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Updated: 29 min 54 sec ago

Rise & Shine: Colo.’s foster children less likely to graduate high school

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 09:49

Circle of life

A Denver Public Schools principal has the unusual — and surprising — task of building a school before she shuts it down in three years. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

A new achievement gap

New data from the Colorado Department of Education and Department of Human Services illustrate a troubling trend among the state's foster children. Colorado students in the foster care system are far less likely to graduate high school than their peers — even those who are homeless. ( Denver Post )

Meet four Colorado students who grew up in foster care to beat the odds. ( Denver Post )

Corner office

Colorado's largest teachers union has a new boss. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Disinfecting news

Many Colorado schools and daycare centers are taking precautions to fight the spreading of a severe respiratory illness. ( Fox 31 )

Those who do not learn from history are ...

The new AP History framework gives teachers more flexibility about what to cover in depth by moving away from memorization of dates and figures, but critics are lining up to cry foul. ( Denver Post )

yo hablo english

The St. Vrain Valley School District has been changing the way it teaches English-language learners. And now, district officials say they're are on the right track, based on results of a statewide test. ( Boulder Daily Camera )

A queen by any other name

A transgender female student was crowed homecoming queen at a Colorado Springs high school. ( Gazette )

Happy anniversary

A Parker charter school, Douglas County's second, is celebrating its 20th year. ( Douglas County News-Press )

Choiceless

Initiatives like the Common Core State Standards and STEM curriculum are limiting school choice, writes a Cherry Creek High School teacher. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

What We’re Reading: Newark students protest for local control of schools

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 18:38
  • One teacher has a suggestion for rating schools without standardized tests: classroom grades. (Washington Post)
  • More, not less, reliance on standardized tests would make college admissions more egalitarian. (New Republic)
  • Newark students are protesting against the district’s superintendent and demanding local control of their schools. (Politicker NJ)
  • A long-shot Washington, D.C. mayoral candidate is making a bid to become the “education mayor.” (Greater Greater Washington)
  • Two Philadelphia principals are trying to reinvent the high school experience. (The Notebook)
  • A teacher at a high-performing NYC charter discusses what makes his classroom work. (Huffington Post)
  • What exactly are the Common Core standards and what do they do? An explainer. (NJ Spotlight)
  • The standards have become Obama’s biggest domestic battleground since healthcare reform, with backlash from both sides. (Mother Jones)
  • A Finnish teacher says the lauded school system is failing two-thirds of its students. (Yle Uutiset)
  • Girls don’t need different tech instruction. They just need to feel that they belong. (Hechinger Report)
  • Principals aren’t using teacher effectiveness data in their decision-making. (Education Week)
  • In Israel’s school system, there are wide funding disparities and improvised fixes for low-income schools. (Times of Israel)
  • Washington, D.C.’s school district is hiring a “student advocate” to help families navigate the school system. (Washington Post)
  • That story about summer vacation coming from our farming past? It’s not true. (PBS Newshour)
  • In “Building a Better Teacher,” Elizabeth Green looks at what teachers do to make a classroom work, rather than talking points. (Jose Vilson)
Categories: Urban School News

For southwest Denver principal, three years to create and then close a school

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 17:00

When Elza Guajardo agreed to take control of Kepner Middle School, she knew part of her job would be to close the school.

What she did not know last spring when she accepted the job as principal is that she’d also have to build it.

When she arrived this year, Guajardo said, the school lacked many of the basic systems it takes to run a school, like fire-drill protocols and common lesson planning by teachers. “I had no foundation to build upon,” she said.

So now, as Guajardo and her team of administrators and teachers work toward creating a fully-functional school in the city’s impoverished southwest corner, they do so knowing that in a few years they’ll have to pack up everything and turn over the keys to two new programs.

That’s because the current program at Kepner, one of the city’s lowest-performing schools, is being phased-out. In 2017, a charter school and a new district-run program will open in its place.

The phase-in, phase-out plan — a key school improvement strategy for Denver Public Schools — has been in the works since February. Observers say the process has gone mostly according to plan, though it’s encountered a few hiccups.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Student advisor Steve Harvey, center, acts as a traffic medium as Kepner Middle School students pass between classes.

A parent committee, working with DPS officials, helped review possible models for the schools that will take the current programs’ place. But some of those parents and the community organizations that represent them felt slighted in the end when DPS officials announced another district-run program would co-locate at Kepner with a STRIVE charter school. Parents were upset they did not have a chance to help choose the district-run model as they did for the charter school applications.

Those parents and organizations last spring also called on DPS to act faster. Their children, they said, didn’t deserve to wait for a better school while their current program was in disarray.

Guajardo, who was hired last spring as the phase-out principal, is now working toward meeting the needs of those families, who claimed the school was rampant with bullying and mutual disrespect between teachers and students.

Guajardo’s first steps to create a stable school culture and operating system may be an indication of just how dysfunctional the city’s lowest-performing school had become.

DPS Assistant Superintendent Greta Martinez said she believed there were systems in place at Kepner — just not to Guajardo’s standards.

“I think it’s not so much building all new systems, but improving on the systems already in place,” Martinez said. “That’s why we hired Elza, to ensure all systems are improved at the school.”

Improving those systems is a complicated process that starts with “baby steps,” as she likes to call them.

The work to improve the current Kepner began during the summer. Guajardo and math teacher Loyeen Vigil-McKenna retooled the school’s sixth grade academy, where incoming middle schoolers meet to learn about the school and set their schedule.

“The kids learned the academic and cultural expectations,” said Vigil-McKenna, who has taught at Kepner for 21 years. “That made sure everyone was on the same page on day one.”

Returning seventh and eighth graders are a little less familiar with those expectations, given the lack of clear standards and rules in the past, Guajardo said. But new assistant principal Chris Denmark and student advisor Steve Harvey are working on that. Harvey, with arms stretched out, supervises passing time on the third floor and acts as a traffic medium for students scampering to their next class. Denmark parks himself in the school’s main hall during classes to keep an eye on the front door to both welcome parents and detour students from ditching. At the same time, he returns emails and meets with teachers.

