WESTMINSTER – Today – Monday, May 11 is a day of reckoning for students in the Adams County School District 50.

It’s the last day of the 2008-09 school year in the district. The last day of life as most students and teachers there have always known it. The last day that categories like “third grade” or “sixth grade” – or A or B+ or C- — will exist in most of Westminster.

The district is scrapping traditional notions of grade level and doing away with letter grades. Students will instead progress through academic levels 1-10 based on their mastery of subjects, not on the length of time they’ve been in school.

This concept, known as standards-based education, has been tried in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but never before in a large, urban district such as Westminster. The bold step is bringing national attention to the district.

This is also the day that students and their parents will learn just where they’ll find themselves in this radical new system that’s debuting in the district’s elementary and middle schools come fall and will gradually expand to the high school. And some of them aren’t going to like what they hear.

“It will be a hard conversation for some,” acknowledges Copper Stoll, chief academic officer for the district.  “We’ll be telling some eighth-graders they’ll be working at Level 4 or 5. They won’t be happy.”

But happiness is something that’s been in short supply in the Westminster district for many years now.

Once a typical suburban school district, Westminster has seen dramatic changes in its demographics – and its test scores — in recent years. The district once was home to 17,000 students. Today, it has fewer than 10,000, and about 3,000 youngsters who live within district boundaries have enrolled in other districts.

Ten years ago, almost half the district’s students were Anglo and 38% were Hispanic. Today, two-thirds are Hispanic and fewer than 25% are Anglo. In 1999, 32% of Westminster students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Today, 72% do. And 38% are still learning the English language.

Academic performance is well below state averages at all grade levels. The graduation rate is significantly less than the state average. The district has failed to meet its Adequate Yearly Progress targets at any level, and in January of 2007, it was placed on “Academic Watch” by the state and was at risk of losing state accreditation. The picture was bleak, and the district was desperate.

But a new superintendent, Dr. Roberta Selleck, arrived in September 2006. That same fall, Westminster voters approved a $100 million bond issue to build a new elementary and new high school. The combination provided the impetus for the district to reinvigorate itself.

A new approach

In the summer of 2007, 13 district representatives went to a Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) where they learned about standards-based education.

“We had tried every program we could think of to help our kids achieve,” Stoll said. “Then we went to this symposium and we kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is it.’”

Gradually, district leaders began getting community buy-in for the idea. Teachers and principals were trained in standards-based teaching and evaluation methods. The Colorado Department of Education came on board. The district recruited Dr. Robert Marzano, an internationally-acclaimed expert on standards and assessments, to identify the learning standards that should guide the district.

In February 2008, 85% of district staff voted to go forward with the idea. Some teachers began implementing the new learner-centered style of instruction – in which students set their own pace and decide for themselves how they want to approach a given topic – in individual classrooms. Last fall, Metz Elementary became the pilot school to test the system school-wide.

Since then, the district has pulled out all stops to educate not just teachers but also parents and community members on how the new system will work. The district website includes a slick, sophisticated section on standards-based education that walks viewers through all the changes. It has set up a wiki that shows just what the standards are, grade by grade, content area by content area, and gives suggested lesson plans for teaching them.

So many visitors – usually educators from other districts – have signed up for the day-long tours the district offers of its model classrooms, they’re now being offered weekly instead of monthly, as originally envisioned. And the district will host a three-day symposium on standards-based systems in July.

While the district once had a difficult time recruiting and retaining top-notch teachers, news of Westminster’s bold experiment, combined with a boost in teacher pay rates,  has reaped a crop of more than 1,000 applicants now seeking to teach there. And an astoundingly low number of positions to fill – about 35, Stoll reports. “Pickings are great,” she says.

A Sterling example

Recently, a group from the RE-1 Valley school district in Sterling spent the day in Westminster, visiting some classrooms where some of the new teaching techniques are already being implemented.

They watched while Nik Namba’s first-grade students at F.M. Day Elementary worked their way through grammar lessons. Namba is one of the district’s “beacon teachers,” an early adopter who will help others master this new way of teaching. In Namba’s class, all the students are learning about nouns, but they’re given a choice in how they want that lesson presented.

Some students may pair up with a friend to identify the nouns in a block of text. Others go on a “noun hunt,” identifying all the persons, places and things they can in their classroom. Others opt for an exercise in which they come up with a noun that starts with each letter of the alphabet, then draw a picture of that person, place or thing. Others work with a software program on one of the classroom computers.

