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Updated: 56 min 49 sec ago

Science, social studies test results could be a surprise

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 19:20

Next month some Colorado parents will get the news that their kids perhaps didn’t score as well on science and social studies tests as Mom and Dad might have expected — an experience likely to be repeated on a much larger scale next year after new online language arts and math tests launch.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved “cut scores” for the new online science tests that were given in fifth and eighth grades and the social studies exams taken by fourth and seventh graders last spring.

The cut scores will be used to classify student performance into four achievement levels.

The science tests aren’t comparable to previous TCAP science tests, and no statewide social studies tests were given in the past. But new achievement-level labels and significantly smaller percentages of students in the top two levels may be disconcerting to teachers and parents who are used to the patterns of TCAP test results.

“We are making a shift in terms of our expectations” towards making students college and career ready, said state testing director Joyce Zurkowski. “This is very different from what we had under CSAP and TCAP,” whose expectations she described as merely “good enough.”

Board member Angelika Schroeder agreed. “What we are calling proficient [now] is not our goal” in the future, she said.

The new state testing system will have four performance levels called distinguished command, strong command, moderate command and limited command. Those will replace the TCAP classifications of advanced, proficient, partially proficient and unsatisfactory.

The science and social studies tests will be scored on a scale of 300-900. The Department of Education is still fine-tuning its final report on last spring’s scores, but based on the cut scores adopted by the board, performance levels are expected to look like this:

  • Above about 800 – Distinguished command
  • About 700 to 800 – Strong command
  • About 550 to 700 – Moderate command
  • Below 550 – Limited command

The four levels don’t compare to the four TCAP classifications, because the tests and the content standards on which they’re based are different. CDE officials expect fewer students will be in the top two levels under the new system initially. (Read descriptions of the four new levels.)

For example, CDE projects that 32 percent of students will be classified as distinguished or strong on the spring 2014 eighth grade science assessment. On the last eighth grade TCAP science tests, just over half of students were classified as proficient or advanced. (See the projected percentage of students at each level on each test in this chart, and check how those compare to eighth grade science results on other tests here.

Students in the top two categories will be considered on track for college and career readiness in the subject. Zurkowski said students with moderate command will need additional instructional support to get on track, and students with limited command will need extensive academic support.

Similar adjustments in scoring, classification and reporting of test results will be made after new CMAS language arts and math tests are given online next spring. (Those tests are based on the Common Core State Standards and were developed by the PARCC testing consortium.)

As has happened in other states, CDE officials expect a drop in achievement levels on the language arts and math tests.

“There could be a drop of up to 20 to 30 percentage points,” said Zurkowski. “We are going to need to work on communication” with parents and the public.

Schroeder agreed, saying that while districts and schools can explain testing changes to parents, the board and CDE have a responsibility to explain testing changes to the general public.

The board approved the recommended cut points on a 6-1 vote. Member Deb Scheffel voted no after expressing concerns that the cut points created “an un-level playing field,” partly because the complicated wording of some questions. “Bad cut scores are bad cut scores.”

The scoring and classification system was developed by 47 educator panelists selected by the testing company Pearson and by CDE. The group included 17 social studies experts and 16 in science. Panelists came from rural, suburban and urban districts around the state and from traditional and charter schools.

The department plans to release the elementary and middle school science and social studies test results to districts in mid-September. Districts and schools are responsible for distributing results to parents. High school seniors will take science and social studies this fall – the first time that 12th graders have had to take any statewide standardized tests.

Results from the social studies and science tests won’t be used in state accreditation ratings of districts and schools until 2016.

Categories: Urban School News

New kindergarten assessments voluntary this year, mandatory next year

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 17:17

On a recent Wednesday morning, Lori Sabian asked the two dozen teachers and principals seated before her what they had heard about Teaching Strategies GOLD, the early childhood assessment she would be training them on for the rest of the day.

Sensing hesitation, she added a reassurance: “This is a room of truth,” she said.

Then one teacher piped up with the advice she’d been given: “Run, run run!”

It was by no means the only opinion about the online tool, but it summed up the trepidation that many kindergarten teachers feel as they prepare to pilot the “school readiness assessment” this year in advance of mandatory statewide implementation next year.

This broad implementation — one component of a six-year-old school reform law — comes against the backdrop of ongoing concerns about the state’s “testing burden” as well as questions about the security of student data. It also unfolds on the heels of new K-3 literacy assessments required under the READ Act.

Even the educators who are excited about using Teaching Strategies GOLD to tailor instruction or provide better feedback to parents admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the time-consuming task ahead of them. One teacher at the recent training in Evans asked Sabian for something of a pep talk as she wondered how she would assess the nearly 40 students in her two half-day kindergarten classes.

“Can you just say something to keep me positive?” she asked.

Others in the room were more circumspect.

“We’ve always done assessment. We’ve always done data collection. And this just feels like a nice model that pulls everything together,” said Julie Claeys, assistant elementary principal and K-12 assessment coordinator for Union Colony Preparatory School in Greeley.

“Yes, it’s going to be a lot of work to learn but I’m really grateful that we have this first year where messing up isn’t fatal.”

Where did it come from?

Across the country, states are increasingly adopting school readiness assessments, also called Kindergarten Entry Assessments. In Colorado, the mandate was born out of a major piece of school reform legislation passed in 2008—the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, or CAP4K.

The color bar system used in TS GOLD indicates what age most students are expected to achieve various developmental tasks. Purple represents what kids should know in kindergarten.

The law required that all kindergarteners have an “individualized readiness plan” informed by a valid, reliable and research-based school readiness assessment. While the law included no funding for the assessments, the state is using $1.2 million from its $44 million federal Race to the Top grant to cover implementation costs.

For state leaders, school readiness assessments like TS GOLD represent a more effective way to track and address the many domains of child development. These include social-emotional, cognitive, language and physical development, as well as academics such as literacy and math.

“If we have a great assessment system that addresses the whole child that way, I think it’s going to inform practice and start to give kids a better foundation,” said Sharon Triolo-Moloney, director of the Office of Early Learning and School Readiness at the Colorado Department of Education.

Claeys described the information provided by TS GOLD, saying, “It’s like having an [Individual Education Plan] for every kid,” referring to plans for students with special needs.

Unlike other kinds of standardized tests, most kids won’t even know they’re “taking” a school readiness assessment like TS GOLD. That’s because it involves a year-long process of observation and documentation of what students are doing in the normal order of their school day. This might mean counting to 100, retelling the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” resolving a squabble with peers, or using a quiet voice when visiting the library.

For the most part, the burden of completing the assessment rests on teachers, who will be responsible for taking regular notes, photos and videos, uploading them to the TS GOLD platform and categorizing them appropriately. Three times a year—around Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—there are “progress checkpoints” where teachers determine how students compare to other children of the same age.

Because it’s a system that punishes procrastinators, Sabian and other speakers at the training frequently warned teachers not to let data—say, photos of student work or sticky notes describing a teacher-student interaction—pile up without being entered online.

“Don’t let it stockpile,” said Emily Kielmayer, an early adopter from the Garfield School District, recounting her own trials with entering lots of data at the last minute.

At the same time, she talked enthusiastically about how TS GOLD helped her work with struggling students who’d simply scored zeroes on other assessments. With TS GOLD’s birth-kindergarten continuum, it was easier to find a jumping off point for instruction.