The teaching faculty and staff — of which a quarter are new to Kepner — has its own learning curve. Guajardo is hoping to create a school-wide culture of classroom expectations. Teachers should have their classroom’s daily learning objective and work written out in the same place everyday for students. There should be word walls in every classroom. And soon teachers will soon be meeting to plan lessons based on student data.

The school is also getting support from DPS headquarters. Kepner has 20 math fellows to support classroom learning and remediation. The district is paying for a restorative justice facilitator to help with student behavioral needs. Guajardo and her team of administrators will soon be partnered with school consultant group Blue Print that observes campuses monthly for a laundry list of strengths and weaknesses. And being a zone school to support students with limited English language skills, its regularly has access to central support.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Kelle May-Garst, Kepner’s English-language acquisition coach, and Chris Denmark, one of the school’s assistant principals, work in the main hall of the school during classes. Denmark regularly works from the hall to keep an eye on the front door for parents and students.

Morgan Ortega, who is teaching English to Spanish-speakers only for the first time this year, works with some of those supports. She has a coach who meets with her weekly to help plan classes, she’ll be attending a special professional development seminar about multicultural learning later this month, and soon she’ll be sent to observe classrooms run by proven teachers.

“[Kepner] is more positive now,” said Ortega, who has taught at Kepner for four years.

While there is early evidence of a more stable school climate, there’s still work to be done — including in Ortega’s classroom. Some of her students with limited English skills have been placed in the wrong class. Class assignments for Spanish-speaking students are supposed to be determined by proficiency, but some students with advanced skills are in classes with students who are still struggling and vice versa.

And beyond Ortega’s four walls, Guajardo and her team still need to put students in much-needed tutoring programs. According to the most recent round of state testing, only two out of every 10 students are reading at grade level. And only 16 percent of students tested proficiently in math.

Since summer, Guajardo, who speaks Spanish fluently like most of her families, has met with parents and in some instances begged them for a chance to show improvement. Of the 600 students were were expected to enroll at Kepner, only about 40 are missing.

“Students are enrolling every day,” she said. Her team is busy contacting the families of missing students to encourage them see what they’ve done with place.

One parent, Lee Thach, said she’s beginning to see a noticeable change in the school.

“There are a lot of changes. It’s more strict — which is good,” she said.

But there appears to still be some confusion among parents and the forthcoming transition. Thach, who has two more children she’d like to enroll at Kepner, incorrectly believed that when the current program ends, the entire physical campus will be shut down as well.

“They say the eighth grade class is the last one,” she said. “I don’t like that. If they have a good leader now, why don’t they keep the school open?”

For now, Guajardo isn’t concerned with the ephemeral nature of her work  at Kepner. Planning for the 2015 school year, which will be the first for the STRIVE school and new district-run program hasn’t even started yet. That planning will likely begin in January.

“I can’t worry about tomorrow. That’s not my job,” Guajardo said. “My job is to make sure these kids get to high school. They deserve it.”

Categories: Urban School News

Salazar leaving CEA; Bartels new executive director

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 16:41

Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, is leaving that post later this month for a senior management position with the National Education Association’s Member Benefits Corp.

Brad Bartels, a CEA lawyer and then general counsel for more than 20 years, will be the new executive director.

Salazar is well known in education and political circles. He joined CEA as a lobbyist in 2001 and became executive director in 2008, serving during a period when the union experienced some membership declines and such policy challenges as passage and implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the educator effectiveness law.

Tonette Salazar, Tony’s wife, also is well known for years of lobbying for school districts and other clients at the Capitol. She now works for the Education Commission of the States.

Bartels has been deeply involved in CEA’s legal activities, including the pending lawsuit that challenges the teacher placement portion of SB 10-191.

CEA’s structure also includes an elected full-time president, who generally is the public face of the group. The current president is Kerrie Dallman, a social studies teacher who’s on leave from the Jeffco schools.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Pueblo searching for new reading program

Fri, 09/12/2014 - 10:15

"Learning big stuff"

In one Denver classroom STEM is the subject but teamwork is the goal for the teacher and her students. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

What to read

The Pueblo City school district is reviewing four different literacy programs in a search for a new reading series that could help boost K-8 achievement. ( Pueblo Chieftain )

Yet another rating

Colorado has earned an "A" in one category of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's A-F grading of states on education policy and outcomes. However, the ratings are anything from straightforward. ( EdWeek )

Take your pick

The University of Colorado Board of Regents has approved 12 degrees in Boulder's new College of Media, Communication and Information. ( Daily Camera )

Heavy metal

The San Diego school district in California has acquired a "mine resistant ambush protected" armored vehicle from the federal government for use in school rescues. ( U-T San Diego )

Ouch

A Utah elementary school teacher was injured when her handgun discharged in a faculty restroom, shattering a toilet. Utah law allows people with concealed-carry permits to carry guns at schools. ( ABE News )

Categories: Urban School News

A classroom where tech is the subject but teamwork’s the goal

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 18:42

At one of the work stations in Courtney Miller’s classroom at Slavens ECE-8 School on Thursday morning, two third graders argued over the design of a tower they were supposed to be building.

“You can’t just say the way we’re going to do it and make me do it,” Finn told his partner, Roman. Rather than work together, each boy was building his own. Finn’s design was visibly less sturdy, a fact which his partner attempted to demonstrate by pushing on it.

“You’re not just going to take mine apart,” Finn objected. In a quiet moment, Roman said he’d heard from other students that Finn was difficult to work with, a feeling Finn seemed to share about his partner. Their bickering continued until the bell rang.

The generation of this kind of mutual frustration is all part of the learning process in Miller’s STEM classroom, which is in its second year. STEM, an acronym which refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics-focused education, is getting increasing attention from state and national leaders for the potential to prepare students for a tech-centric future. But it has also drawn attention as part of a wider initiative for student-directed learning, which is what Miller has taken as the primary focus of her classroom.

