A23 should be applied to all school spending, but the state’s motion to dismiss emphatically disagrees.

“Amendment 23 does not refer to any other portion of the finance formula. It refers to the statewide base per pupil funding … leaving no question whatsoever that component of the finance formula — and that component only — must at least keep pace annually with the rate of inflation,” the motion reads.

The filing also makes standard motion-to-dismiss arguments about the plantiffs not having proper legal standing to sue or stating a proper claim for relief.

Plantiffs’ lawyers said they will oppose the motion and have until Sept. 29 to file a reply.

Categories: Urban School News

More Colorado students opt out of tests, but no sign of groundswell

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 18:56

About 500 more Colorado students did not take the state’s standardized reading test in 2014 because their parents objected than the year before, according to new data released by the Colorado Department of Education.

Despite the apparent increase in vocal opposition to the tests that erupted earlier this year and some prediction that opposition would be borne out in testing numbers, the opt-out movement barely made a statistical dent in Colorado’s testing regimen.

To put the opt-out numbers in context, in 2014 three-tenths of a percent of all students tested in Colorado opted out. That number grew is up from two-tenths of a percent in 2013. The numbers are drawn from test results classified as “parent refusals.”

“That’s awesome,” said Peggy Robertson, one of the state’s opt-out leaders. “I’m thrilled with that.”

In total, 1,412 students between the third and 10th grade did not take the reading test in 2014. The numbers per grade ranged from 66 opt-outers in the third grade to 520 in the tenth grade. According to the data, the older the student the more likely they were not to take exams.

Robertson said any increase is welcomed by her organization, United Opt-Out, especially given it has no significant monetary resources and is entirely run by volunteers of parents and a small group of teachers.

Parents who oppose the state standardized tests, which state law requires schools to administer, believe they eat up valuable teaching time, don’t add to instruction, and are more about profit for private businesses than improving student achievement.

Supporters counter that standardized tests provide parents, teachers, and community with invaluable information about how students, schools, and their districts are performing.

Robertson predicted the number of students who are opted-out of Colorado’s tests will continue to rise, especially next spring when new computer-based tests aligned to the  Common Core State Standards, which Colorado adopted, are rolled out.

The standards have separately been the subject of criticism. And, Robertson said, the two sides are already joining forces in anticipation of the new tests.

Meanwhile, a panel, responding to parents concerns and created by a 2014 legislative bill, has been formed to study Colorado’s testing diet. Recommendations will be made early next year to the legislature.

Categories: Urban School News

Rocky year for high-performing charter network signals challenge of scaling up

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 14:45

In a year in which state test scores stayed mostly constant across the state, one big change stood out to observers of Denver Public Schools: big score drops at STRIVE, historically one of city’s highest performing charter networks.

Against a backdrop of overall increases in DPS, STRIVE schools score drop in most subjects was a surprise. Their decline was in part a product of rapid expansion but, school leaders say, was also due to the rollout of curriculum aligned with the new state standards.

Their struggles hint at the challenges of attempting to scale previously successful schools — one of the district’s key strategies for improving overall performance. But it also signals potentially rocky roads ahead for many district schools as they begin their own implementation of the new standards this year.

The STRIVE Preparatory Schools network, which developed out of a summer program run by founder Chris Gibbons, has undergone a rapid expansion in the past several years, often at the behest of district officials, who point to the network’s success as something that should be replicated. What started as a single northwest Denver campus off Federal Boulevard in 2006 is now eight campuses ranging from far northeast to southwest Denver.

Many of the network’s schools still exceed the district average proficiency in at least one subject and the network’s growth scores were strong in some areas. But Gibbons said STRIVE’s focus is on increasing proficiency, which largely did not occur, and called the overall results “really honest accountability.”

While the score drop may force the network to slow down its expansion and recalibrate, Gibbons says the long-term vision for more schools across the city remains unchanged.

“Rapid growth is always a challenge,” said Gibbons. The network hired more new teachers last year and saw more turnover among those new teachers, an issue Gibbons suggested was likely a contributing factor to the decline.

And the network may already by locked into more expansion. The STRIVE Excel high school just finished its first year and is in the process of building out its 10th through 12th grades. And district officials gave STRIVE the go-ahead this spring to open a new campus at troubled Kepner Middle School.

So Gibbons and his team are in process of creating a game plan for the coming year, to get back on track. He has met with principals and teachers to discuss what they saw last year and make corrections for the coming year. One common thread he and his principals found was a lack of focus.

“Our time and our intention as a leadership team have drifted a bit too much,” said Gibbons. “We need to focus on stability.”

The principal of Sunnyside’s campus, where the percent of eight graders scoring proficient in math dropped by almost half, echoed that sentiment, saying she got caught up in reinventing how to run a school, rather than making sure her teachers were focused on how to run a classroom and track students’ progress.

“Last year, I overcomplicated things,” said Betsy Peterson. Take, for example, passing periods at Sunnyside, which were often noisy and disorganized affairs.

“I used a decibel reader to measure if they were quiet enough,” Peterson said. But the problem was more basic. “Nobody’s actually been well-trained on the passing period.”

So this year, she’ll spend some time practicing passing period with teachers to make sure kids feel safe and welcome when they enter a classroom. And she’s refocussing on making sure her teachers are succeeding in their classrooms.

“A lot of the nuts and bolts of teaching, we’ve moved away from that a bit as a network,” said Peterson. This year’s scores are “a reminder that that’s what works.”

Proficiency at STRIVEs campuses, last year and this year in math: | Create Infographics

Another underlying issue — one that could signal trouble for Denver as a whole — was the network’s mixed results from a new Common Core-aligned curriculum, rolled out a year before the rest of the city’s schools. But the curriculum they selected, which was a mix of “off-the-shelf” and teacher-designed, failed to meet the network’s needs and, as some observers have warned, teachers did not receive enough training to be successful.

“Some of the struggles around that are just the ones tied up with launching a whole new system,” said Gibbons.

In eighth grade math, where Sunnyside and all of STRIVE’s campuses saw declines, they are switching curriculum. But for sixth grade writing, where several campuses saw at least slight gain in the number of students scoring proficient, last year’s curriculum will be sticking around.

Observers say the rocky results for one of Denver’s highest performing networks suggest another pattern in this year’s test results: inconsistency.

“You can’t predict who will have scores that will be going up or going down,” said Van Schoales, the head of A+ Denver, an education research and advocacy organization. “I just don’t see any patterns.”

For example, several schools in the district’s Far Northeast network of schools, which receive intensive support and supervision, saw drops in proficiency. The percent of students who scored proficient at Green Valley Elementary, which had seen steady gains in all subjects, declined by 10 percentage points in math, nine in writing and four in reading.

That can make it hard to determine what’s working and what’s not, an issue Denver’s superintendent acknowledged.

“Human beings are complicated,” said Tom Boasberg. “The quality of your execution is — do you have good people and are they working well together? Sometimes the reason something works in school A and not school B is the people.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: TCAP results make headlines around the state

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 09:43

Special report - Part 3

A third of the public schools in Pueblo are failing. And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, Pueblo could pose the first big test of Colorado’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

TCAP R.I.P.