“It’s been very hard,” admits Namba, who along with fellow “beacon” first grade teacher Alison Mund, has been stretched to the limit coming up with creative ways to entice his children to learn. “But next year, the Level 1 teachers will all be able to take what we’ve started and use it,” he says.

At Shaw Heights Middle School, http://shaw.adams50.org/ Greg Russo’s sixth-grade social studies students are leaning about Native American culture. But again, how they choose to learn, and the rate at which they learn, is up to them. And they spend the last few minutes of class assessing what they’ve accomplished that day. Russo asks each one to name the lesson they’ve worked on, to rate their proficiency in whatever tasks they were asked to do, to rate the level of effort they put forth, and what they could change to do better tomorrow.

“They do daily self-monitoring,” Russo explains. “Each kid knows where they’re at, and where they’re going. About 80% of them are really with the program. The other 20% not so much.”

Anne Owens, a history and geography teacher at Darrell Smith High School, an alternative school in Sterling, was impressed by what she saw – not because it is so radical, but because she feels it is so “doable.”

“I’ve been doing standards-based education for some time in my classroom, but it’s all very individualized,” she said. “This isn’t as complicated as what I’ve been doing, and it’s more doable. It’s not as radical as I thought it would be, and it’s easier for teachers to assess their students’ progress.”

“Control freaks” may struggle

Carol Brom, president of the RE-1 Valley Board of Education, also liked the active learning she saw going on in the classes. “But I bet teachers who want a lot of classroom control will struggle,” she said.

Ranum High School biology teacher Tina Falconer confirms that that’s exactly what’s she had to overcome this year in implementing her standards-based classroom. “I was definitely a person who liked to lecture,” she said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that kids can set their own pace, and the kids who are really self-learners like the idea that they don’t have to wait for everybody else. But for a control freak like me, it’s been hard.”

What about those eighth-graders whose assessment tests show they’re only working at fourth-grade level? Are they really headed back to elementary school?

Not at all, Stoll promises. “We’ll put kids at the school most appropriate for their age,” she says. “We won’t put 16-year-olds working at Level 3 at an elementary school. We’ll bring the Level 3 instruction to them.”

There is no neat one-to-one correlation between the old grade levels and levels of proficiency, but in general elementary schools will offer levels 1-4, with Level 5 available for enrichment activities. Middle schools will typically offer levels 4-7 with some Level 8 classes, and high schools  would offer Levels 7-10 and beyond. Students might be in different levels for different subjects.

Gone would be the days when elementary students stay in one classroom with one teacher all day. All students would change classes throughout the day, and move up to the next level of instruction – and a new set of teachers – as they are ready.

Quick learners may complete all 10 levels required for high school graduation while they’re still just 16. If that happens, they can begin taking Level 11 classes for college credit, Stoll says. Conversely, some students may not finish the required 10 levels until they’re 20 or older, she says.

The new system will begin in the fall with all students K-8. It will begin the following fall for freshmen at the new Westminster High School, which will open that year. Ranum will close. Current eight-graders and high schoolers will be grandfathered under the old system, so for awhile the high school will run parallel systems, until the last of the students on the old system graduate.

Stoll knows there are lots of questions still to be resolved. Athletic eligibility requirements remain unclear. She knows there will be scheduling difficulties, transcript issues, and questions about GPA. She figures the district will simply work those things out as it goes along.

Meanwhile, the experiment seems to appeal to all sides of the academic philosophy spectrum, she says.

“Essentialists love this because there are clear standards, and there’s no moving forward until a student meets them,” she says. “But progressivists love this because even though there are standards, the kids get to decide how they’ll meet them.”

The district’s goals are lofty. Officials say once the system is fully implemented, they anticipate the graduation rate to top 90%, with fully half the graduates earning some college credit before they leave high school. They say they expect district scores on statewide achievement tests to rise well above state averages.

And they expect Adams District 50 to be transformed from a marginal place whose best students flee to other districts into a world-class, exemplary school district that is a lighthouse of hope for other large urban districts.

Rather than losing its own students, Stoll hopes Westminster begins to attract students from other districts as well. “We’ve been bombarding other districts for so long with ours, it’s time we got some of theirs,” she says.