That’s at least in part a result of her own skill set.

“My principal would tell you I’m not the most tech-savvy person he’s ever met,” said Miller. Instead, she says she brings a willingness to learn new things, to struggle — and to tolerate a little chaos. “[Student-driven learning] has to be messy at some points. You have to comfortable with mess.”

Her noisy classroom is full of students working largely independent of Miller in order to solve technological dilemmas ranging from programming a robot to making a design to print out with a 3D printer. As for her instruction, it’s mostly focused on making sure the classroom is a space where students are constantly challenged.

One of the fundamentals she has created in each class is pairs of students who challenge each other. Take, for example, Finn and Roman.

“I put them together because of their own differences,” she said. Both boys are headstrong. But Finn, she has observed, is more willing to experiment but bad at communicating his ideas. Roman tends to stick with the familiar but is much better at communicating.

“It could be a really great collaboration,” Miller said.

And they’ve already made progress. For example, she pushed them to find a way to combine their towers, despite their disagreements. By the end of class, Finn had found a way to combine his with Roman’s, if reluctantly.

But it’s not just about students’ differences. In the following class, she put two students together who always make the same mistake: failing to read directions and plan ahead.

She encourages students to seek each other out first and to research before they come to her for a fix. That pair sought her out multiple times throughout the class when they became frustrated. Each time, she directed them to the directions she’d provided or encouraged to them to do a little research.

“When they’re with someone else, their partner rescues them,” she said. Now that they’re stuck with another person with the same flaw, she hopes they’ll learn to slow down and plan ahead.

Still, even she can become frustrated when students are struggling with each other.

“In my head, I say, ‘Be patient, be patient, be patient,’” said Miller. But she’s had to learn to work differently than teachers do in most other classrooms.

“The problems to solve, they will have to deal with them all the time in here,” she said. That won’t happen if she resolves things for them.

As the morning progressed, the classroom filled up with middle schoolers. The eighth graders were deep into their projects and were beginning to tackle a set of increasingly challenging dilemmas.

One pair of girls were tossing a ballon at aluminum panels taped to desk. The balloon was supposed to activate electrical circuits hooked to the panels that then somehow played piano chords online. The girls hoped to be able to play a simple song like “Jingle Bells” with the complex tool. But when they tried to actually hit a note with the balloon, the circuits wouldn’t fire and no sound came out. They tried a variety of solutions — creating more surface area for the balloons to make contact with, readjusting the circuits, trying different angles of bounce — until their test balloon popped. Unfazed, they replaced it with a tennis ball.

A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.

For Miller, that sort of problem-solving and resolve is the most important thing students could leave her class with. But getting them to see it that way is its own challenge.

“The stuff in here is fun, but you’re learning big stuff,” said Miller. But for students, especially middle schoolers, she has found that “they equate hard with ‘I took that multiple choice test in social studies and studied all night.’”

She pushes them to pay attention to what they learn in her class so they can use it once they leave school. But her students aren’t the only ones she’s worried about valuing the class. She’ll be evaluated for the first time since launching the STEM lab this fall and she’s not sure how her observer will take her class.

“I did email her and say, ‘This classroom doesn’t look like many others,’” said Miller. “Quite honestly, I’m a little nervous.”

One big difference from other classes: less focus on the new state standards. STEM is often invoked in conjunction with the standards and their national counterparts and Miller recognizes their importance. But she and her principal agreed they wouldn’t be a primary focus in her STEM lab.

“When I was a language arts teachers, I combed them,” said Miller. All the material the students grapple with is tied to their grade-level expectations but that’s as far as she goes with the standards.

That approach is an easy one to take at a school like high-performing, relatively affluent Slavens, Miller acknowledges. But she sees benefits for other schools, too.

“I’ve never been in a place where engagement and excitement is so normal and palpable,” said Miller. “The behaviors that may be problematic in other classrooms just melt away.”

Her main goal is creating “that place that makes students love school.” That, she says, is something all schools could benefit from.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Rapid enrollment growth sparking changes in Poudre, Arvada

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 09:48

rumble in jeffco

The Jeffco teachers union's cabinet passed a vote of no confidence in the district's school board president Ken Witt. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

chain reaction

Scaling back state testing to federal minimum requirements could have ripple effects in the state's accountability system. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Culture wars

The state board heard a high-school-history-class style debate over the new AP U.S. history exams. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Student boom

Poudre School District could consider re-drawing its school zone boundaries as a way to accommodate its growing enrollment. ( Coloradoan )

Jeffco officials are now considering how to manage rapidly crowding schools in Arvada after a construction boom increased the area's population faster than expected. ( Denver Post )

passing the baton

Bob Smith was elected the new president of the St. Vrain Valley School Board, replacing John Creighton, who will be spending his new free time serving on the state's testing task force. ( Daily Camera )

greening lunch

Boulder students are required to take fruits and vegetables on their lunch plate as well as anything else they want to eat. ( Daily Camera )

making changes

A Colorado legislator is proposing that schools change Native American-themed mascots or lose state funding. ( Denver Channel )

no high in highlands ranch

Highlands Ranch High School students will be required to pass a breathalyzer test before being admitted to homecoming. ( 9News )

Categories: Urban School News

With debate, State Board lays U.S. history flap to rest

Wed, 09/10/2014 - 21:23

Members of the State Board of Education Wednesday got it from both sides in the culture wars controversy over the new Advanced Placement U.S. history course and test.

The new AP “framework” for U.S. history has become a cause celebre among some conservative critics, who claim it presents a slanted and negative view of American history.

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, last month proposed a resolution criticizing the AP framework and urging the College Board, which runs the AP tests, to delay the new program for a year. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for background.)

At the request of other members, Lundeen pulled the resolution from August’s board agenda, instead setting up a debate and question-and-answer session that took 70 minutes of the board’s time Wednesday afternoon. Lundeen said the resolution wouldn’t come up in the future.