The three-year run of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests has ended with 2014 statewide student proficiency levels at about the same place where they were in the previous two years. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post, CPR )

Media around the state sorted through what the final set of TCAP results mean in their communities. ( Colorado Springs Gazette, Pueblo Chieftain, Loveland Reporter Herald, Vail Daily, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Durango Herald, Glenwood Springs Post Independent )

Check out our searchable databases to see how your school or district did on the tests. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

In the final year of the current state testing regimen, Denver Public Schools made steady but incremental gains in key areas, but more than half of Denver students are still not reaching grade level targets. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Release of the 2014 TCAP scores sent members of the State Board of Education into a philosophical discussion that highlighted the group’s longstanding ideological divisions about education reform. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Nobody at 201 E. Colfax Ave. was happy about 2014’s TCAP performance and growth stats, but Department of Education leaders do have some optimism about future results from the state’s new testing system – if schools fully implement new academic content standards and integrate them into classrooms. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Core jitters

Teachers are getting steadily more training in the Common Core, but they're not feeling much more prepared to teach it, according to new survey results. ( EdWeek )

College days

Boulder comes out on top in a new ranking of the 50 best college towns in America, and Fort Collins is No. 14. ( Denver Business Journal )

Editorial

Amendment 68 is a transparent attempt to use Colorado’s initiative process to benefit a single, out-of-state company, almost certainly at the expense of existing Colorado businesses and jobs. And the money for education is unlikely to appear out of thin air. ( Cortez Journal )

Categories: Urban School News

CDE sees glimmers of hope in new testing system

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 21:12

Nobody at 201 E. Colfax Ave. was happy about 2014’s TCAP performance and growth stats, but Department of Education leaders do have some optimism about future results from the state’s new testing system – if schools fully implement new academic content standards and integrate them into classrooms.

The final set of TCAP results showed slight declines in percentages of students performing proficient or advanced on reading, writing and math tests. (See this story for full details, and search our database for results from districts and schools of interest to you.)

“It disturbs us all,” education Commissioner Robert Hammond said of the results in a presentation to the State Board of Education. But he added, “If we stay the course students will succeed at greater and greater rates. … We’re seeing it in some districts – we’re really seeing some improvement.” (Meanwhile, the board took a different tack in its TCAP post-mortum – see story.)

Hammond and other CDE officials said the key to future improvement in test scores is full integration of classroom instruction with state academic content standards, a process that’s still unfolding in many districts.

“If instruction is not happening in the classroom, we are not going to go anywhere,” Hammond said.

Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley and Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen both said CDE’s top priority in the coming year is to help districts full integrate the standards into classrooms.

In a later conversation with Chalkbeat Colorado, officials repeated that point. State officials believe that the standards are superior to the ones that preceded them.

“It’s very clear what the expectations are at every grade level,” said Melissa Colsman, executive director of the achievement and strategy division. (It’s also a widely held view that some districts didn’t pay much attention to the old standards.)

If districts successfully upgrade instruction, “long term we’re going to see improvement,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment. “Within a couple of years we should see movement in scores,”

(Department officials have repeatedly noted that the percentage of students in the top two proficiency levels will drop on the first year of new tests, compared to those percentages for the TCAPs. That traditionally happens with new assessments because the old and new tests are different and assess different things. See this story for an indication of what might happen in Colorado.)

Owen and others noted that Colorado’s biggest challenge probably isn’t overall performance levels or low-performing individual schools but the significant achievement gaps between ethnic and income groups. “There is a larger problem across the state when it comes to performance and these achievement gaps.”

Hawley and Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner, also noted significant enrollment growth and demographic change over the last decade, a period that spans the TCAPs and a significant portion of the CSAP era.

Asp told the board that since 2004 enrollment has grown by 119,331 (16 percent), the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch has jumped by 139,074 (61 percent) and enrollment of English language learners is up 34,999 students (38 percent).

The education system has been “able to accommodate change and population growth” without scores dropping,” Hawley said. “But it’s not good enough.”

What parents should know

Release of the TCAP results prompted the usual flurry of news releases from districts and schools, spinning the results in ways intended to put the best face on things.

Chalkbeat asked the CDE execs what advice they have for parents who are trying to interpret results.

Hawley said to look at whether students in a particular school and grade are growing, and Asp said to check on whether growth rates are above state average.

Hawley suggested parents ask principals about how a school’s teachers are being trained in the new standards and how to use them.

And communications director Janelle Asmus said parents always should ask what they can do to improve the performance of their children.

Categories: Urban School News

TCAP results prompt State Board to take familiar ideological sides

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 21:07

Today’s release of the 2014 TCAP scores sent members of the State Board of Education into a philosophical discussion that highlighted the group’s longstanding ideological divisions about education reform.

Member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver kicked off the discussion, calling the results “very, very troubling” and saying the history of relatively flat CSAP and TCAP results “is even more troubling that I imagined previously.” Berman is a Democrat and a former DPS board member who’s on the advisory committee of committee of Democrats for Education Reform – Colorado.

“If we really want to see some significant improvement, what’s it going to take?” she asked education Commissioner Robert Hammond. (See this story for more details on what Hammond and other Department of Education leaders thought about the test results.)

After Hammond and other CDE brass talked about department efforts, board member Marcia Neal of Grand Junction came in with another thought.

“There’s one element nobody’s talking about,” she said. “Students not taking responsibility for their own actions. … We teach them very early on that minimum work is OK in many cases. To me that is one of the really big missing pieces.” Republican Neal is a retired schoolteacher and former local board member who often is a swing vote on the board.

Member Deb Scheffel of Parker responded to Berman in a different way. “We’re going to continue to get these kind of results if we continue a regulatory approach to reform,” she said. “Students and parents need more choice. … We really need a different model, a different funding model so that money follows kids.” Scheffel is dean of the School of Education at Colorado Christian University.

“I second that,” murmured member Pam Mazanec of Larkspur, a Republican who’s been active in the Dougco school district.

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder suggested the board should perhaps take a closer look at the performance of choice schools, and Democrat Jane Goff of Arvada commented, “I can’t say that I have seen eye-popping examples of innovation” at non-traditional schools. Schroeder is a former college accounting professor, and Goff is retired Jeffco teacher and administrator.

“We’ve had decades to do it this way,” Mazanec said. “We’ve never tried the choice model. … I’d really like to give that one a try. I don’t know for sure if we’d get better results, but we’d have happier parents.”

Berman defended her own choice credentials, noting the extensive choices available in DPS but wondered about the diversity of many charter schools. “Deb, how many low-income kids of color go to those schools?” (Berman was referring to four charter schools whose students posted high ACT scores.)

“We need more schools like that so [those students] can go to them,” Scheffel responded.

Berman rocked her fellow board members a bit when she replied, “White parents will take their kids out [of choice schools] because they don’t want their kids to be with kids of color.”