Gradual roll-out

Both last year and this year are voluntary phase-in years for TS GOLD, with an emphasis on experimentation and flexibility. For example, teachers can focus on just three or four of the nine developmental areas covered by TS GOLD, or assess only a handful of students instead of the whole class.

School readiness assessments under consideration

  • Riverside Early Assessments of Learning (REAL)
  • Work Sampling System (WSS)
  • Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP)
  • Kindergarten Early Learning Scale (K-ELS)

State officials estimate that nearly 1,200 teachers in 103 of the state’s 178 school districts will use TS GOLD this year. Starting next year, all Colorado kindergartners must be assessed, though leaders in some districts are hoping to be circumvent that requirement. Last winter, the conservative-leaning Jeffco Public Schools board of education voted to seek a waiver from TS GOLD’s use in  kindergarten.

While the state didn’t grant that waiver, district administrators are waiting to see what other school readiness assessments might be approved in advance of next year’s mandatory implementation. Four other assessments are currently under consideration, but a final decision isn’t expected from the State Board of Education until sometime this fall.

“I know there’s a big push for something that’s easier,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.

Still, she doubted that quicker, easier assessments would look at the whole child in the comprehensive way that TS GOLD or similar assessments do.

As is typical for online assessment systems, TS GOLD charges a per-student fee—it’s around $9 in Colorado. This year, like last year, the state will cover those costs completely in implementing districts. Next year, the state will cover at least 60 percent of the costs; the following year, that number will drop to around 30 percent.

Many veteran users in the state

While TS GOLD may be new to most kindergarten teachers, a fair chunk of Colorado’s preschool workforce is already familiar with the assessment. That’s because it’s been used for two years, and sometimes longer, in classrooms funded by the Colorado Preschool Program or CPP. (Another approved tool—the Child Observation Record or COR—is used in about 9 percent of CPP classrooms.)

Ilona Witty, director of early childhood in the Salida School District, said her staff has used TS GOLD for five years to assess the district’s preschool students and the last three years for its toddlers. It was stressful at first, but the early childhood team gradually learned shortcuts that made the process more efficient, she said. Getting iPads helped too.

In Denver Public Schools, where around 300 kindergarten teachers will pilot TS GOLD with at least five students each this year, administrators believe preschool teachers will be a good resource for the kindergarten adopters. District officials also say they’ve focused on the purpose of the assessment at trainings this summer.

“We talked about the why…We didn’t just talk about here’s another test and here’s how you give it,” said Cheryl Caldwell, the district’s director of early education.

“It’s a tool that helps…teachers really understand development and how it happens,” she said.

While Witty knows some observers worry that TS GOLD has a monopoly in the Colorado market, she’s believes the assessment is a good one that provides valuable feedback about the district’s youngest students.

“It drives our planning, it drives our ordering. It drives our professional development,” she said. “Of course they’re making a ton of money…If the product wasn’t good, I’d probably be more up in arms”

Administrators in Salida like the assessment system so much they aren’t stopping with kindergarten. In the coming years, first, and second grade classrooms will begin using a new version of TS GOLD that’s designed for children through third grade. The existing version and the one coming out for older children align with Common Core State Standards.

Sharing the data

Among the benefits of TS GOLD that most excited teachers at the Evans training was its potential to give parents more information about their children’s progress and better engage them as educational partners. Kielmeyer noted that she’d replaced report cards and parent-teacher conference forms with reports generated by TS GOLD.

“I had the best parent-teacher conferences I’ve had in the last 10 years,” she said. “I had boxes of tissues because I had parents crying tears of joy. They were just amazed at what I had to share.”

While parents have the option of asking that their child not be photographed or videotaped as part of TS GOLD, Kielmeyer and others say parents often become more receptive as they learn how those types of data are used to document progress. In fact, teachers can even invite parents to contribute to the assessment using documentation they’ve collected.

In addition to replacing report cards, Kielmeyer  said that TS GOLD allowed the district to replace some of its former assessments because GOLD provided the same information. In Denver Public Schools, Caldwell said a committee is in the process of deciding whether such overlaps warrant the elimination of some assessments.

One unanswered question about TS GOLD is how the data will be used at the state level. Currently, aggregate preschool data from TS GOLD and the other approved assessment is collected through the state’s Results Matter system. A summary is published in the annual Colorado Preschool Program legislative report.

At least initially, Triolo-Moloney said there won’t be a comparable report for the state’s kindergarten cohort.

“Everybody’s chomping at the bit for that,” she said. “But we’re trying so hard to not do that because we really want teachers to be free to practice this thing.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Big bond on the ballot for Boulder schools

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 08:46

Steel City Turnaround

Pueblo City Schools is the largest district to near the end of the state's timeline to improve or face interventions. But it was once touted as a reform "miracle." Chalkbeat looks at what happened, in the first in a three part series. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Setting the stage for election season

Boulder Valley's school board ok'ed a move to put a $576 million dollar bond for schools on the ballot. ( Daily Camera )

Scantron Skirmish

The battle over testing has opened on a new front: the AP U.S. history test. And it's coming to Colorado. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Outside the classroom

In a look at what kids learn from play, NPR takes on a classic recess activity: marbles. ( nprEDU via KUNC )

Categories: Urban School News

As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 20:04

PUEBLO — 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:

Why has Bessemer Academy had three principals in as many years? Why was her son shuffled between two different teachers this school year? Why can’t the adults in the building control the students’ behavior?

She also has questions that reach beyond Bessemer’s four walls:

What are Pueblo officials doing about the school’s state designation as a “turnaround” school, a marker that gives Bessemer two more years to improve or face state intervention? What happens if the school doesn’t make the deadline?

“What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked.

Turnaround tension

Williamson’s question is shared by many parents in Pueblo. A third of the public schools in the city are failing, according to state ratings.

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.

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 — which will be released later this week — 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 educators and parents like Williamson. 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.

Individual schools that don’t improve in time may be asked to replace their principal and teaching staff, be turned over to a charter operator, or be closed altogether.

But some observers question whether the state has the political will or the capacity to enact dramatic changes in districts like Pueblo — and nearly a dozen others — that are close to the deadline.

In Denver, questions about the state’s ability to impose changes come mostly from people who want to see the state step in. But in Pueblo, those questions come from a deep-seated skepticism of outsiders and a belief that local problems call for local solutions.

Steel City Turnaround

Even as a small but influential group of Pueblo community leaders have recognized the scale of the challenge and are doing what they can outside of school walls to improve student achievement, they remain resistant to seeing the state get involved. In fact, they are skeptical that the state’s intervention would bring any improvements.

“If the state has all the answers, why are they waiting for five years?” Rod Slyhoff, president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, asked. “Why didn’t they just come in year one?”

District officials and city leaders claim they’re on the right path to beat the clock. And state officials agree that beating the clock is possible. Pueblo has already climbed the state’s rankings for two consecutive years.

“It is within striking distance,” said Keith Owen, the state’s deputy commissioner of education and a former Pueblo elementary school principal.

But following the retirement of the district’s superintendent in June, many in Pueblo fear that a leadership transition might trigger a backward slide just as the state’s deadline closes in.