The debaters were critic Larry Krieger, who owns an AP and SAT test prep company in Pennsylvania, and University of Northern Colorado history professor Fritz Fischer, who supports the new course. (Krieger participated via a video hookup.)

In classic high school debate fashion, each man had 15 minutes to make his case, plus a five-minute rebuttal. (Terry Whitney, a College Board lobbyist, also squeezed in a few remarks.)

Krieger said he supports a “balanced” approach to U.S. history but was relentlessly critical of the AP framework, saying, “Throughout the framework they left out the positives” and repeatedly referring to the course’s “bias” and “disturbing omissions.”

Fischer was having none of that, saying, “The AP history framework is actually a middle-of-the-road framework” and “is not a radically revisionist document.”

“This is a baseless argument,” he said of Krieger’s claim that the framework was the product of conscious leftist bias. Fischer said critics are “the voices of a few extreme people.”

Lundeen and other Republican board members indicated their general agreement with Krieger. Marcia Neal of Grand Junction said she’d reviewed the framework and found “There is an inordinate amount of time spent on slavery and Native Americans and negative impacts.”

Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver said, “People are always going to be dissatisfied” with presentations of U.S. history. And after a bit more back and forth between Krieger and Fischer, the board moved on to the next agenda item.

Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco union votes no confidence in board chair Ken Witt

Wed, 09/10/2014 - 18:45

The leader of the Jefferson County teachers union said today the school district’s teachers no longer have confidence in board chairman Ken Witt.

The Jefferson County Education Association’s council, made up of representatives from every school in county, voted unanimously on the issue last night. Nearly every school was represented in the vote.

The vote of no confidence, a symbolic boiling point, was based on similar surveys taken at the school level, according to a union spokesman. The response — from union and non-union members alike — was overwhelmingly unfavorable toward Witt, he said.

JCEA president John Ford in a statement said teachers have grown tired of the “secrecy, waste, and disrespect.”

“We are tired of the one man rule and decisions made in secret by Ken Witt,” Ford’s statement said. “As a parent of three kids in Jeffco schools, I know this will ultimately hurt our students.”

While the vote of no confidence is mostly emblematic, the union is still exploring options — legal or otherwise — to block Witt’s actions.

“Teachers absolutely put kids first,” Ford said later in an interview with Chalkbeat. “But, it’s really difficult to do that if you have a board majority and president that continue to put their agendas before kids.”

The teachers’ vote comes after the suburban board’s majority — made up of Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams — approved a new compensation plan for teachers that ties pay increases to evaluations. Previously, Jeffco paid its teachers based primarily on how much time they’ve served in a classroom and on their individual levels of education.

During negotiations, both Witt and Newkirk said they categorically objected to the former compensation plan that left some of the district’s best teachers without raises. Ultimately, it was Witt who unilaterally proposed the new model in August.

At the same meeting, the board rejected an independent review that was supposed to settle ongoing compensation negotiations between the teachers union and the district. The same review found the teacher evaluation system, used since 2008, to be statistically unreliable.

In response to the vote, Witt said that he was disappointed that the union had chosen to back a compensation plan that would leave many teachers this year without raises and that he was committed to moving forward with his plan.

“This board has acted to ensure all of our public school students – neighborhood, option, and charter – have funding equity.  This board is now acting to ensure all, not just some, of our effective teachers are rewarded,” Witt said in a statement. “I will continue to focus on improving academic achievement of Jeffco students, with an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school.”

PHOTO: Witt For Jeffco SchoolsKen Witt

Witt’s model has provided plenty of grist for teachers and community members who have long believed the conservatives, who were elected in November by wide margins, plan to follow in the foot steps of the Douglas County School District.

Those fears were reiterated in the statement from union today announcing the vote of no confidence.

“We’ve seen this scenario play out in Dougco over the past few years and the results have not been good,” Ford’s statement said. “Turnover rates in Dougco are high and are increasing at double the rate of the state average.”

The neighboring Dougco school district has been led by a conservative board since 2010. During the last four years, the Dougco board has, among other initiatives, ended a collective bargaining agreement with its teachers union and developed a market-based compensation plan for its teachers.

Critics of the Dougco board claim their goal is push a conservative ideological agenda that doesn’t belong in school board politics. Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen and her board have stood by their reforms claiming their role is to reinvent public education for the 21st century.

Since being sworn in, Witt and other members of the majority has routinely deflected the claims they’re following the “Dougco model.”

“This is Jefferson County,” Witt has said time and time again. “We’re going to do what’s best for Jeffco.”

PHOTO: Reader Teachers, regardless of their union membership, at Jeffco school were asked to give union representatives their impression of chairman Ken Witt Tuesday. At one Jeffco school, teachers were asked to fill out this ballot. According to the teachers union, educators overwhelming no longer have faith in Witt’s leadership.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the following: the JCEA representative council took the vote of no confidence, not the cabinet; the council is made up of representatives from every school, not some. But most — not all — schools participated in the vote.

Categories: Urban School News

Cuts in state testing could have unintended consequences

Wed, 09/10/2014 - 17:40

Some testing critics have pushed for trimming Colorado’s K-12 tests back to only what’s required by the federal government, but making that move isn’t as simple as it sounds, the State Board of Education was told Wednesday.

While the overall impact wouldn’t be huge, reduction of testing could have ripple effects in the state’s system of rating districts and schools, causing some ratings to rise and other to drop.

For instance, the Boulder Valley schools would rise from “performance” to “distinction,” the highest level of the state accreditations system. But the Littleton schools would drop one level, to “performance.” And the Greeley district would drop one step from “improvement” to “priority improvement,” the second lowest level.

Overall, 11 districts would receive higher ratings and 28 would decline. Ninety-nine schools would get higher ratings while 97 would drop. (See the slides at the bottom of this article for the full list of theoretical district changes, plus information on how ratings for individual schools might shift.)

The conversation was prompted by the release of the 2014 TCAP results, which started a lively SBE discussion on testing at its August meeting (see story). Members asked Department of Education staff to return in September with more information on questions like what would happen if Colorado scaled back its testing system to only what is required by federal law.