Republican chair Paul Lundeen of Monument generally sides with Scheffel and Mazanec, and he did say, “I think we’re a regulatory track, and we’re trying to regulate our way out of this situation.” He said good schools aren’t rewarded and failing ones aren’t punished “like in the marketplace.”

But he tried to calm the situation, saying, “Let’s do this at another time” and praising Berman’s “eloquent and wonderful” remarks. “I respect very deeply your feedback.”

He and Berman went back and forth a bit more about choice until Lundeen said, “I don’t know exactly where the board would like to go with this conversation,” adding that the group wasn’t “in a position to give specific direction” to CDE right now.

Another ideological discussion avoided – or delayed

Another item on the board’s Thursday agenda was a Lundeen-proposed resolution strongly criticizing the planned new framework for the Advanced Placement U.S. History class and test. The resolution criticized the framework because it allegedly “emphasizing negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” among other alleged lapses. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat story.)

But Lundeen pulled the resolution off the agenda, saying other members had asked him for more time to think about it and that it might come up again at SBE’s September meeting.

The resolution was criticized by academics and school district officials. See this letter from University of Colorado history professor Fred Anderson for an example of that reaction. Fritz Fischer, director of history education at the University of Northern Colorado, sent this letter.

Categories: Urban School News

Special Report: The struggles of Steel City’s turnaround

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 17:17

A third of the public schools in Pueblo are failing.

And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, the small southern Colorado city could pose the first big test of the state’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions.

The district, which enrolls nearly 18,000 students, is the largest in the state to near the end of that timeline. Unless Pueblo’s most recent test scores reflect significant gains, officials will have just a year to get the district into the state’s safe zone.

If they fall short, the next steps are uncertain, fueling the anxiety of Pubelo’s educators and parents. Colorado law requires state officials to strip the district of its accreditation, which could leave graduating students ineligible for college scholarships. The district could also lose significant amounts of federal funding.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaJulianne Williamson spreads out her children’s academic awards from the Bessemer Academy in her living room in Pueblo. With her are her children Trinity, who will enter kindergarten this upcoming school year, Jacob, a third grader, and Ryane. Part 1: As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward There’s little carpet visible in the modest living room of the row house in the shadow of Pueblo’s steel mill after Julianne Williamson spreads out all of her children’s academic awards. “My daughter is so smart,” said Williamson, the mother of a sixth-grade daughter and third-grade son at the city’s Bessemer Academy. “She’s going to be outsmarting me soon. My son, he reads like an adult.” But recently, Williamson’s children haven’t been bringing home awards as often, and she’s worried that the school’s chaotic environment might be hurting their learning. The list of questions she has for Pueblo’s school officials is growing long. Among them: “What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked. PHOTO: Nicholas GaricaStudents at the Pueblo Academy of Arts participate in a science lesson in April. The middle school, formerly known as Pitts, was once considered toxic — like five of the city’s other middle schools. Part 2: Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenge This small city’s middle schools have been a blight on its school district, Pueblo City Schools, for years. Even before the state updated how it identifies and tracks failing schools in 2010, it was clear that improving those schools was the district’s biggest challenge. Despite a renewed focus on the schools, today much of the district’s struggles to lift itself out of the red zone in the state’s accountability system can be traced to the dismal state of its middle schools. Three of the city’s six middle schools are on the state’s accountability watch list, including Roncalli, which is now the lowest-performing middle school in the state. PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaStudents at the Chaves Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy, a charter school, read at the beginning of class. Pueblo parents don’t appear to be interested in taking advantage of the city’s two high-performing middle schools. Part 3: Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo While the Pueblo school system has gotten better since Pueblo’s outgoing superintendent Maggie Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains. And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new leader, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year. The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.
Categories: Urban School News

Find out how your school did on the 2014 TCAPs and ACTs

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 15:55

The state released the scores from last year’s round of testing, including the reading, writing and math results from TCAP. In the final year before the state switches over to a new testing system, scores around the state dipped slightly but remained mostly flat, continuing a pattern that has existed for years.

Check out our searchable databases to see how your school or district did on the tests and tune back in as we dig into the data.

Find your school or district’s test scores here. Find your school or district’s growth scores, which the state uses to see how far students move in a year, here. Find your school or district’s ACT scores here.
Categories: Urban School News

In Denver, steady but slow gains in final year of state tests

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 14:13

In the final year of the current state testing regimen, Denver Public Schools made steady but incremental gains in key areas but over half of Denver students are still not reaching grade level targets.

“To be at grade level is a strong and sometimes painfully strong, predictor of whether you’ll graduate high school,” said Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg. He said the lack of progress for the state as a whole, especially for low-income students, was “a crisis.” Read our story on the state-level results here.

Denver students’ test scores rose just over two percentage points in math and just over three percentage points in writing. Scores in writing remained largely stagnant and reading scores in the earliest tested grades, which was a focus for the district as a law focused on early literacy goes into effect, dropped slightly.

“[Early literacy] is such a critical indicator,” said Boasberg. He pointed to expanding preschool — an idea which will go before voters this fall— as a necessary step to improve the district’s early reading scores.

Boasberg also acknowledged voices that say the pace of improvement in the district is too slow.

“I’m one of those voices,” Boasberg said. But, he said, “there’s no secret sauce.”

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Chalkbeat spoke with Boasberg and dug through Denver’s scores to pull a few highlights from this year’s data dump. Read on for a few takeaways and return in the next days, as we dig into the district’s scores — and look at what, if anything, we can learn from them.

Ex-principals and their test scores

Last school year was marked by a series of high profile leadership changes at several of the district’s lowest performing schools, including a mid-year change at Manual High School. When parents and community members objected to leadership changes, district officials often cited insufficient progress or low scores as a factor in the principal’s removal. But this year’s results suggest that it may not be that simple.

At Manual, students made single-digit gains in all areas, although the school failed to reach its 2012 levels in reading.  This year, 29 percent of students were proficient in reading, 16 percent of students were proficient in writing and just six percent of students were proficient in math.

Columbine Elementary, whose principal Beth Yates was replaced at the end of the year, saw an increase in students working at grade level across content areas. Columbine, in particular, saw double-digit gains in reading and writing under Yates. Her successor, Jason Krause, came from Smith Renaissance School, another Northeast Denver elementary school that has seen steady gains.

Boasberg would not comment on individual personnel decisions.

One bright(ish) spot: the city’s middle schools

Historically an area of weakness, Denver’s middle schools have seen steady if slow gains in reading and writing over the past three years. And nearly a third of the city’s middle schools scored high enough on the state’s measure of student progress to be called “high growth.”

“Our middle schools are some of the best middle schools in the state,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

What percent of Denver middle schoolers are working at grade-level? | Create Infographics

[Mouse over the figure to see more details]

Still, much of those gains came from the city’s charter schools; the district-run schools grew slightly in writing but have declined in both reading and math since 2012. At Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver, where district officials announced a planned overhaul for the 2015-16 school year, scores declined or stagnated in all subjects. Charter schools have grown consistently in reading and writing but saw their scores decline in math this year. The average proficiency level in charters remains nearly 10 points higher than district-run middle schools.