This spring and summer, to better understand how a school system that primarily serves low-income and Latino students and its city are affected by and driven to improve under immense pressure of a ticking clock, Chalkbeat interviewed dozens of students, teachers, parents, district leaders, and observers in Pueblo. We also reviewed dozens of public documents and district data that detail the conditions of the city’s neediest schools.

Over the next three days, we will explore the bureaucracy still struggling with change revealed in those interviews and documents. While Pueblo’s school improvement efforts have been undertaken by a group of well-intentioned individuals fighting against the odds of high poverty and shrinking budgets, not everyone is on the same page.

District officials and teachers are both mentally and physically worn.

And several of the district’s neediest schools still lack consistent quality instruction and the robust school culture that turnaround experts believe is necessary to drive student achievement.

As Bessemer goes, so goes the city

The academic rise and fall of Bessemer Academy parallels that of the Pueblo City Schools system as whole.

In the early 2000s, Bessemer, a kindergarten through 8 public school in one of the poorest parts of this Southern Colorado town, was nothing short of a modern education reform miracle, observers said.

Results from the state’s first-ever round of third-grade reading exams found, in 1997, barely one in 10 students was reading at grade level. But by 2000, the percentage of students that passed the fourth-grade test had increased; seven in 10 students tested at grade level.

The school headed into the new century either meeting or beating the state’s average on its standardized tests. And everyone from Gov. Bill Owens to President George W. Bush was paying attention to the little Southern Colorado school district that could — and did.

As Bessemer held its significant academic gains and other schools’ scores also rose, district officials were invited to Denver and Washington, D.C., to share the secret to their formula.

Then-superintendent Joyce Bales told the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education in 2002 that Pueblo’s success was based on its focused mission and high quality teachers. She also cited teachers’ professional development tools, organizational systems, and their use of data to inform their instruction. The district also used a literacy program called Lindamood-Bell, a renowned and expensive phonics-based program.

Less than a decade later, Bales was gone and, according to present-day Pueblo officials, so were all of her systems and the Lindamood-Bell program.

New leadership and budget cuts forced Pueblo City Schools to abandon the literacy program and instead chase instructional grants haphazardly.

Today, 46 percent of the district’s students are reading on grade level and 28 percent write proficiently, according to the state’s literacy exams. (Comparatively, the state averages about 70 percent of students reading at grade level and 55 percent of student writing at grade level.)

It’s a big improvement from the late 1990s, when only 12 percent of its fourth grade students were reading at grade-level and just 2 percent could write on that level. But it’s also a big drop from Bales’ heyday.

And neither Bessemer nor the district — which has not experienced any radical demographic shifts since the early 2000s — are meeting the state’s expectation for student growth, the measure of how much a student learned from year to year compared to his or her academic peers.

The most conservative interpretation is that growth is flat. Students who have been designated as below proficient on state tests are staying behind. And those who are considered proficient are barely hanging on.

At Bessemer, while some classes of students are posting slow but steady growth, others fluctuate every year, moving between minimal and fairly large gains.

So close, yet so far away

Right now, Pueblo is just three points shy of the 52 points out of 100 on the state’s annual school review scoring system to get itself off the state’s accountability watch list.

PHOTO: Nicholas GarciaPueblo City Schools board members Mike Colucci, left, and Kathy DeNiro and Superintendent Maggie Lopez recite the school district’s mission before a school board meeting in April. School officials are confident they’re on the right path to beat the state’s accountability clock.

And Pueblo officials are confident their efforts have been enough to push the district across that threshold, if not this year, by 2015.

“We’ve flown through some turbulence — but we continue to fly,” Superintendent Maggie Lopez, who retired at the end of June, told State Board of Education members in April. “Achievement is beginning to take a turn.”

The district, officials told the State Board, has aligned their standards and created a single instructional roadmap for all of its schools. They’ve instituted interim assessments to monitor student progress. Principals are now trained to be leaders, not managers. Teachers are working together in communities, not isolated in their classrooms. And a team of district administrators has been created to respond directly to individual classroom needs.

“As a district we are far more timely and responsive to meeting the schools’ needs than we have ever been,” said Brenda Krage, then the assistant superintendent of learning services.

The district has also put an emphasis on school choice. It’s closed some low-performing schools — mostly for budgetary, not academic, reasons. And it has created a path for students on the city’s East side to access the International Baccalaureate curriculum at each grade.

District leaders have also elected to provide more autonomy to three of Pueblo’s most troubled middle schools by designating them “innovation schools.”

A 2008 state law created the innovation schools designation. Schools granted innovation status are freed from many central administration policies such as budget rules, curriculum mandates, and teacher contracts. Architects of the law believed that granting such freedoms could accelerate academic achievement.

But early anecdotal reports from those schools — the Roncalli STEM Academy, Risley International Innovation Academy, and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts (formerly known as Pitts Middle School) — suggest that results are mixed.

And if third grade reading scores from last spring’s standardized tests are any indication on whether Pueblo’s efforts have paid off — and, depending on who you ask, they are or are not — the news isn’t good for Pueblo. As a whole, the district saw its scores drop by more than 3 percentage points, while the state remained relatively flat.

At Bessemer Academy there was a double digit drop.

According to reading scores released in May, just one in three of the kids at the school can read at grade level.

Watching, waiting

With those dismal academic results and increasing discipline and leadership issues at Bessemer, the Williamson family’s frustration is rising.

This year, the school is getting its fifth new principal since 2007. At the last awards assembly she and her husband attended, Williamson said, it took 20 minutes for the teachers and administrators to gain the student’s attention. And there appears to be no clear discipline protocol. As punishment for acting out, one teacher made students make her coffee, missing valuable lessons.

Williamson would consider sending her children to a different — better — school. But with only one car for her family of five, that’s not possible.

And Jacob, the third grader, would be devastated, she said. He thinks the test scores don’t reflect how hard the kids are working.

“They think the school is dumb,” he said. “But if they were to watch a class for a full day, they’d see how much we learn and pay attention.”

Like the local leaders who want to keep the solutions local, Jacob believes that his and his classmate’s hard work will eventually be clear. But Williamson is more worried about the work that school officials are doing — and, like the state officials who are watching Pueblo closely, she is anxiously waiting to see whether the work will pay off.

“I know there has been a lot of turnover as far as the staff and principal goes,” Williamson said. But she doesn’t think those reasons are excuses for the school’s struggles. “I can’t think of anything that could justify it.”

Tomorrow, Chalkbeat Colorado will explore how Pueblo’s strategy to improve one school in part created the state’s lowest performing middle school.

Categories: Urban School News

Another skirmish shaping up in testing wars

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 17:02

Some testing critics are taking aim at a new Advanced Placement United States history program, and the the Republican chair of the State Board of Education is bringing the debate to Colorado.

Paul Lundeen of Monument has presented a resolution for consideration at the board’s session this Thursday (see text here). Lundeen told Chalkbeat Colorado, “Some concerns had been expressed to me by constituents. My research suggests that a resolution delaying is appropriate at this time.”

The proposed resolution reads, “The new APUSH Framework reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects. … The Framework presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history.” (APUSH is an acronym for Advanced Placement United States History.)

The resolution also claims the AP framework conflicts with state content standards and asks that roll-out of the new program be delayed “for at least a year.”

An Aug. 1 Huffington Post column by Patte Barth traces the flap to a March paper published by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank.