Colorado imposes more tests on public school students than are required by federal law, which basically calls for language arts and math tests in 3rd through 8th grade, plus once between 10th and 12th grade. Science tests are required once each in elementary school, middle school and high school.

But Colorado requires additional tests in high school and three social studies tests during a student’s career, plus ACT tests for all high school juniors, school readiness and early literacy assessments or evaluations. (See this CDE document for a full comparison of state and federal requirements.)

Test results are fed into the complicated state calculations of student performance, academic growth, achievement gaps, dropout rates and graduation rates that are used to generate district and school ratings. So changing the test results could lead to ratings changes.

CDE staff used 2013 test results to do a simulation of how use of results from only federal requirements would affect accreditation ratings. (See these slides for CDE’s full presentation to the board.)

The exercise was a theoretical one, partly because the state testing system will change significantly next year, when the new PARCC tests in English language arts and math are given in all schools. And the workings of the accreditation system are due for review in 2016.

“It could look very different under the new CMAS system,” Alyssa Pearson, CDE executive director of accountability and data analysis. (CMAS is the acronym for the new system that is replacing the TCAPs.)

But even a simulation can be sensitive, given the importance district leaders place on their ratings. As a precaution, CDE emailed every superintendent earlier this week, informing them of the exercise and stressing that it was only a simulation.

“This was a simulation … this is not something we’ve said we’re doing,” stressed Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen.

But, he said, it was important to do the exercise because, “It took us a long time to get the system we currently have. … It needs to be a thoughtful discussion about moving pieces to make sure people don’t see unintended consequences.”

Owen also said the department has queried the U.S. Department of Education about another issue of testing concern – whether results from individual district tests could be used to meet federal requirements.

“We did not get the information” in time for Wednesday’s meeting, Owen said, promising to have details of DOE’s response for the board in October.

CDE Director of Assessment Joyce Zurkowski did have one piece of concrete testing news for the board. She said the department has determined it has sufficient funding to allow districts that choose to do so to give next year’s PARCC math tests on paper rather than online. It also will be possible for districts to give third graders both the math and language arts tests on paper if they choose.

Surveys done for the department earlier this year found some concerns about third graders taking online tests, and about online math tests because students in many schools do math work with pencils and paper. (Learn more about those survey results here.)

State board members are split on testing issues, and where they go from here is somewhat unclear. Members Wednesday mentioned possibly including recommendations in the board’s 2015 legislative priorities (which members will begin discussing next month) and making recommendations to the State Standards and Assessments Task Force, an appointed group that is studying the issue and which is supposed to make recommendations to the legislature in January.

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Schools steel themselves for rare virus outbreak

Wed, 09/10/2014 - 08:50

over and out

Jeffco's chief financial officer is leaving the district. It's the second high-profile administrative departure since tensions with the board drove former superintendent Cindy Stevenson out. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Uh-oh

A security guard at Denver's South High School has been arrested for sexting students. ( 9News, The Denver Channel, KDVR )

Superbug in schools

A a rare respiratory virus hits Colorado kids, schools are on the lookout and getting ready to deal with sick students ( The Denver Channel )

Tenure talks

A new report has recommendations on how to fix teacher tenure. Do they apply to Colorado? ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Benefactor for babies

Montrose's school district is one step closer to a new early childhood center, thanks to a large donation. ( Montrose Press )

If he says so...

Colorado just named a new poet laureate. His first order of business? Work on getting more poetry in schools. ( CPR )

The trouble with transparency

An initiative that would make negotiations between unions and school boards open to the public goes before voters this fall and observers say it's likely to pass. But there may be unintended consequences. ( Colorado Springs Independent )

Chalkbeat awesomeness

Join us tonight at 5 p.m. for a live-chat with our co-founder Elizabeth Green about what makes good teaching. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco schools’ CFO resigns amid “a lot” of change

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 18:41

Jeffco Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lorie Gillis is leaving her post to join the city management team in Arvada, Jeffco officials announced today.

Gillis is Jeffco’s second high-profile administrator to leave since last year’s reconfiguration of the district’s school board and the subsequent departure of Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. Jeffco’s chief academic officer, Heather Beck, left at the end of the school year to become a superintendent in Oregon.

Gillis’ exit comes at a precarious time for the school district. Last week, the Jefferson County Board of Education approved a drastically new compensation system for teachers that will likely take months to sort through. Her office, as well as the human resources department, will play a crucial role in the rollout of the new system that links bonuses to teacher evaluation ratings.

Gillis, like many, was caught off guard when she learned the specifics of the plan outlined by board chairman Ken Witt. At the board meeting, last month, in which he proposed the new system, she characterized it as “a lot” of change.

Gillis declined to say whether the new conservative board majority had any influence on her decision to leave the school district.

“It was just something I didn’t want to pass up,” she said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “[Arvada] is incredibly well run and fiscally sound. It’s just an exciting opportunity.”

A transition plan has not been discussed yet, Gillis said. But her departure is unlikely to prolong teachers’ wait for their bonuses.

Gillis is also leaving as the district gets to work on its 2015-16 budget, which her office is responsible for overseeing.

Last school year, the budget process dragged out through June. In the end, Gillis and her team were left crunching numbers at the last minute as board members debated their priorities through the evening.

“We have a rock solid financial team at the district,” she said. “That helped with the decision making [to leave]. We have strong folks to step up.”

Gillis has worked for Jeffco since 2002. Since then, she has overseen the district’s financial services, as well as human resources and information technology.

“Lorie has worked tirelessly on behalf of Jeffco students and staff keeping the district financially sound.  She has always been a great steward of taxpayer dollars and has taken that role very seriously over the years,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee. “While I’m saddened by Lorie’s departure from Jeffco, I know that she leaves an enduring legacy of financial excellence and transparency.  This is a great opportunity for her and I join many others who wish her only the very best as she begins a new chapter in her professional life.”