For example, KIPP Montbello, which serves a predominantly low-income student population, has seen an 18 percentage point gain in reading proficiency since 2012. One of KIPP’s other campuses, Sunshine Peak Academy in southwest Denver, saw a nine point jump in reading proficiency in the same time period. Some district-run schools saw similar gains, such as a 10 point jump in the number of students writing proficiently at Stapleton’s McAuliffe International School.

And not all was well with the district’s charter schools. The STRIVE network, which is one of the largest and historically highest performing charter networks in the city, saw declines in most subjects at nearly all its middle schools. At its original Federal campus, the number of students who scored proficient in math dropped by 17 percentage point and scores in reading and writing dropped by five and eight percentage points respectively. The Lake campus saw similar declines, although the dropoff in writing was not as precipitous. STRIVE  is slated to be a part of the Kepner turnaround process. Chalkbeat will be digging into STRIVE’s decline and the performance of the city’s charter networks later this week.

Mixed performance among school networks

One of the district’s key strategies for its lowest performing schools has been to organize them into networks, like the systems of schools in west and far northeast Denver. Schools in the networks receive targeted support from the district and often use similar strategies to try and improve student outcomes.

For example, schools in the Far Northeast network, which is known as the Denver Summit School Network, have longer days and years. They also participate in a small-group math tutoring program. Some other networks are based solely on geography (for example, the district’s elementary networks) or school type (like charter or innovation).

How much have scores changed in three years? Blue indicates increase, red indicates decrease. Note: change indicates the number of points gained or lost between 2012 and 2014.

Find out which network your school is in here.

This year’s results show that the network strategy has produced mixed results. The Far Northeast turnaround network and the West Denver Network, which is also targeted at struggling schools, both saw declines in multiple subject areas. Charter schools saw a slight decline in performance in both reading and math, and overall performance remained slightly below the district average. And the district’s alternative pathways schools, which serve students who are at risk or have already dropped out of school, saw their already low levels of proficiency decline further.

One exception to the overall declines in the district’s targeted initiatives is the district’s innovation schools, which have increased across all subjects.

For example, the percent of students at Valdez Elementary reading and writing proficiently increased by double-digits and the school saw a small increase in math as well. Innovation schools receive increased freedom from state and district requirements, under a 2008 law.

Note that over half the district’s innovation schools are in that network. Manual High School, for example, was moved into the high school network after its low performance came to light earlier this year. Others are in the Pathways Schools network or one of the district’s two turnaround networks.

Send us your DPS TCAP questions. We’ll take the best questions and answer them in a followup post. You can find us at tips@co.chalkbeat.org or on Twitter @chalkbeatCO.

Categories: Urban School News

Short TCAP testing era ends on flat note

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 14:05

The three-year run of the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program tests has ended with 2014 statewide student proficiency levels little changed from when the test was introduced.

Results from tests given in spring 2014 in grades three through 10 showed 68.9 percent of the state’s students were reading at proficient or advanced levels. Some 56.4 percent were proficient or above in math, and 54.3 percent of students were proficient or above in writing.

The state’s overall results from this year were within one percentage point of last year’s numbers in all three subject areas.

At the state level, no grade moved more than 3 percent from last year. With a few exceptions, almost every grade level declined in almost all subject areas. Those exceptions were slight increases in fifth and seventh grade reading, 3rd and 8th grade writing and 8th and 9th grade math.

As has been the pattern with statewide testing results for several years, there are significant achievement gaps among ethnic groups, and overall proficiency levels tend to drop as students get older.

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Multiple years of test results are used to calculate student academic growth, which the Department of Education uses to classify students as catching up, keeping up or moving up in their growth toward proficiency. Those results are also in roughly the range reported for 2013.

The final major piece of the annual state testing report is results of the ACT test, which is taken by all high school juniors regardless of whether they’re going to college.

The average ACT composite score increased to 20.4 (out of a possible 36) this year, just a third of a point higher than last year’s average. Average scores on the English, reading and science reasoning sections of the test also increased very slightly, while the average math score was unchanged.

State tests date back to 1997

This year’s TCAP results, released Thursday, mark the end of an era for statewide standardized testing, which began in 1997 with administration of the first Colorado Student Assessment Program reading and writing tests to fourth graders. Reading tests for third graders were added in 1998, and the system was expanded gradually. It wasn’t until 2006 that reading, math and writing tests were given to all students in grades 3-10. (Click here for details about CSAP/TCAP tests in two other subjects.)

CSAP tests ended in 2011 after new state content standards were adopted, and the TCAPs were intended to bridge the gap until new tests could be developed that would be fully aligned with the new standards. (Get more background here from the state education department on TCAPs.)

A 2011 analysis of CSAP scores by I-News and Chalkbeat Colorado found that fourth-grade proficient and advanced levels in reading increased by 10 percentage points, from 55 to 65 percent, over the 15-year run of the CSAPs.

But that analysis also found that almost all the reading gains came in the first 10 years of testing, with most districts either stagnating or falling slightly since 2006. (See this story for details on the last year of CSAP testing.)

In the last year of CSAP, 68 percent of all students were proficient or advanced in reading, with 56 percent in math and 55 percent in writing. Those figures are within two percentage points of those reported during the three years of TCAP.

Colorado education has undergone major changes since 1997, including implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind law, changing accountability requirements, periodic funding crises and implementation of new standards. There also have been important changes in student demographics, most notably a sharp increase in the proportion of students who are Hispanic, and a corresponding drop in white students.  In 1997 71.3 percent of students were white and 19.3 percent Hispanic. Last year the percentages were 55 and 32.8 percent. The percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has risen from 34.3 percent in 2006 (the year the full testing system was rolled out) to 42.2 percent in 2013-14.

Third generation of tests is coming The testing system

  • New online science tests were given in grades 5 and 8 last spring
  • The first social studies tests, also online, were given in grades 4 and 7
  • Science and social studies tests will be given in 12th grade this fall
  • New online CMAS language arts and math tests roll out next spring. Tests start in 3rd grade, and 11th grade tests are being added
  • There will be two sets of language arts and math tests, one in early spring and one near the end of the school year
  • Schools administer annual literacy assessments in grades K-3 under the READ Act
  • Districts are phasing in school readiness assessments required by the CAP4K law

Colorado’s next set of tests – named Colorado Measures of Academic Success – are headed to state classrooms next spring. The math and language arts tests (combining reading and writing) will be the multi-state online assessments developed by the Pearson company for the PARCC testing consortium, and those tests will be based on the controversial Common Core State Standards.

While PARCC test results won’t be available until late 2015 or possibly early 2016, state education officials have been warning for months that proficiency percentages will drop, as usually happens after states launch brand-new tests. Scores have dropped in several states that already have rolled out new tests. (See this story about projected science and social studies test results for a preview of what’s likely to happen.)