The hue and cry since has been picked up by commentators for the National Review and on conservative websites such as and Glenn Beck’s website. Last weekend the Republican National Committee passed as resolution opposing the new history framework, and the controversy also has popped up in Georgia and Texas.

Because College Board President David Coleman was a leading figure in creation of Common Core State Standards, commentators have tried to draw a link between the new AP program and Common Core, a focus of conservative worries for more than a year. (The College Board runs both the Advanced Placement program and the SAT tests.)

In an email sent this week to members of the state board, Coleman wrote, “People who are worried that AP U.S. History students will not need to study our nation’s founders need only take one look at this exam to see that our founders are resonant throughout.”

Because of public concern, Coleman said the College Board was taking the “unprecedented action” of releasing a full sample exam (see it here). He added, “We will soon release a clarified version of the course framework to avoid any further confusion.”

Read a defense of the framework in this June article by Lawrence Charap, director of AP curriculum and content development. See the full framework here and a College Board FAQ here.

The AP American history class is not a part of high school for most Colorado students. According to Department of Education data, 5,568 students took the class in 2012-13, about 4.5 percent of the 121,352 high school juniors and seniors enrolled that year.

Discussion of the resolution is on the board’s Thursday afternoon agenda, after results of the 2014 TCAP tests are presented to the group. The only public comment period of the board’s two-day August meeting is scheduled for late Wednesday afternoon, so the issue may get an airing then.

Over the last year opponents and supporters of the Common Core have made monthly appearances during SBE public comment periods to express their views.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Aurora middle school evacuated after failed pipe bomb

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 08:49

it's official

Denver's City Council gave the ok to put a tax to voters that would extend and raise funds for the city's preschool program. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

School violence

An Aurora middle school was evacuated yesterday after the discovery of a failed pipe bomb. Authorities are looking for two suspects. ( Gazette )

Something old, something new

A new school is opening in Salida, with a long history in the community. ( Mountain Mail )

Marijuana and teens

An anti-marijuana campaign commissioned by the governor will specifically target teens, telling them that the effect of the drug on teens is still uncertain. ( Gazette )

Lunch box transparency

Parents with kids in Poudre schools will soon be able to know exactly what's in the school lunch, using a database that has nutritional information, ingredients and allergens for every meal served. ( Coloradoan )

Cars and the classroom

The Arapahoe County Sheriff's office is kicking off a back to school safety campaign -- for drivers. ( 9News )

Big Oops

Sensitive student records from Smiley Middle School somehow ended up in a dumpster behind the school yesterday. ( KDVR )

Categories: Urban School News

Denver voters to decide extension, expansion of preschool program in November

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 22:11

Denver’s City Council on Monday night agreed to ask the city’s voters to extend and raise a sales tax to fund a preschool program that provides tuition scholarships to families of four-year-olds.

The vote, 10-1, was expected.

If approved by Denver voters, the sales tax would be raised from .12 percent to .15 percent, or 15 cents for every $100 spent in Denver on taxable items. It would also extend the tax until 2026.

The additional revenue would go to reinstate summer programs and keep up with the demand of full- and extended-day options, officials from the Denver Preschool Program have said.

Mayor Michael Hancock announced his intent to campaign for the tax increase earlier this summer. The official campaign backing the tax, Preschool Matters, is co-chaired by Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks and has some of Denver’s most influential politico heavyweights behind it.

Still, Denver voters narrowly approved the tax in 2006 — the third time supporters took the initiative to the ballot. And supporters, while confident they have the data to prove the Denver Preschool Program is a success, are prepping for an uphill battle.

Since 2007, the program has provided about $55 million in tuition credits to 31,816 four-year-olds. The credit is determined by family need and the quality of the preschool provider. The average tuition credit during the 2013-14 school year was $290. The Denver Preschool Program also conducts quality reviews and professional development for its partnered-preschool providers.

Eight individuals spoke in favor of the ballot initiative at the council meeting.

“I can see a notable difference in the student who attend a preschool program,” said Stephanie Romero. Students who do not attend preschool “lack the confidence to become independent learners.”

Single mother JoMarie Garcia told the council the Denver Preschool Program allowed her to send her student to preschool, something she didn’t think she could afford. Her preschooler was also ready for kindergarten by the end of the year.

“My daughter went into preschool already able to sound out words,” Garcia said. “When she went into kindergarten she was ready to read.”

Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, the lone no vote, said she supports early childhood education but she would rather see the state’s program expand rather than the city — which has no official business in public education — take on the effort.

She also raised concerns about the programs administrative expenses. Under city ordinance, the Denver Preschool Program has a 5 percent limit on administrative costs. But Faatz believes its much higher because it doesn’t consider media or customer service as contract work.

Part of the reauthorization would allow the program to increase its administrative costs by 2 percent. Faatz estimated the program could be spending as much as 19 percent of its budget on items not related to tuition credits.

“That’s just too high,” she said.

The program’s CEO Jennifer Landrum said using Faatz’s math, the total costs discussed was about 10 percent of the programs budget $11.8 million budget.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: DPS to expand STEM options with $7M grant

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 09:49

Money matter

School district leaders don’t necessarily see new budget and spending reporting requirements as an impossible burden, but they wonder about the value of the changes. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

expanding options

A $7 million grant is helping Denver Public Schools to expand its science, technology, engineering, and math offerings next school year. ( Denver Post )

Scout's honor

A Longmont Eagle Scout is rounding up used band instruments for a local — and growing — middle school. ( Longmont Times-Call )


Don't forget, the Chalkbeat Book Club kicks off today with Elizabeth Green's "Building A Better Teacher." It's totally going to be better than Oprah's. Yeah, we went there. Join today on Facebook. ( Facebook )

Still need convincing? Check out Green's weekend interview with NPR via local affiliate KUNC. ( KUNC )

And teachers, we especially want to hear from you! We're curious how much you plan to spend to outfit your classrooms and whether new reforms are putting an extra burden on your back-to-school budget. Fill out our survey here. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

back to school

While we're on the subject of back to school, here are 37 "insanely smart" teacher hacks to file away. ( Buzzfeed )

Non-Hispanic white students are projected to be the minority this school year for the first time. The shift is largely due to a growing Hispanic population. ( AP via 9News )

Open communication between parents and students can go a long way during the back-to-school season, a psychologist said. ( 9News )

Pueblo City Schools is launching an app this year for parents and students to better understand their lunch menu. ( Fox 21 )

Every penny counts

Vail students who were dually enrolled in high school and college courses last year saved an estimated $1 million. ( Vail Daily )

Out of school context

Environmental education leaders, business people and others will meet later this month to develop an environmental education curriculum. ( Steamboat Today )

Categories: Urban School News

What We’re Reading: Introducing the Chalkbeat book club

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 15:28
  • Discussion of “Building a Better Teacher” is starting in the brand-new Chalkbeat Book Club. Join now!
  • A critique of the book says content, not teaching quality, has derailed Americans’ math learning. (Brookings)
  • A new kind of calculator that requires estimation could be a tool in Common Core-aligned classrooms. (Voice of San Diego)
  • The story of one student arrested in a Chicago school last year shows the potential of diversion programs. (Catalyst)
  • A new nonprofit joins a cadre of others in evaluating Common Core teaching materials. (Curriculum Matters)
  • In a hift, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel picked a former teacher and school administrator to advise him on education. (Sun-Times)
  • An educator rounds up the best advice she’s got for new teachers. (On the Shoulders of Giants)
  • A New Jersey district that gave some students iPads and others Chromebooks now prefers the less expensive gadget. (Atlantic)
  • Formal collaboration agreements between charter schools and districts allow strong practices to be shared. (Education Next)
  • Graduation rates are on the rise again in Texas. Is it another miracle? (Texas Tribune)
  • A Detroit school that lost students when it lengthened the year highlights the challenges of expanding learning time. (Hechinger)

Join the club!

