WESTMINSTER – This Adams County school district’s 10,000 students went back to class Monday with at least one major blemish removed from their reputations:

Teacher Kathy Zook worked on a bulletin board at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary last week in preparation for Monday’s first day of school.

Not one of them returned to a school that fared so poorly on the state’s performance indicators that it got slapped with the stigmatizing label of “turnaround.”

Three years ago, seven of the district’s 18 schools were in that ignoble category, reserved for roughly 3 percent of the worst-performing schools in Colorado. The district itself had been placed on academic watch in 2006, a precursor to possible loss of state accreditation, and deemed a “turnaround” district in need of state supervision, one of seven in the state.

Then, in 2009, Westminster district leaders responded to a dramatic problem with a radical solution – scrap tradition, including grade levels and letter grades, and allow students to progress based on showing they know the required content.

The plan, which had never been tried in a sizable urban district, drew international attention. And yes, district leaders admit, mistakes were made in its implementation. But as of this fall, all district schools and the district itself had moved out of the “turnaround” performance cellar.

Westminster still must move up in the performance ratings if it wants to keep state accreditation. But the transition is viewed as cause for celebration.

“The key phrase here is ‘no more turnaround,’ ” Superintendent Pamela Swanson told teachers at a back-to-school rally last week. “I told you how much it hurt to have someone paste a demoralizing label on us and our schools, and how no one could turn it around but us.”

The news was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation.

TCAP scores a good omen

The teachers at the rally already knew how well their students had fared on their spring state tests, known as the TCAPs. The results, released Aug. 8, showed Westminster students made improvements in 19 of the 27 testing categories.

Background

In fact, the state Department of Education lauded Westminster for being the only turnaround district in the state to show “statistically significant” increases in the percentage of students testing proficient or advanced in all four categories: reading, writing, math and science.

But TCAP is just one of the measures the state uses to judge school performance. The state’s accountability designation also measures student growth, achievement gaps and postsecondary or workforce readiness.

“This is good news,” said Oliver Grenham, the district’s chief education officer, “but we still have a lot to do. Last year, our pattern was up and down, but this year we want to see steady growth.”

School officials believe the improvement in performance is testament to the wisdom of that radical change adopted three years ago.

A radical plan is launched

It was the fall of 2009 when the district, under the leadership of then-Superintendent Roberta Selleck, rolled out its groundbreaking vision of “standards-based” education, a bold plan to fundamentally reshape the way students in Westminster are educated.

Stacks of unpacked boxes awaited Hodgkins Elementary teacher Susan Bingler as she prepared her classroom last week.

The strategy called for the abandonment of traditional notions of grade level and letter grades, and instead charted students’ progress through academic levels 1-10 based on their mastery of subjects, not on their age or length of time they’d been in school.

Lessons were to be “student-centered,” meaning students would learn at their own pace, and could largely chart their own course in how they went about attaining prescribed learning objectives.

It was a strategy that had been tried only in individual schools or small school districts – never in a sizable urban district such as Westminster.

But school leaders felt dramatic difficulties called for dramatic solutions. The student demographics alone were daunting. In a little over a decade, Westminster had gone from a middle-class suburban school district to a district where nearly three-quarters of students qualify for federal lunch aid and where more than a third are learning English.

The new approach to teaching was greeted with much fanfare, and observers from districts far and wide were eager to see how it would play out.

Implementation far from easy

Three years in, educators have endured lots of hiccups and done lots of tweaking to the system. There were headaches both expected and unforeseen.

“The first year we did this, teachers said ‘Oh! I feel like a first-year teacher again,” said Grenham. “It’s a lot harder. And during the implementation, we’ve tried to be very transparent. We listen to everybody. Other districts have a tendency to sweep their issues under the carpet. But we’ve had those conversations. We didn’t enjoy them, but we had them.”

“The first year we did this, teachers said ‘Oh! I feel like a first-year teacher again.’ It’s a lot harder.”