Stagnant or falling test scores always spark contentious debate among educators and interest groups about the cause – whether misdirected reforms, an underfunded K-12 system, ineffective classroom instruction, meaningless tests or the challenges posed by at-risk students, or some combination of factors are to blame.

The perceived burden of testing also has become a growing issue. A state task force assigned to investigate that and other testing issues is starting its work and will make recommendations to the 2015 legislature. (Get more background on the Colorado testing debate here and here in the Chalkbeat archives.)

Highlights from 2014 TCAP results Growth

CDE uses growth data to classify students as catching up, keeping up or moving up in their growth toward proficiency. Those results also in roughly the range reported for 2013. (See detailed explanations of those categories here.) Here’s what those results looked like:

  • Reading: 30.9 percent catch-up, 80.7 percent keep-up and 13.7 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 32.1 percent, 81.5 percent and 14.9 percent.)
  • Math: 11.2 percent catch-up, 62.4 percent keep up and 16.5 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 12.4 percent, 63.4 percent and 18.6 percent.)
  • Writing: 26 percent catch-up, 72.4 percent keep-up and 18.1 percent move-up. (The 2013 percentages were 27.8 percent, 74.2 percent and 18.9 percent.)

At the state level, students were most likely to move up, keep up or catch up in reading. Students were least likely to move up, keep up, or catch up in math.

[Search Chalkbeat Colorado’s database for 2014 growth results by district, school, grade and subject.]

Proficiency: Districts & Schools

The 10 largest enrollment districts mirrored the statewide pattern of modest fluctuations in percentages of students scoring proficient or advanced.

At the state level, scores in every grade fluctuated less than 3 percent from last year. With a few exceptions, proficiency for almost every grade level declined in almost all subjects. The exceptions were 8th and 9th grade math and 5th and 7th grade writing.

Growth: Districts & Schools

All the highest growth districts in the state were rural: Liberty, Edison 54, Ouray, Summit, Silverton, Kim Reorganized and Gilpin County. One of the districts with the highest average growth across subjects was Vilas, one of two districts facing the end of the state’s accountability clock.

The state’s lowest-growth districts or entities were also small — Aguilar, Hanover, West End, Las Animas and the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.

Two of the five highest-growth schools were in Denver, Steck Elementary and DSST:Byers. The others were Aspen Community Charter School, Vanguard High School in Cheyenne Mountain and Victory Prep Academy High State Charter School, authorized by CSI. All but Steck are charter schools.

The five lowest-growth schools in the state include two Pueblo 60 schools, Roncalli Middle School and Benjamin Franklin Elementary. The others were Juniper Ridge Community School in Grand Junction (a new “no-test, no-tech” school) and two Waldorf-inspired schools, Mountain Sage Community School in Poudre, and Mountain Song Community School, authorized by the Charter School Institute.

Race & Ethnicity

There continue to be significant gaps in the percentage of white students scoring proficient or advanced and the percentages of minority students doing so. The largest white/black gap was in math (32.4 percentage points), and the smallest was in writing (27.2 percentage points). The largest gap between white and Hispanic students was in reading (27.8 percentage points) and the smallest was in writing (27.1 percentage points).

In reading white students had the highest percentage of proficient or advanced students at 79.8 percent. Asian students had the highest percentages in writing (68.5 percent) and math (73.4 percent).

Percentages for other minority groups in the three subjects either remained the same or decreased statewide, although there were increases for some groups in some grades.

Special groups of students

Proficient and advanced percentages were lower for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, with the largest gap in seventh grade math (34.2 percentage points) and the smallest in third grade math (25.2 percentage points). Subsidized lunches are used as a proxy for poverty, albeit an imperfect one.

Percentages for English language learners classified as fluent English proficient increased in most tested grades on reading and writing, while math proficiency increased in four of eight tested grades. Improvement by grade was more mixed for students classified in two less-fluent categories.

The percentage of Title I students who scored proficient or advanced increased from 2013 in reading for grades 5, 7 and 8; in writing for grades 3, 6, 8 and 10 and in mathematics for grades 8 and 9.

The percentages of female students scoring proficient or advanced were higher than those for males in all three subjects.

Some 1,523,301 TCAP tests were given to approximately 507,700 students last spring.

Other tests taken but not counted

Students in grades five and eight took online science tests last spring, and 4th and 7th graders took online social studies tests. (High school seniors will take those tests this fall.)

Different science tests were given to 5th, 8th and 10th graders under CSAP and TCAP, and the social studies tests were new this year.

Scores on the 2014 tests, which are being calculated, won’t count when district accreditation ratings are set later this year.

Categories: Urban School News

Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 13:37

PUEBLO — Feeling confident in the work she had accomplished, Pueblo City Schools Superintendent Maggie Lopez announced her retirement in January.

Some of the city’s chronically low performing schools were improving. She’d built up many of the basic systems that a school district needs to operate, like new evaluations and streamlined curriculum across the city. The southern Colorado school district, one of the first to be labeled failing when the state’s accountability law took effect in 2010, had upward momentum.

“We’re at a point where we see the rollercoaster [of achievement] heading up,” Lopez said this spring. “It isn’t going to be easy. But it’s a good time to hand off the baton.”

But while the school system has gotten better since Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains.

And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new superintendent, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year.

“I have a fear with Maggie leaving, we’re going to lose some ground,” said Rod Slyhoff, president of the Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know. I’ve seen it happen before with leadership changes.”

The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans like Slyhoff feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.

Steel City Turnaround

Pueblo has had rocky leadership transitions before — most notably, in 2005, when Pueblo’s former leader, Joyce Bales, a key figure in boosting Pueblo’s academic performance, left. Bales’ replacement, John Covington, got off to a tumultuous start with the city’s teachers union during tense contract negotiations.

Many teachers, principals, and observers privately believe that Covington, who left the district in 2009, never healed the rift between his administration and the city’s instructors, and that tension contributed to Pueblo’s academic losses.

Part of the reason the board hired Jones to replace Lopez was because they believed there could be a seamless handoff between the two.

“We cannot — we will not — miss a beat,” said Kathy DeNiro, the board’s president and former district administrator.

Jones, and the public, will have a clearer idea today on exactly what state Lopez left the district when the state releases the results from last spring’s standardized tests.

For now, Jones is carrying on the belief that Pueblo will beat the clock in time.

“I absolutely have a concern and feel a sense of urgency,” Jones told The Pueblo Chieftain. “But I’m also very confident, based on the conversations I’ve already had, that we will make the improvements we need to make in order to reset the clock and to make the progress we need to become accredited at the highest level of distinction.”

Pueblo solutions for Pueblo problems

The district did make many strides under Lopez — progress that can be seen at the Pueblo Academy of Arts.

Principal Karen Ortiz remembers when all six of the elementary schools that sent their students to the academy, formerly known as Pitts Middle School, were running different programs.

“Eighty percent of my students that first year were not at grade-level,” she said. “It was almost assured if you came here, you’d need remediation.”