Categories: Urban School News

“The places are poor, and the people are poor.”

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 15:06
“My goal here is that these kids aren’t out there slashing tires,” [Mimi] Marmon says. Everything she does, she says, is oriented toward setting their minds on getting jobs, which might not be the norm they grow up with in a place where government benefits often substitute for work. “My fear is that these kids grow up, and they think, ‘my parents lived through this, so I can too,’” Marmon says. “If you’ve got this mindset that the world owes you something, and that’s all you hear, it’s a very scary thing. I watch these kids and I just think, they’re so adorable when they’re little, but what’s their future going to be?”
– "How rural poverty is changing: Your fate is increasingly tied to your town," Washington Post

The southeastern Colorado town of Las Animas is fading, along with many rural towns. The Washington Post explores the intertwined fates of the town and its inhabitants, who often stay despite a lack of opportunities. Read the full article here for a look at how that decision impacts the lives of children who live there.

Categories: Urban School News

Districts take wary view of new transparency law

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 10:19

School district lobbyists did their best to kill the idea during the 2014 legislative session, but now that new financial reporting requirements are law, school districts and the Colorado Department of Education are scratching their heads and sorting out how to make them work.

There have been ripples of anxiety – and not a little confusion — in many districts as details of the mandate started to sink in after both the legislative session and the school year ended.

“People are grumpy,” said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer for Colorado Springs District 11. “No doubt about it.”

Some district leaders don’t necessarily see the requirements as an impossible burden, but they wonder about the value of the changes.

The financial transparency requirements are part of House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act that was at the center of fierce school finance policy debates during the 2014 session. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story for details on all the bill’s provisions.)

What the law says has to be done

While many nuts and bolts of implementing the transparency requirements remain to be worked out, the new mandate goes significantly beyond a 2010 transparency law (get details on that here) and requires three main things:

Uniformity – The law requires greater standardization in how districts display financial information on their websites. “All districts will have to report [data] in the same fashion,” said Leanne Emm, associate commissioner for school finance at CDE.

Data for every school – Districts ultimately will have to report spending information for individual schools, information that some districts report now but others don’t.

One-stop shopping – Three years from now there will be a single website containing financial information about all districts and schools. The law requires the website to be designed so as “to ensure the greatest degree of clarity and comparability by laypersons of expenditures among school sites, school districts, the state Charter School Institute, and boards of cooperative services.” (The site will be created by a to-be-selected contractor, not CDE.)

What worries districts

A wide variety of district officials interviewed by Chalkbeat raised four main concerns about the law:

Implementation – District officials generally agree that compliance will be relatively painless for large districts but presents a greater challenge to some medium-sized and small districts. “It is going to be a lot of work for a lot of people. It depends on how big you are and how many people you have working for you,” Gustafson said.

Comparability – Even with the requirement for greater uniformity, some district officials wonder if district and school data will be fully comparable. They raise the question of likely district differences in how they account for costs borne by multiple schools – things like the salaries of special education teachers, psychologists and other staff who split their time among buildings.

“It is a significant change to set up your personnel systems [to account for] a teacher or even a principal who works at several different schools,” said Bill Sutter, chief financial officer of the Boulder Valley School District.

Use & Misuse – District officials say they support transparency as an ideal but are openly skeptical that new financial data will see much use by the public.

“Who’s going to actually look at this website?” asked Tracy John, business manager of the 606-student Peyton School District northeast of Colorado Springs.

Anecdotally, districts say there’s little public use of financial information currently available online. “I don’t receive very many calls about transparency,” said Guy Bellville, chief financial official of the Cherry Creek Schools.

And districts are nervous that advocacy groups will use school-level financial data for their own ends, ignoring the context and nuances of why districts spend money as they do.

“Rather than build confidence in school budgeting decisions, it is more likely to provide ammunition to public education detractors who have no interest in learning the deeper context or complexity that comes with school budgeting,” argues Jason Glass, superintendent of the Eagle County Schools.

Impact on student achievement – “Tell me how this is going to impact student achievement,” Gustafson said. “This is a distraction that takes away from student achievement.” Said Boulder’s Sutter, “I’m fairly certain there are no studies about how one more accountant in the district office is going to affect outcomes.”

Another view on data use

Sen. Mike Johnston, a prime sponsor of HB 14-1292 and the instigator of much recent education reform legislation, has a different take on the law.

The Denver Democrat made his case at a recent meeting of district finance officials and CDE staffers who are starting to flesh out the details of implementing the law.

“People will use the data depending on how easy it is to use,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of presenting information in the right way.”

Johnston also made the pitch that greater financial transparency might make voters more sympathetic to increased funding for education.

During the Amendment 66 campaign in 2013 many voters has “this misperception that education was this large overfunded bureaucracy.” He argued the state needs “to allow parents to understand in regular language where the dollars go in their schools. Our belief is doing this well will paint a clear picture to parents and taxpayers about where those dollars are going. … This makes it easier to make that case” for more funding.

Education interest groups have a variety of reasons for supporting greater financial transparency. Reform groups that advocate for funding equity hope it will provide greater insight into whether low-performing schools are getting the money they need to help at-risk students. Charter schools think greater insight into district spending will show whether or not they’re getting an appropriate share of funding. Republican lawmakers hope transparency will shed more light on pension costs. And others hope transparency is a step toward greater control of money at the school level and even “backpack” funding for individual students.

Transparency a second-tier trend

While financial transparency doesn’t have the high profile of issues such as Common Core State Standards or testing, “it’s a trend we’re seeing right now, and it’s been going on for awhile,” said Mike Griffith, senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

“Most states require districts to report on financial data,” Griffith said, and now policymakers are saying, “You need to start accounting on a school-level basis.”

Part of the trend is rooted in overall technological change. “As the technology has advanced and people have gotten used to looking things up … that has pushed policymakers.”

Griffith added, “When the idea is presented to policymakers they get excited because they like data. The question is what they do with it when they get it.”

On the school district side, he said, “There’s another fear – they’re going to have to change the way they do business.”

As Colorado administrators discuss the new law, Michigan and Rhode Island are frequently mentioned as possible examples to follow.

Michigan’s state system is under construction; get more information here. To see how districts report, see this page on the Lansing School District site. (All Michigan districts are required to have a prominent financial transparency logo on their home pages. But school-level data isn’t currently required.)

Learn more about Rhode Island’s system here.

The transparency to-do list

The state transparency website doesn’t have to launch until July 1, 2017, but that doesn’t mean CDE and districts don’t face a lot of work – starting now.

A subcommittee of CDE’s Financial Policies and Procedures Committee is working to develop a standard template for districts to use on their websites and hopes to finish that by October.