Gillis’ last day has not been finalized but is likely at the end of the month, she said. She begins her new job in Arvada, where she lives, Oct. 13.

Categories: Urban School News

A new report recommends eight ways to improve teacher tenure

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 17:42

Anticipating a nationwide showdown on teacher tenure laws, a teacher-focused nonprofit released a report today it says has eight ways to fix the system.

The solutions floated by TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project, include lengthening a teacher’s probation period to five years and shortening the process by which teachers can appeal tenure decisions.

The report comes almost three months to the day after a judge struck down California’s teacher tenure law. Since then, two similar lawsuits have been filed in New York.

The TNTP report claims the argument about tenure has been reduced to “either, or.” In most states, tenure is granted to teachers based mostly on their number of years in a classroom. Critics of tenure claim the system protects lazy teachers and needs to be eliminated.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way, said Tim Daly, TNTP’s president.

“We think the solution is going to be somewhere in the middle,” he said. “It’s about the modernization of tenure.”

Several of the recommendations from the accountability-minded organization have already been adopted by Colorado’s similarly-oriented legislature. But there are some points, such as how to make tenure hearings more efficient, that are uncommon here.

The state’s educator effectiveness law, Senate Bill 11-191, effectively rewrote the rules of tenure in Colorado. Under the law, which has been subject to its own lawsuit, teachers are granted non-probationary status after three years. Teachers may lose that status after two years of less-than-effective evaluations.

Half of a Colorado teacher’s evaluation is based a formal observation by an administrator. The other half is made up of student growth data that tracks how much a student has learned year-to-year.

Colorado’s law went into full effect last year, but a poor evaluation did not affect a teacher’s tenure track in the program’s first year. This year, while local districts have more flexibility in what data it uses to rate teachers, a less-than-effective rating will count against a teacher.

Other recommendations include: districts should focus appeal hearings on students interests, not procedure; hire independent arbitrators to make decisions on appeals; enact a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and sexual misconduct; and lower the professional stakes for struggling teachers.

“Rebalancing teacher tenure” report DV.load('http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1291099-tntp-rebalancingtenure-2014.js', { width: 620, height: 600, sidebar: false, text: true, pdf: true, container: '#DV-viewer-1291099-tntp-rebalancingtenure-2014' });
Categories: Urban School News

Join us Wednesday at 5 p.m. to chat with Elizabeth Green about her new book

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 16:01

After wrapping up the Chalkbeat Book Club discussion of  our CEO Elizabeth Green’s new book “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)”, we’re excited to bring the conversation to a larger audience.

We’ll be hosting a live chat (embed coming soon) right here on Wednesday from 5-5:30 p.m. MT.  Until then, catch up with this Q&A, read over what we’ve discussed in the book club, and submit your questions in the comments section below.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Teachers trained to fight, not flee active shooter

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 09:17

The Big Ask

Districts around the state are putting local tax increases on the ballot to ask for more money for schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

That list includes six districts in the Pikes Peak region. ( Gazette )

School safety

Teachers at a Denver-area charter school were trained how to fight back against an active shooter, rather than hunker down. ( The Denver Channel )

Follow the money

Which Colorado organizations have gotten Gates dollars? Check it out. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

I'm more than a sixth grader

One Colorado district's move away from grade levels is part of a national trend to focus on what individual students need. ( KUNC )

Testing to teach

Early testing may help students learn, according to research. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Not enough helping hands

A Pueblo student mentoring program is coming up short for mentors. ( Chieftain )

All kids and no money

Steamboat Springs' school district is looking for someone to figure out if they need a new elementary school and design it. But where to find the money? ( Steamboat Today )

Categories: Urban School News

Districts roll the dice on $1.4 billion in tax increase measures

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 18:58

Will 2014 be the year that voters in Colorado school districts loosen up their wallets and approve well more than $1 billion in local tax increases for school construction and operations?

A year ago, voters were almost as skeptical of local proposals as they were of Amendment 66, the $1 billion K-12 statewide income tax hike that was defeated overwhelmingly. Hoping that voters are in a different mood this year, some two dozen Colorado school districts are seeking some $1.4 billion in property tax increases for construction projects and operating funds.

“On the bond side, it’s going to be the largest group of bonds that anybody’s ever seen,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project, which compiled the detailed list displayed at the bottom of this article.

This year’s ballot measures are interesting for several important reasons, including:

A big year – The total $1.4 billion request exceeds the nearly $1.2 billion districts proposed in 2012, although there were 38 measures on the ballot that year, compared to about 30 this year.

Boulder has biggest ask – The Boulder Valley School District is asking for a $576.4 million bond issue this year, exceeding the high set previously by the $515 million combined bond and override requested – and won – by Denver Public Schools in 2012.

Bond & Mill

  • Bond measures are voter-approved increases in property taxes for facilities needs. Districts sell bonds to raise the cash to pay for construction, then use the additional tax revenues to pay the bonds off.
  • Overrides are voter-approved hikes in a district’s general property tax rate that a district generally uses for operating expenses or special needs like technology purchases.

Five Adams districts asking – Most of the money – about $1.1 billion – is being requested from voters in just two counties, Adams and Boulder. Five districts in western Adams all are on the Nov. 4 ballot, an apparently unprecedented event.

Financial pressures – Despite a modest bump in school funding provided by the 2014 legislature, district leaders say that additional money is far from enough, and they have to ask voters for additional local revenues to cover building and program needs that can’t be put off.

A possible distraction – A statewide casino-expansion proposal, Amendment 68, is also on the ballot, and it promises more than $100 million in additional revenues for schools. District leaders are skeptical of A68’s promises and hope it doesn’t confuse voters about the need for local revenue. (Get details on A68 here.)

BEST off the ballot – For the first time in several years, 2014 ballots don’t include a long list of small districts seeking bond issues to raise local matching funds for Building Excellent Schools Today construction program grants. The state portion of that program has reached its ceiling for larger projects such as new schools and major renovations, so there’s no money for locals to match.