At the school itself, there was no trust, the campus was dirty, and teachers had no guidance.

Today, the school is perhaps Pueblo City Schools’ greatest turnaround success story. Students enter classrooms in single file, shaking the hands of their teachers as they enter. Guests are also welcomed onto campus by a handshake. Instruction begins almost immediately and multiple hands rise to the air even on the most difficult of chemistry questions.

And the school, which was once labeled failing, is off the clock.

Ortiz credits the school’s music program, led by Lymon Bushkovski, as the foundation of her turnaround effort.

Amid all the chaos, “we had a shining star and it was our music program,” Ortiz said. Students from across the city would choose to attend Pitts for a chance to learn from Bushkovski. “That was the piece of hope we saw coming through.”

So, when given the opportunity two years ago to redesign the school’s model through a districtwide initiative to grant more autonomy to three of its struggling middle schools, Ortiz capitalized on the music department’s success and pushed to become a school for the arts, or the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

In addition to the new name and focus on arts integration in the classroom, the academy has made use of its new found freedoms by establishing daily collaboration time and school specific professional development for its teachers, extended its day, and will soon add primary grades.

Since Ortiz took over, the academy has accelerated student achievement. It’s climbed off the state’s accountability list completely. And Ortiz hopes her school’s continued academic rise will help push the district off the clock as well.

Ortiz’s efforts illustrate Superintendent Lopez’s two key strategies: alignment and innovation.

When Lopez started, the district had no formal evaluation tools for its teachers or principals, curriculum and instruction varied from school to school, and the district did not track lesson plans or have any strategic plan regarding professional development or school improvement.

Lopez has spent the bulk of her four years at the helm of Pueblo City Schools either creating or drawing together those functions of a school system. And, in the case of three of the city’s middle schools, she provided leaders to be set free of some central district policies, like at the academy.

But even with all the work Lopez and her team has done, there is little doubt among the locals here that the schools are still in trouble. Many community members in Pueblo believe that the key to progress is consistency — but without knowing how the transition will play out or how the state will intervene, if it does, guaranteeing that consistency is impossible.

“We have clearly demonstrated that Pueblo schools can achieve,” Slyhoff said. “But they have to stay the course.”

Slyhoff argues if the state has a solution for five years of chronic low performance, it should give the communities struggling to improve their schools the answer immediately rather than leaving them waiting on an uncertain future.

Do your homework
At an November meeting of the State Board of Education, state officials outlined possible scenarios of how a district that loses its accreditation could earn it back. Read their report here.

The state, which does not want Pueblo or any other school district to lose its accreditation, wants solutions to be based on the needs of the individual school districts. They regularly dispatch members of their school accountability team to troubled districts and, in an effort to focus more on schools, has created a voluntary turnaround network with the hope of accelerating achievement.

“[The accountability system] forces the local community to face the challenges of the local community,” said Keith Owen, deputy commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education and former Pueblo elementary school principal. “There’s no magic solution up here in Denver. What we want — we hope for — is local, contextualized solutions.”

But despite the state’s emphasis on helping Pueblo officials come up with their own paths forward, state officials’ involvement at all has generated some anger and skepticism.

“They can close our school, but they’re going to have to put the kids somewhere,” said DarciAnn Samples, a teacher at Roncalli.

Many possible paths

Technically, the state isn’t going to close any schools itself — it can’t, by law.

What state officials can do is strip the district of its accreditation and place conditions that the district must follow for the state seal of approval to be reinstated.

How long a failing district can go without accreditation is the most ambiguous portion of the state’s accountability law. Currently, state officials suggest the duration will depend on how quickly the state board and district come to an agreement on what the district needs to do. That could take minutes, but it also could take months.

There’s a broad range of possible conditions the state might place on a district to reinstate its accreditation. The district may be forced to close failing schools or turn them over to a charter network; the district might break apart into smaller (and hopefully more manageable) bureaucracies; or it could merge with a nearby high-performing district.

Another, potentially more likely scenario — especially for the city’s struggling middle schools — is that the state could ask the local school board to take specific actions around individual schools, such as closing them or handing them over to a charter operator.

“If I were the state, I’d send in the charter schools,” said board member Rose Holloway.

But that scenario is complicated by the fact that there seems to be little parent demand for the two local charter schools that are already available.

While there is a wait list at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences, or PSAS, that school’s operator had to close its high school due to low enrollment numbers. And the K-8 school’s former leader, Natalie Allen, said a recent study suggested there was not enough demand to warrant an expansion.

And the Chavez-Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy can fill another 300 desks, said its director and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Joe V. Aldaz.

The Chavez-Huerta charter network, Aldaz said, is still recovering from a public scandal that included accusations of embezzlement and nepotism by its founders. But he also believes that the lack of interest in charter schools in Pueblo, especially at the secondary level, has more to do with the city’s celebrated traditions at its four high schools.

“I can offer their children an associates degree when they graduate from here,” Aldaz said. “But I guess it’s more important about where the parents went to high school.”

In their own hands

While they wait to see how the leadership transition will play out and what, if any, action the state will take, some community members have taken matters into their own hands.

Cindy Ayala first became suspicious of the Pueblo’s schools were doing when young men and women couldn’t successfully fill out a job application at her family’s Mexican restaurant, Nachos.

Back-to-back community surveys in 2007 and 2010 commissioned by two different organizations proved her theory correct: there were problems in the city’s schools.

“Something needed to be done,” said Cindy Ayala, a local business owner and director of another Youth program, Trio Upward Bound. “And it needed to start before the students reached high school.”

So, with the help of two local organizations, the MyLife Program was launched. Today, 90 students participate. They go on monthly field trips to focus on different skills and they meet monthly at Pueblo Community College, in part to create awareness about options after high school.

Separately, the Pueblo branch of the United Way has launched its own mentorship program to work with at-risk youth.

“There was a big gap in our middle schools,” said Andrea Aragon, president of Pueblo’s United Way. “We wanted to make a difference.”

Aragon convinced a principal at Heaton Middle School on the city’s north side to allow mentors to work with 10 students. Within a year, those students’ failing grades dropped by 50 percent, Aragon said. One student has moved from below proficient on the state’s standardized test to advance. Another student, for the first time in his academic career, received no failing grades on his report card.

Fighting attitude

Almost since Colorado’s current school accountability process began in 2010, school leaders and observers from across the state have been critical of it.

The state, they argue, is asking the most disadvantaged to do more and often with less. If the adults can’t muster it, the students are the ones penalized, labeled as failing. And, they point out, the state does not have the capacity nor the authority to operate the nearly dozen districts that are near the end of the statutory timetable.

But Pueblo officials, unlike many in the community they serve, say they see their status as an opportunity to improve.

“We adopted a ‘we can do this’ attitude,” said Brenda Krage, a former assistant superintendent who left the district in June.

The public will get its first indication of whether Pueblo managed to pull itself out of the red zone or whether it’s down to one more year on the clock today, when the state releases the results from last years state standardized tests.