The full FPP group is supposed to develop a recommendation for the State Board of Education on how to report district revenues.

CDE plans to have a request for proposal finished by the end of the year. This contains specifications that outside bidders will have to meet if they want the $3 million contract to build the statewide website.

Districts will have to use the new template starting July 1, 2015, posting the financial information required by the 2010 transparency law.

In late 2016 or early 2017, using a second template developed by the state, districts will have to post individual school financial data on their sites.

Using data provided by districts, the contractor is supposed to launch the statewide site July 1, 2017.

Emm said the current 2014-15 school year “is almost a planning year” but that districts will have serious work to do starting in about February.

But it’s not fully clear what that work will require. “School districts will not understand what’s required until the FPP completes the template,” said Cherry Creek’s Bellville.

Finding district information can take some effort

District leaders and lobbyists last spring repeatedly made the point that state law already requires posting lots of financial information on district websites, making a new mandate unnecessary.

They were right that the 2010 law requires districts to post annual budgets (full budgets and summaries), audits, quarterly financial statements, salary schedules, check registers, credit and purchase card statements and investment performance reports. (See CDE’s suggested – not mandatory – current template for displaying that information.) The new law allows districts to drop quarterly statements, check registers and card statements after July 1, 2017.

But in many ways the current system is more translucent than it is transparent.

Chalkbeat clicked around the websites of Colorado’s 10 largest districts plus eight more districts of varying sizes – one district with about 1,000 students, another with about 900 students and so on down to a 100-student district.

Overall we found that if you’re looking for district financial information, be prepared to make educated guesses about which homepage link to click and be ready to do a fair amount of clicking, scrolling and opening of large PDF files.

Here are some highlights (and lowlights) of what we found, along with a few hints to help your searches.

  • Home page links to transparency information aren’t consistent. We found them near the top of some pages, in the middle of others and at the bottom of some. (Boulder Valley gets kudos for its blue “BVSD Financial Transparency” button near the top of the home page. Dougco has a Transparency link in a row across the top of the home page.)
  • The link doesn’t always read “Financial Transparency.” If you don’t see those words, look for links with wording like District Finance, District Office, Financials, Administration, Finance & Budget and even About. Pull-down menus generated by such links sometimes reveal a Financial Transparency link.
  • When all else fails, type “financial transparency” into the search window on the district’s home page and see what you find.
  • District budgets and budget summaries can contain a wealth of information, including school-level information for some larger districts. But every district uses its own format. Cherry Creek, for instance, provides easy-to-read information for every school, including photos and demographic details. Other districts’ budgets contain multiple number-crammed spreadsheets of school information. Some districts provide per-pupil spending by school; others don’t.
  • You’ll need to click and scroll. Once you find it on the website, open your district’s budget in Adobe Acrobat or another PDF reader, use the table of contents column on the left and start hunting.
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Teen marijuana use down very slightly in Colorado

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 09:48

Welcome wagon

Several weeks before school starts, members of Manual High School's small incoming class met their teachers, each other, and began to prepare for high school life. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

mea culpa

State education officials said that their processing mistake led to the omission of the Arapahoe High School shooting from violence reports, not the district's failure to report it. ( Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio )

starting early

Thursday was the first day of school for a handful of Denver schools that are adding more time to their school years. ( 9News )

Less lighting up

Teen marijuana use in Colorado is down slightly, but health officials say it's too early to declare legalization the reason for the decline. ( Denver Post )

out in the field

A new regional council of environmental education leaders is meeting to make their programming more accessible to students and schools around the state. ( Steamboat Today )

outside the schoolhouse

More families are choosing home-schooling and other alternative education options in Mesa County. ( Post Independent )

Categories: Urban School News

A new, uncertain year ahead for soon-to-be Manual High School freshmen

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 16:08

Jen Strasheim was nervous when she first found out her son would be attending Manual High School.

“There’s some stuff on the internet that makes you go, ‘Oh my god, I’m not sending my kid there,” Strasheim said. But after watching from the sidelines for the school’s freshman academy, a three-day program that involved a combination of pep talks and practical preparation for the coming year, her fears had calmed.

“I can’t tell you how amazing it is,” she said.

The academy is just one of a host of changes at the school, where declining academics and mismanaged budget led to a high-profile mid-year change in school leaders.

District officials announced plans to introduce a still undefined overhaul of the school, potentially as soon as next year. If those plans go forward, it would be the fourth attempted transformation of the troubled school in the past decade.

The fallout from the school’s public troubles has trickled down to the prospective students. The number of students slated to attend the school this fall dropped by more than third from previous years. As of this week, just 70 students were projected to enroll at Manual as freshman, compared with 145 last October.

And the roughly 17 students who showed up to freshman academy said they were well aware of the school’s issues.

But most were more nervous about the challenges that face ninth graders across the district: will I make my friends? Will my work be hard? How will I find my classes? Chalkbeat spoke with students and their families about what they anticipate for the coming year.

Caroline Herrera, who will be a freshman at Manual this fall, sat with her friend Monica Villanueva in the cafeteria. Both students attended Whittier K-8 School and were among the 49 students who assigned to Manual automatically because they did not submit a form in time to pick a different school during the district’s school choice process.

The two girls said they’d been warned off the school, due to its low performance, but decided to go anyway.

Herrera: [I told my parents] It doesn’t matter who goes there and what people say about it. We’ll go and find out for ourselves.

Herrera was intimidated by the transition to high school but she was more worried about her social nerves.

Herrera: I did OK in middle school but I’m worried about high school…I’m not a talkative person. I’m nervous about fitting in with people. Yesterday we talked about how some people would act like clowns.

But Manual’s shrinking student body could prove an unexpected boon to Villanueva.

Villanueva: I’m shy so I’m glad it’s a smaller school.

Jen Strasheim and her 15-year old son just moved to Denver from Littleton and she now lives just 10 blocks from Manual. Despite her initial hesitation, she hoped Manual would prove to be a good school for her son.

Jen Strasheim: I was talking to [Fernando Branch, the assistant principal] and he was saying there are two paths at Manual, the A track and the B track…You don’t see teachers trying to connect with students [at other schools]. A lot of kids say they’re the best teachers they’ve had.

Besides, she said, the message her son gets at home will be important too.

Jen Strasheim: I’m his mom. I’m going to be there every step of the way. He’s got to stay on the right track or he won’t like being at home (laughs).

Jeremiah Strasheim was less worried about the school’s reputation. He had never attended a school with three floors and the prospect of losing his way made him nervous.

Jeremiah Strasheim: Just, like, getting lost. Last year, I went to a pretty big middle school. I got my huge schedule and I asked one of the teachers where my classroom was. He said, “You should know that.” I was so late.

And the phantom of schoolwork and tests is already hanging over his head, with older students warning him to get ready to work hard.

Elijah [Huff], a junior, took the ACT and he said it was the hardest test he’s taken. He said to prepare and to get help.

The students he talked to also told him to tread carefully during the first heady days of school, as he finds his social group.