Voter mood – Finally, the 2014 election may provide an update on where some voters stand on school taxes. Voter attitudes have been on a roller coaster in this decade. District tax proposals received reasonable support in 2010, but 2011 was the worst year in memory for bonds and overrides. Voters were very supportive in 2012 but returned to their skeptical ways last year. Of course, voters rejected statewide proposals to increases taxes for schools in 2011 and 2013.

Boulder – the big ask

“This is a big ask, we understand that,” says Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger when questioned about his district’s proposal for a $576.4 million bond issue. “It’s a hard choice.”

But, he added, “The facilities needs are not going to go away,” and if building systems begin to fail the 30,500-student district isn’t in a position to cover significant building costs from its general fund.

About half the money would be used to bring all district buildings “to acceptable standards,” he said, with the rest devoted to a variety of other needs. (See the district’s detailed facilities plan here.)

PHOTO: Boulder SchoolsBoulder Valley Supt. Bruce Messinger / File photo

As is common with larger districts, Boulder went through a long planning and public consultation process before the board approved the ballot proposal in August.

Messinger said polling put the district’s overall approval rating is at “an all-time high” and that polling and focus groups indicate, “Taxpayers understand … schools are assets.”

While Messinger is feeling reasonably good about the proposal’s chances, he does note the possible of confusion with Amendment 68. “It’s a concern,” he said. “It’s on people’s minds.”

Boulder has had a history of success with its voters. It last lost an election in 2002, when voters rejected a $7.5 million override that would have funded technology improvements.

Adco’s “referendum” on school spending Election history

  • Adams 12 – $9.9M override passed, $80M bond failed 2008
  • Adams 14 – $44M bond failed 2013
  • Adams 50 – $5.2M override failed 2013
  • Aurora – $15M override passed 2012
  • Boulder – $22.5M override passed 2010
  • Brighton – $4.8M override fail 2011
  • Cherry Creek – $125M bond, $25M override passed 2012
  • Colo. Springs 11 – $21.5M override failed 2008, $131.7M bond passed 2004
  • Dougco – $200M bond, $20M override failed 2011
  • Denver – $466M bond, $49M override passed 2012
  • Jeffco – $99M bond, $39M override passed 2012
  • Littleton – $80M bond passed 2013
  • Mapleton – $32M bond passed 2010
  • Poudre – $120M bond, $16M override passed 2010
  • St. Vrain – $14.8M override passed 2012

More information

While Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties have but one school district each, Adams County is served by seven. Each district is considerably smaller than DPS or Jeffco, but combined the five largest districts in Adams had about the same enrollment as their neighboring counties did in 2013-14, about 85,000 students.

This year most Adams County voters have the rare opportunity to vote on school taxes at the same time. Those five districts – Adams 12-Five Star, Brighton, Commerce City (Adams 14), Mapleton and Westminster (Adams 50) – all have proposals on the ballot.

All five are seeking both bond issues and overrides for varying reasons. Each district is seeking bond money to upgrade existing buildings, while new schools would be built in growing parts of Adams 12, Brighton and Commerce City. Tax override revenues would be used to recruit and retain teachers, offset state budget cuts and cover a variety of needs. (See the spreadsheet at the bottom of this story for details on those district proposals and all tax measures statewide.)

Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski said the five sets of ballot measures weren’t coordinated but, “What’s driving it are common factors. We all have needs that haven’t been met.”

For Adams 12, he said, “The need is pressing, and we can’t wait any longer.”

Other county superintendent sounded the same note. “We decided to go this year because our needs just continue to mount,” said Mapleton Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio. “We have just been so far behind for so long … we just had to go.”

Westminster Superintendent Pamela Swanson said, “We’re trying to avoid any more cuts. We have some wonderful things happening, and we don’t want to take any steps backwards. We felt a moral obligation to go back out” to the voters, even though the district saw a $5.2 million override defeated last year.

Commerce City Superintendent Pat Sanchez had a bond issue defeated last year by about 300 votes. He called that a “hidden blessing” that forced the district “to be really crystal clear about what the voters are getting” this year. He and other Adams superintendents are hopeful that academic improvements in recent years will make voters more amendable to tax hikes.

Adams 12, Brighton and Mapleton are rated as “improvement” districts by the state accreditation system. Commerce City and Westminster are “priority improvement” districts but have moved up in recent years from “turnaround,” the lowest accreditation category.

Superintendents have varying answers about what happens if proposals are defeated. Gdowski said a loss could mean schedule changes in Adams 12. Sanchez said defeat “would change a five-year plan to a 10-year plan,” and Ciancio said, “If it doesn’t pass we’ll just have to keep going back to the ballot.”

Around the state

Two districts in El Paso County also have large measures on the ballot. Cheyenne Mountain is proposing a $45 million bond, and Falcon’s bond proposal totals $107.4 million.

Denver voters face a proposed sales tax increase and an extension for the Denver Preschool Program, which is separate from DPS. (Get more details here.)

There are no district proposals on the ballot this year in Denver, Douglas County, Jefferson County or in any of Arapahoe County’s seven districts.

State law bars school boards and districts from spending public funds on ballot measure campaigns.

The campaign load typically is carried by outside citizen campaign committees that raise money for brochures, yard signs and other materials. Such committees already have been formed in Boulder, in most of the Adams County districts and in Cheyenne Mountain and Falcon.

The bigger issue

Passage of bond issues and overrides in individual districts has the unwelcome side effect of increasing gaps between districts that have the political and financial capacity to pass them and those that don’t. (There’s a limit on district bond debt based on the value of property within a district, and there also are state ceilings on overrides.)

“The long range solution to this [school funding] is not doing this district by district,” Messinger said. “I worry that the gap [between districts] could widen over time,” said Gdowski.

But Sanchez, noting that there’s still a $900 million shortfall in state school funding, said it’s hard to districts to resist the pressure to raise their own money. “I think you’re going to see a trend of more bonds and mill levy overrides.”

This spreadsheet includes information gathered by the Colorado School Finance Project as of Sept. 8.