While the official state ratings based on those scores won’t be released until later this fall, careful observers will likely be able to read the tea leaves.

If Pueblo students have demonstrated even the slightest bit of improvement, that bodes well for the district officials who have worked tirelessly. But if scores are stagnant, or worse, if they drop, that means the hardest challenges are ahead.

But even with the difficulties and uncertainties, Suzanne Ethredge, president of Pueblo’s teachers union, believes that the district is scrappy enough to pull through.

“Pueblo is often the stepchild of the state,” she said. “Pueblo is used to having to fight for what we need — and we usually get it.”

The Pueblo City school board at an April meeting.
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Small Colorado Springs private school gets a donation

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 10:08

Steel City Turnaround: Part 2

Despite efforts, Pueblo's middle schools, like Roncalli, continue to fail. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Big Changes

A $30,000 donation from a Woodland Park business owner is the biggest thing to happen to Colorado Springs Christian School in years. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

Youth Violence

A month after officials reported progress at the Spring Creek Youth Services Center, a missing pencil ended in what police called a riot. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

K5 Assessments

More than 100 districts will pilot the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment in kindergarten classrooms this year. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Testing

Parents may be surprised to find their kids didn't do as well on the new science and social studies test as they expected. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Combating Crime

Air Force Academy Superintendent Michelle Johnson and other leaders pledged Wednesday to combat a culture that allowed star athletes to commit sex crimes. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenges

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 20:04

PUEBLO — When Tristan Smith was in the sixth and seventh grade at Roncalli Middle School, he often found it difficult to concentrate in class.

Students roamed the hallways, picked fights, and wandered freely through their classrooms. He also found it challenging to concentrate on material that seemed far above his and his classmates’ skill level.

“They taught us some stuff, but it seemed really advanced,” said Smith, who is entering his sophomore year at South High School. “Students didn’t know what they were doing. They were never on task. They were also talking — not really doing anything.”

By the time Smith transferred from Roncalli to a local charter school for eighth grade, he said, the chaos almost seemed normal.

But it quickly became evident to Smith just how far behind he was compared to his new classmates after his transfer to the Chavez Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy.

This small city’s middle schools have been a blight on its school district, Pueblo City Schools, for years. Even before the state updated how it identifies and tracks failing schools in 2010, it was clear that improving those schools was the district’s biggest challenge.

“We were neglecting that age group,” said Kathy DeNiro, president of the city’s school board who also served in various administrative roles in the school district before retiring in 2007.

Steel City Turnaround

Despite a renewed focus on the schools, today much of the district’s struggles to lift itself out of the red zone in the state’s accountability system can be traced to the dismal state of its middle schools. Three of the city’s six middle schools are on the state’s accountability watch list, including Roncalli, which is now the lowest-performing middle school in the state. (Slightly less than half of the city’s elementary and K-8 schools are considered failing, while all four of the city’s high schools are in the safe zone.)

As the state’s accountability clock ticks toward state sanctions for Pueblo, officials are working toward improving its most troubled campuses by offering both additional central support and autonomy to principals.

If the district is able to improve its middle schools, its chances of avoiding state intervention rise significantly. But Pueblo’s recent attempts to better those schools suggest that the task is complex and delicate. The district’s last try, which did yield one popular and high-performing option for Pueblo families, also inadvertently set the stage for the district’s struggles at Roncalli.

And now, according to recent third-party evaluations commissioned by the district and obtained by Chalkbeat, Pueblo’s lowest-performing middle schools still have a long way to go before they can produce the culture and instruction they will need to boost student achievement.

School officials say they just need time, but given the state’s looming deadline — Pueblo might have just a year to significantly boost student test scores or risk intervention — it’s time they may not have.

Building one school, dooming another

Before Roncalli was the state’s lowest-performing middle school, it was one of the city’s most respected.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaKathy DeNiro, Pueblo City Schools’ board president, congratulates the East High School basketball team for taking the men’s 4A state championship in April. DeNiro was a former principal and administrator for the district.

Sandwiched between two booming middle- and high-income neighborhoods on the city’s south side, the middle school regularly achieved in academics and extracurricular activities from the 1990s to the mid-2000s. At the time, about half of Roncalli’s students came from low-income homes, a share that was about 12 percentage points below the district average.

But despite Roncalli’s successes, by 2007, Pueblo City School officials began to worry about an enrollment dip at the middle school level system-wide. Parents who sent their children to the district’s elementary and high schools looked for alternatives for the middle grades.

So the district hatched a plan to lure students back to public middle schools by creating a high-performing, rigorous, and uncompromising program that would appeal to families. In the fall of 2008, the district rebooted a middle school in one of Pueblo’s poorest neighborhoods that had dwindling enrollment and chronically low scores on state tests. The new school, led by principal Julie Shue, would have a no-nonsense culture, technology in every student’s hands, and a robust international curriculum.

As part of the process of relaunching the school, now known as Corwin International Magnet School, the district redrew its neighborhood school boundaries. Low-income families who had been zoned for Corwin were now sent to either Roncalli or Pitts middle schools, which at that point had less experience educating low-income students.

While Corwin was set up to absorb the neighborhood’s poorer Latino students — and did for its first year — students from more affluent families who had previously attended Roncalli and Pitts who were drawn to Shue’s vision quickly filled the school’s seats.

The result was a rapid influx of low-income students to Roncalli, a demographic shift that often presents huge challenges for schools. While Roncalli saw an overall drop in its enrollment, its share of students poor enough to be eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch jumped 30 percentage points in two years.

Today, 80 percent of Roncalli’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. At Corwin, it’s half that rate, or 41 percent.

“When Corwin [became a magnet school] it caused a significant demographic change at Roncalli,” said Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo teacher’s union.

And teachers weren’t prepared for that change, union and district officials now concede.

“The piece that might have been missing was — we didn’t prepare the communities well,” said Brenda Krage, the district’s former assistant superintendent.

A 2010 review of the school from the consultant group SchoolWorks bears out that conclusion. The consultants reported that they found little evidence of advance planning to welcome the new students arriving at the school.

That meant two things, the report found. First, tensions developed between Roncalli’s original group of students and the new arrivals from Corwin, leading to escalating behavioral and anger problems.

And secondly, “not all teachers [had] expectations of high levels of student achievement for all students,” the report states. “A lack of rigor and lowered expectations for students to perform at high levels are evident across the school.”

Those deficiencies soon showed up in students’ test scores. Reading scores for low-income students at Roncalli, for example, dropped about 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2009 and their proficiency rates have continued to drop each year, except for a brief bounce in 2010. Last school year, only about one in three poor students of color who attends Roncalli could read at grade level.

Meanwhile, the poor students who remained at Corwin through the transformation to a magnet school benefited greatly from the new economically diverse formation of the school. Reading test scores for black and Hispanic students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch skyrocketed nearly 40 percentage points and remain high. In 2013, eight in 10 low-income black and Hispanic students at Corwin, about 40 percent of the population, read at or above grade level.