Right off the bat, teachers discovered that an enormous chunk of their day was spent recording information that the data-driven system requires to precisely chart student progress.

An individual student has hundreds of learning targets to hit in an academic year and, initially, teachers were required to show evidence that a student had attained proficiency for a given learning target in three different ways.

For example, level 1 students were expected to be able to count to 100. They may demonstrate their ability to do that by counting aloud to the teacher. The next day, they might complete a worksheet filling in all those numbers. And the next day they might do a verbal counting exercise with another student. That’s considered evidence of proficiency. Their teacher was required to enter into an online grade book the day on which student demonstrated each evidence of proficiency.

“So in level 2 literacy, the kids have like 130 learning targets,” said Maureen Wille, an veteran teacher at Hodgkins Elementary, a 700-student school in the district. “You can see how much time it would take to record all that for every student.”

Streamlined recording procedures saved hours

In response to teacher complaints that they were spending up to two hours a day just recording such data, the district streamlined the procedure and prioritized the learning targets.

Three key tweaks

  • Streamlined the data-recording process, which initially took teachers up to two hours per day.
  • Stopped defining “work at your own pace” as “complete these worksheets.”
  • Shifted to 14 achievement levels, up from 10, so younger students see progress sooner.

“Before, they had to click on a bunch of different things one at a time,” said Hodgkins principal Sarah Gould. “Now they can go in and do everything all at once. It’s saved hours. It’s probably saved marriages.”

By the second year, the district discovered teachers were using worksheets more and more often and engaging in direct instruction less often.

“They would go to the online resources and print out worksheets for their students,” Gould said. “‘Here’s your packet, and when you’re done you can move to the next level.’ And then we realized ‘Oh pooh! What have we done?’

“There is a time and place for worksheets, absolutely. But it’s supplemental. We were making direct instruction secondary, and we were making the supplemental resource primary.”

That discovery led to the development of the district’s instruction model, which lays out exactly what best-practice teaching behaviors look like. No longer do teachers refer to students “learning at their own pace,” which erroneously gets interpreted as “complete these worksheets.”

“We’ve stopped saying that,” Gould said. “Now we speak about individual instruction, meeting kids where they’re at. But the teacher is still the teacher, and we’ve gotten back to what best practices look like in instruction. We’ve gotten rid of a lot of worksheets.”

‘Standards-based’ becomes ‘competency-based’

There’s some other language district officials have eliminated. They’ve stopped calling what they’re doing “standards-based education.” Now they call it “competency-based.”

“We all have standards,” said school board president Marilyn Flachman, who served as a district librarian for 43 years before first being elected to the board in 2005. “But this is really about our students being competent.”

“We all have standards. But this is really about our students being competent.”

The district also realized it may have erred when collapsing 13 traditional grades – K-12 – into just 10 achievement levels. Getting to move to a new level is a big deal, where parents are invited to huge classroom celebrations. The older students seemed to move more quickly from one level to the next, leaving the littlest ones mired in anxiety-producing delay. Now, there are 14 levels, giving younger kids a bite of the advancement apple sooner rather than later.

There’s also the Scantron, a nationally-normed test in different content areas that students take regularly, so they can compare their performance against others across the country. It’s one more form of accountability and one more piece of evidence that students are mastering what they need to.

Gould, the principal, said the level of data the district accumulates on each student’s progress is helping parents stay better informed.

“In summer school, we were giving away some free books, and I had a mom come up to me and say ‘I need a 2.7 reading-level book,’ ” Gould said. “I nearly cried. This mom knew exactly where her kid was reading at, and she was invested in making sure he selected a book that was at the right reading level.

“In the past, parents would just let their kids pick out any book that interested them. Now they’re side-by-side with their kids, choosing books based on their needs. In my 10 years in education, I’ve never seen this before.”


Student performance on state exams in Westminster Adams 50