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Categories: Urban School News

Early testing may help with learning, according to research

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 18:09
Taking a practice test and getting wrong answers seems to improve subsequent study, because the test adjusts our thinking in some way to the kind of material we need to know.
– Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, U.C.L.A. psychologist

That’s the finding of a recent study highlighted in Benedict Carey’s new book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens.

An excerpt of Carey’s book was published in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

To test her theory, Bjork gave her college students a pre-test before some of her lectures. At the end of the year, students answered correctly a higher percentage of questions that had similarly appeared on one of their pre-tests than those that they were just seeing for the first time.

While the percentage was just 10 percent, Carey points out that could be an entire letter grade.

There are some limitations to this theory, Carey writes. Pretests might not be beneficial for learning a language based notations or characters like Chinese and Arabic. That’s because there is no familiar language for your brain to latch on to.

Sunday’s edition of the magazine was the glossy’s annual education issue. Also featured were articles on Bill Gates’ personal mission to revamp history in public education, as well as the very public political fight between charter school executive Eva Moskowitz and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Categories: Urban School News

Gates Foundation has donated more than $10 million to Colo. ed groups to support Common Core

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 16:49

No organization has given more money to support the roll out of the Common Core State Standards than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In the last four years, more than $200 million has been distributed to nearly every corner of the country to either implement the English and math standards or support those who are doing so.

Colorado is no exception.

According to this database just published by progressive magazine Mother Jones tracking the foundation’s gifts, organizations with direct or indirect ties with Colorado have received more than $10 million. Here’s a few we spotted in the database:

  • $9.7 million went to the Colorado Education Initiative, formerly the Colorado Legacy Foundation.
  • $5 million went to the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC., that also has a campus in Colorado.
  • $30,000 went to WestEd, a California-based consultant that has done a great deal of consulting for the Colorado Department of Education.

The $9.7 million grant to the Colorado Education Initiative was among the foundation’s largest one-time gifts. Its was awarded the grant to provide the foundation “organizational support” for its work on the standards, teacher effectiveness, and new standardized tests, according to the Gates website

The Colorado nonprofit works on multiple education fronts including healthy schools; teacher effectiveness; science, technology, engineering and math curriculum; and most recently, helping develop new learning models based on the state’s updated graduation requirements.

The Aspen Institute has received multiple grants from the foundation. More than $3 million is going toward the institute’s Urban Superintendents Network, which develops resources to integrate the standards and teacher effectiveness policies. And $185,000 is being used to develop public relations strategies for schools and districts to talk about the  standards and their improvement efforts. 

WestEd is using its grant dollars to research how teachers use data to inform instructional practice.

Speaking of “the Core,”  in its September/October issue, Mother Jones tracks how the state-based initiative to boost student achievement in the 21st century became the third-rail of America’s public education system.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat is a grantee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Fewer TFA corps in Colorado classrooms

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 09:53

v(ouch)!

In court documents filed last month, lawyers for the Douglas County School District and a group of parents who support a suburban voucher program argue the program is constitutional. They point to earlier Colorado court cases and those around the nation that found similar programs pass constitutional muster. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Human Resources

Colorado's Teach for America corp is the most diverse ever, but fewer metro school districts are employing the organization's teachers. ( Denver Post )

Christmas in September

Denver Post readers are pouring donations on two families that were recently featured in a special report about homelessness. While the gifts aren't life-changing, they are helping. ( Denver Post )

Healthy schools

Students at Thomas Jefferson High School now have access to a health clinic on campus. ( CBS 4 )

A year after four Douglas County students committed suicide in 11 days, the school district is upping its suicide prevention program. And students are taking an active role. ( Fox 31 )

Saved by the bell

High school students should have a later start time, the Aurora Sentinel argues. That would improve attendance and test scores, they believe. ( Aurora Sentinel )

You asked, we answered

A Chalkbeat Colorado reader wanted to know when it became a common place expectation that students learned to read by third grade. Here's what we found out. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Extreme Makeover

A Longmont charter school is nearly complete with its $5 million renovation and expansion. ( Longmont Times-Call )

Tick, tock

Pueblo City Schools has 23 months before it might lose its accreditation. And the state says its doing everything it can to help. ( Pueblo Chieftain )

Second times a charm

The Wesminster school district hopes voters will approve a bond and mill levy question this fall. ( Wesminster Window )

Common what?

Before you help your students with their homework, you might want to take this crash course on the new Common Core approaches being used by teachers across Colorado. ( 9 News )

R.I.P.

Broomfield High School students remember their classmate and his family who died in a plane crash. ( Daily Camera )

Categories: Urban School News

What We’re Reading: Pre-K to become a federal school turnaround strategy

Fri, 09/05/2014 - 18:18
  • Changes to federal School Improvement Grants could make early education an official turnaround strategy. (Politics K-12)
  • Some conservatives are unhappy about changes to the AP U.S. History curriculum, and one test-taker wonders why. (Slate)
  • A small, safe, high-achieving high school in Philadelphia is somehow at a loss for students. (Notebook)
  • Durham, N.C., is severing its Teach for America contract, which brought a dozen teachers to the city. (Answer Sheet)
  • TFA’s subtle shifts raise questions about its role in the education reform ecosystem. (Vox)
  • As his son starts school, an urban education professor lists his hopes for the next 14 years. (Hechinger)
  • “It’s hard to feel like a guru,” says cultural literacy evangelist E.D. Hirsch. “I’ve been a pariah for so long.” (Politico)
  • Three maps of D.C. visualize the well-worn connection between poverty and low test scores. (Greater Greater)
  • An elegy for “Up the Down Staircase,” a classic of school stories from the 1960s that’s out of print. (New Yorker)
  • After two decades in the classroom, a Brooklyn teacher is collapsing distinctions between him and students. (Mind/Shift)
  • Chicago is increasingly assigning school librarians away from their libraries. (NPRed)
  • Most children displaced by Syria’s civil war aren’t attending school and probably never will again. (Atlantic)
Categories: Urban School News

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