[Students] were saying, “Make new friends but be careful. You don’t want them to choose for you.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: School violence reporting data varies widely

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 08:35

the future is now

Some Colorado districts have been proactive in embracing technology for the classroom, while others have policies in place that are outdated or even illegal. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

And one Arvada middle school has now added personal tablets to students' school supply list. ( 9News )

accountability talks

A deeper analysis of last year's school violence data shows that the variability in reporting is so high that it's difficult to know if any information is accurate. ( Denver Channel )

And the Denver Post Editorial Board argues that variability means school district discipline reports have little value to parents. ( Denver Post )

back to school

More than 100 volunteers are helping distribute school supplies to 2,500 Poudre students. ( Coloradoan )

bright shiny and new

The staff of a new charter school in Greeley got their first peek inside the school's new building. ( Greeley Tribune )

new faces

A new nonprofit alternative school is opening in Breckenridge. ( Summit Daily )

Categories: Urban School News

Some districts shine, others falter in coupling of learning and online media

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 19:57

Five years ago, Noah Geisel made what seemed like a simple request of Denver Public School officials: could he have a set of iPods for his students to use in class?

“It was about putting a computer more powerful than those that got the first man landed on the moon in every kid’s hands,” Geisel said. “We knew then that we were at the tip of the iceberg in what we would eventually be doing, but at the time, using the coolest device in the land for digital Socratic Seminars, virtual field trips with GoogleEarth and finding celebrity tweets in Spanish felt like we were changing the world.”

And as far as the school district was concerned, he might have been.

“It was the first time the district had dealt with this,” said Geisel, who is now a teacher trainer at the professional development firm An Estuary. “At first I ran into a lot of hurdles and messages about what I could not do and would not be supported in doing.”

Geisel and school officials were eventually able to work out their questions and concerns, and now Denver teachers are able to access more support from the district to help them integrate new technology in the classroom.

That trajectory — from confusion around how to support technology in schools to integration into the daily workings of the district — is playing out around Colorado, but at vastly different speeds. And districts are taking a variety of approaches to balance two sometimes competing concerns: how do you meet students’ and teachers’ need for increased access to educational technology and online media while simultaneously protecting their privacy?

Some districts, like Denver, have been relatively proactive about establishing procedures and support for teachers who want to use online material and educational technology. Last school year, DPS introduced Google Apps for Education (GAFE), giving schools the option of using Google Docs, Gmail and Google Drive. In one year, 16,600 students logged into their accounts, said Kristen Savage, the district’s web communications senior manager.

With thousands of students and teachers using GAFE, the district has to take certain measures to ensure schools’ safety. Students’ Gmail accounts are filtered for inappropriate words and pictures, even if they are accessing them from outside of school.

By contrast, other districts have either avoided the issue or have created policies that are, at best, outdated or worse, possibly illegal.

Take Pueblo County School District 70, for instance. The southeastern Colorado school district of about 9,000 students’ current web policy allows students to create personal web pages, but also says that the district will not consider it an infringement on students’ right to freedom of speech if the student is required to remove any “material that fails to meet established educational objectives or that is in violation of a provision of the Student Acceptable Use Policy or student disciplinary code.”

Although the policy could ostensibly be used to protect students from harmful online content, it’s also “transparently illegal,” said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, who works on student freedom of expression issues.

Goldstein said districts are not obligated to allow students to create personal websites, so they cannot curtail their freedom of expression. Colorado state law, he said, protects students’ freedom of expression, unless the material is obscene, defamatory or creates clear and present danger. Despite all three of those stipulations being in the district’s Student Acceptable Use Policy, the district can’t control the content on students’ personal web pages, Goldstein said.

Tim Yates, Pueblo 70’s district of technology, said that its policy, which was adopted in 2002 and reviewed in 2009, is very outdated. But the issue hasn’t seemed very pressing: in Yates’ two decades at Pueblo 70, he said, he has never encountered an instance where a student wanted to create a personal or classroom webpage.

The onslaught of new technology can be intimidating for school districts who are concerned about protecting students’ privacy, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students’ and parents’ right to access and correct educational records kept by institutions. But, since content created online is not protected by this federal mandate, LoMonte said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the use of online media.

And some of those concerns are warranted, said Khaliah Barnes, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Student Privacy Project. For example, one online tool that teachers increasingly use to communicate with their students, Edmodo, made headlines last year after parents found out the company was not encrypting users’ connection after logging in, thus threatening users’ information security. The issue has since been fixed.

But for many teachers, those risks are often outweighed by the appeal that technology like Edmodo offers them for their classrooms.

“I need tech that makes my job easier,” said Nathan Grover, an AP biology teacher at Denver Youth High School. He started using Edmodo in order to connect with students in a digital language that they understand.

“For me, it was just adding another communication piece to the classroom and utilizing what they already know how to use for education,” he said. Grover now trains other teachers how to use Edmodo and other tools in their own classrooms.

And for some educators, district restrictions that are intended to protect students, like blocking social sites like YouTube, can actually interfere with instruction.

Mike Clem, principal of Denver Online High School, said that because schools have to get approval before they can use blocked sites — like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — students do most of their work from home, keeping students from coming into the school’s brick-and-mortar facility.

“We encourage students to use YouTube for instructional purposes and we ask our teachers to help students link to those sites,” Clem said. “If they’re blocked at the school level, they can’t access it, so there’s no reason for them to come in.”

Slow progress toward integrating online media with teaching and learning is to be expected. Geisel said such large districts inevitably take a long time to evolve.

“We can’t expect the necessary slow change to keep pace with tech innovation and I think that’s OK,” he said. “It’d be great to throw open the firewalls and give students the same open access to content that they are going to get outside of school so we can prepare them to handle that responsibility, but I don’t believe we’re there yet.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Falcon 49 works to manage growth

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 09:58

Seeking better service

The Aurora schools have reorganized the district's support service, linking schools in "communities" that serve various grades. The goal is to boost achievement and make life easier for principals and teachers. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Encouraging wellness

Widefield School District 3 is the latest district to add a free employee health clinic as a way to promote wellness and lower health care costs. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Share your experience

As teachers face increasing pressures (new standards, assessments, and evaluations), Chalkbeat wants to know if your school supply buying habits are changing because of these efforts to better student achievement. Please take a few moments to click the link and fill out our survey. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Starting a new year

The Falcon 49 district in El Paso County is coping with the area's growth as the school year starts and plans to ask voters to approve new construction spending. ( Gazette )

Reporting loophole

The fatal shooting at Arapahoe High School last December was apparently not included in the state's annual school violence report, likely due to a loophole in Colorado's law that only requires incidents in which a student is disciplined be disclosed to the public. ( The Denver Channel )

Young Learners

The small Norwood School District on the Western Slope has moved to full-day kindergarten, something the state doesn't require. ( Norwood Post )

Literacy boost

About 120 students at three Boulder public housing sites are getting an extra dose of literacy instruction through the Summer Shuffle program. ( Daily Camera )

iPads vs. Chromebooks

For an entire school year Hillsborough, New Jersey, educators undertook an experiment, asking: Is the iPad really the best device for interactive learning? ( Hechinger Report )

A better brain

Children learn their most important lessons on the playground, not in the classroom, researchers say. ( NPR )

Categories: Urban School News

Chalkbeat wants to know: Teachers, how much are you spending on your classroom?

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 15:40

As a student, I spent all summer looking forward to one thing: back to school shopping. One fall, I bought so many new classroom supplies, I had two backpacks. Yes, I was a nerd. Yes, I am still a nerd.

For me, buying new supplies was a luxury. For many teachers it may be a burden.