A study in contrasts

Class passing time at Corwin is a quiet and orderly process. Boys in pressed white shirts and ties and girls in neat skirts walk in single file following traffic lanes down the middle of the hallway.

“Everything that happens at Corwin International is deliberate and on purpose,” the school’s principal Shue said.

Shue began to plan all the details of the school about eight months before it opened, travelling the country to observe the best schools and bring their methods back to Pueblo.

Those ideas included a laptop for every student, an International Baccalaureate curriculum, and, perhaps Corwin’s key strategy, mixing students of different skills in the same classroom.

Shue takes the mixing so seriously that, during the school’s second year, she reassigned groups of students to particular lunch periods in order to end the self-segregation between the new Corwin students and the old in the cafeteria she had observed the year before.

There are no prerequisites or entrance exams required to enroll at Corwin, despite what parents believe. But there is a waitlist and an admissions lottery, which gives slight preference to students in the neighborhood. And parents are required to volunteer a dozen hours at the school each semester, potentially dissuading low-income families strapped for time from applying.

Shue believes all students can achieve, “especially in Pueblo.” But she’s not ready now — or if ever — to expand her program past the 650 students it serves today.

“[Corwin] has the perfect balance,” she said. “Bigger does not equal better.”

She just hopes that, for now, her school is an asset to the large school district as it attempts to leap off the state’s accountability watch list.

“Change is one of those things we have to do on purpose,” she said, reflecting on the lessons she learned from re-opening Corwin and a potential lesson for the district.

Roncalli or bust

While students at Corwin reap the benefits of sustained leadership and close attention to the details of school culture, those at Roncalli have floundered under constant leadership turnover — a new principal has been assigned to the school each year since 2008 — and staff who were ill-prepared for the sudden influx of high-needs students.

Despite Roncalli’s poor ratings and weak school culture, Geno Duran is adamant: his children will attend Roncalli Middle School, just as he did. Family traditions are paramount in Pueblo, one of them being their schools. Generations of families have passed through the same hallways of the same campuses for decades.

“It’s convenient and close,” Duran said. More importantly, “I want them to have the same experiences I did.”

But the Roncalli Duran knew in the early 1990s is long gone. At least, the school’s tradition of academic excellence is.

In fact, the Roncalli Duran and his son knew just last year is gone as well.

That’s because part of the school’s innovation plan approved two years ago by the district and State Board of Education called for a completely new teaching staff.

Any staff member who wanted to reapply for their job could. Most didn’t.

Marci Imes was one of the few teachers who returned.

Originally hired for the 2013-14 school year as the dean, Imes was reassigned and became the school’s assistant principal for instruction. When students return to Roncalli on Thursday, she’ll be their new principal, the school’s sixth leader in as many years.

To Imes, Roncalli has made a night-and-day transition in four years: The school has seen an influx of extra cash from state dollars meant to implement its innovation program, as well as grants for its new science and technology focus. Students are more engaged. The new staff is dedicated — and for the most part staying put. The instruction is strong. And a renewed culture is growing.

Some things have not yet improved. The school had more suspensions between Aug. 1 and May 4 than any of the other middle schools. Nearly a third of Roncalli’s 539 students were on average suspended twice for a total of 374 out of school suspensions.

And according to a 2014 review of the school by SchoolWorks, the school still lacks clear goals around student achievement and expectations for students, among other issues.

Classrooms are not structured for learning, the report concluded. When learning does happen, it’s usually at a lower level than what would be needed to push the students forward. Teachers are being asked to cover each others classes during planning time giving up valuable collaboration time.  Parent involvement is still low. And there is no consistent policy to to make sure the school’s neediest students.

District leaders say the school and its new staff need more time.

Imes, who was one of the architects behind the school’s innovation plan, is confident that within three years — the timeline the school is using to roll out its science, technology, engineering, and math program — student test scores will improve.

“This is not a one and done,” Imes said. “Becoming a full-fledged STEM school doesn’t happen overnight.”

Complete system failure

While a dramatic demographic shift challenged Roncalli especially, there were far greater systemic problems at work at the city’s other middle schools.

By 2010, when the state introduced its accountability watch list, the city’s middle schools had hit an all time low. Five of the city’s six district-run middle schools were ranked among the state’s lowest-performing. Only Corwin, with its many middle-class families, escaped that designation.

Like at Roncalli, the school district asked school consultant SchoolWorks to identify the symptoms of the district’s low academic performance.

Their findings addressed everything from culture to instruction to professional development of teachers at several of the city’s middle schools.

The results were the same across the school system: Pueblo’s middle schools were toxic.

At Pitts Middle School, in 2009, some teachers did not believe that all children could learn. At Freed Middle School, the principal did not provide teachers feedback after classroom visits. At Risley Middle School, bullying was rampant.

Inside Pueblo’s middle schools
As part of its reporting, Chalkbeat obtained reports by a third party commissioned by Pueblo City Schools and the Colorado Department of Education that diagnosed systemic successes and failures in its middle schools in 2009 and 2010. The district had follow up reports on several of its schools completed in 2014. You can view them here.

“We had a lot of problems,” said Karen Ortiz, principal of the Pueblo Academy of the Arts, then known as Pitts.

For the last four years Pueblo officials — and some community members of the this Southern Colorado town — have worked to remedy the ills of their middle schools.

Today, the city’s schools have seen mixed results. Two middle schools, Heaton and Pitts, have moved into the state’s safe zone. A third, Risley, is close.

“I hate to say this, but there was a deficient attitude here,” said Charlotte Macaluso, Risley Middle School principal. “Teachers believed no matter what they did, it wouldn’t make a difference. But there’s hope now.”

Updated reports from SchoolWorks, completed last spring, show some improvement in school culture across the district. But instruction, leadership, and quality professional development of teachers are still lacking in critical ways, according to the reports.

Before her retirement, Superintendent Maggie Lopez said the district’s summer professional development for teachers and principals would be centered around improving many of the weaknesses school consultants found, especially concerning instruction.

Hope, not time, runneth over

Jeremy Duran, Geno’s son, sees some of those efforts bearing fruit at Roncalli. This year, fewer students ran in the hallways, he said. There were fewer distractions in the classroom, which meant teachers were no longer yelling as much. And last year he had just one social studies teacher — not three, as the year before.

Math and science were still a struggle for the eighth grader, but he was able to join his peers in mainstream classes rather than smaller classes for students with learning disabilities.

“I’ve made more friends,” he said.

Jeremy is aware of the school’s failing status. “If we don’t get better, the school is going to shut down,” he said.

While no officials have publicly suggested a full shutdown, the Duran family is hopeful the school will make enough strides to stave off drastic changes so that closure could never even be a possibility

After all, the Duran family still has two more students to send through Roncalli: Anthony, a sixth grader, and Kayla, a fourth grader.

And he plans to send them there no matter what happens with the state.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” the Duran patriarch, Geno, said.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaGeno Duran, right, with his Roncalli Middle School students, Jeremy, left, and Anthony.
Categories: Urban School News

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