According to the National School Supply and Equipment Association, the average teacher in 2013 spent nearly $500 of their own money to outfit their classroom and equip their students with the needed paper, crayons, and glue sticks. In total, more than $1 billion was collectively spent by teachers the year before.

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.

Please take a few moments to fill out the survey below. While your answers will be aggregated to inform a story later this month, your personal information will remain confidential unless explicit permission is granted in a follow-up interview.


Categories: Urban School News

A bureaucratic shuffle in Aurora to help schools get the support they need

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 15:13

AURORA — As a principal at Vaughn Elementary School, Jocelyn Stephens sometimes found herself relying more on her personal connections to access support from her school district’s central office rather than the clunky and dawdling bureaucracy of Aurora Public Schools.

“The system was not responsive,” she said. “Support didn’t always happen through formal channels. I had to be creative.”

As a principal it could be time consuming to find help from any number of departments that makes up a school district: English language acquisition, special education, student engagement, technology and so on.

So when Stephens heard the suburban school district’s new chief academic officer, John Youngquist, was shuffling the district’s bureaucracy with the hope of providing better support  school leaders and teachers, Stephens jumped at the opportunity to be on the front lines of the “groundbreaking” movement.

Today, the first day of school for most of Aurora Public Schools’ 35,000 students, Stephens is taking charge of supervising, or as district officials like to say serving, 10 schools. She, along with four other Aurora administrators — who will each supervise their own networks of schools — will be the go-to people for teachers and principals as problems in the classroom arise.

The decision to restructure the district’s support services has been months in the making. The impetus came from an informal listening tour hosted by APS’s newest academic executive, Youngquist, and research from the University of Washington.

“The conversations were about relationships and how schools accessed support,” he said.

Previously, most schools operated in silos, Youngquist said. And professional development was cookie-cutter and usually targeted to grade levels.

“At meetings, it would be, ‘elementary school principals over there, middle schools over there, and high school principals over there,’” said Iowa Elementary School leader Luann Tallman.

John Youngquist

Too often, Tallman said, principals can get caught up focusing only on their students’ present and not their future. They can forget students age through a system of schools. The new approach is reminding Tallman she’s not just accountable to her students through fifth grade, but to their entire educational career. And she’s accountable to the teachers and principals who she will hand her students off too.

It’s for that reason these new networks, known as “P-20 Learning Communities,” will include schools that serve all grade levels in nearby neighborhoods.

“P-20″ is common education parlance for a coordinated system that extends from preschool through higher education. Aurora Public Schools, under former Superintendent John Barry, was an early adopter of the contemporary effort that links a student’s primary and secondary education to career-driven skills. The district’s signature initiatives, including the Vista PEAK P-20 campus and its “pathways” programs, have garnered praise from the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Youngquist’s new effort, a double-down of sorts, come at a crucial time for Aurora Public Schools. The district is the largest on the state’s accountability watch list. It has two years to improve student performances on Colorado’s standardized assessments and boost its graduation rate or face state sanctions.

In her role as director, Stephens will work to boost student achievement as some of APS’ lowest performing schools. Four of her 10 schools are considered chronically low-performing.

“That level of data tells me we’re not responsive to the students’ needs,” she said. “[We're going to ask] what do we need to learn about those students that we might not know from the data. We’re going to change the type of questions we ask. We’re going to be very root-caused focused.”

The targeted support approach to schools that APS hopes to roll out, Stephens said, is no different that what a teacher is expected to do in the classroom.

“Gone are the days of the one-size fits all approach,” Stephens said.

And the change, Tallman said, is creating a new team spirit and sense of a accountability among schools and one, she hopes, will last.

If the initiative does last, it would beat the odds, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a P-20 education researcher for the Education Commission of the States.

First of all, most P-20 efforts have been coordinated by states, not local school districts, Dounay Zinth said. And those efforts have focused more on the links between high school and college and the transmission of student data. Second, most of the P-20 efforts have puttered out.

For Aurora to be successful, Dounay Zinth said, they’ll need to make sure their effort is “more than just window dressing.”

It will be imperative, Dounay Zinth said, for the learning community directors and their teams to have the autonomy to make decisions, and those teams will need to have representatives from both the district’s early childhood services and post-secondary readiness team.

Youngquist acknowledged Dounay Zinth’s advice.

“The teams should be and will be immediately responding to requests of their communities of teachers and principals,” Younquist said, he hopes within 24 hours.

And the district is working to ensure the new support squads are equipped and empowered to make the decisions they deem necessary. Further, each team will have a representative from the district’s post-secondary readiness team and the district has hired, for the first time, an early childhood learning director. Once the new director is in place, a team will be assembled to work with the P-20 Learning Communities, as well.

“They’ll go where they need to go,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Jocelyn Stephens, right, listens during a meeting of P-20 Learning Community directors July 31. In her new role, Stephens will coordinate a support team for 10 schools in the suburban school district.
Categories: Urban School News

Another district adds free health clinic for employees

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 14:53

Widefield School District 3 is among a growing number of Colorado districts that are adding free employee health clinics with the goal of lowering health care costs and promoting wellness.

The 9,300-student district southeast of Colorado Springs opened its employee clinic inside a multi-use district building on July 9, with an open house scheduled for August 12. The clinic, open Monday through Friday, will provide free acute care, screenings, wellness coaching and prescriptions for around 700 employees covered by the district’s health plan, as well as their families.

The goal is to help employees suffering from basic illness like sinus infections or allergies get treated quickly and conveniently, said Samantha Briggs, Widefield’s director of communication. In addition, the clinic will provide school physicals to children of covered employees and wellness coaching on topics like weight loss and stress management.

“This in no way replaces anyone’s primary doctor,” she said.

Several Colorado districts have added employee health clinics in the last couple years, including the Mesa County Valley 51 and Steamboat Springs districts in 2012, and Poudre School District in 2013.

Briggs said the new clinic was first envisioned 10 years ago and has been in the works for the last four to five. The district’s partners include its health insurance company, CEBT, and Marathon Health, the Vermont-based company that will staff the clinic.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Most Colorado Springs schools cited for health violations

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 09:28

Election update

Backers of an initiative that would require school districts labor negotiations to be hashed out in public have gotten enough signatures to get on the ballot this fall. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

In other fights around the state, candidates and committees are building up their coffers as election season ramps up. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Not over yet

A fight over who actually won last year's Adams 12 school board race will go to the state Supreme Court. ( Westword )

Learning from lambs

In a program designed to get online high school students to build in-person relationships, two students raised and trained lambs for the state fair. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Are you sure you want to eat that?

Over half of Colorado Springs' schools have been cited for health code violations in the past two years, with some receiving as many as six. ( Gazette )

Teacher talk

Chalkbeat sat down with Elizabeth Green, co-founder and author of Building a Better Teacher, to talk about what we can learn from Japan and what makes teachers great. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Quiet time

Special education students at a Pueblo school will soon have a new place to go cool down and refocus for school work. ( Chieftain )

Science in summer

Pueblo high school students got a glimpse into what being a chemist is all about in a summer program run by the American Chemical Society. ( Chieftain )

First month on the job

A new rural superintendent faces the challenge of learning to run a school district, with some extra challenges thrown in. ( Steamboat Today )

Categories: Urban School News

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