The State Department of Education hopes to lend more direct help to Colorado’s struggling campuses by forming a network of turnaround schools, it announced Tuesday in a letter to superintendents.

The network, which will be the first of its kind in Colorado, will offer intensive support directly to school leaders in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Previously, most of the state’s support has been targeted at the district level, providing training and resources to administrators, not principals and teachers.

Colorado’s Turnaround Network, “will be a highly-collaborative and accountable endeavor between local schools, their districts and the Colorado Department of Education,” according to a copy of the letter provided to Chalkbeat Colorado.

The department hopes to work with eight to 12 schools in just a couple of districts its first year. The aim is to not only improve student academic performances within the network’s schools, but also to provide support and build each district’s ability to provide tools and techniques to other low-performing schools within the participating districts’ boundaries, said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of school and district performance.

As of December, there are currently 190 schools rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” About 75 percent of those schools do not operate in school districts on the accountability clock.

Because of Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools, schools will have to opt into the network, Sherman said. The department’s model is more akin to Connecticut’s Commissioner’s Network, which has partnered with 11 schools and is expanding, than Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has the authority to take over low-performing schools and currently runs 16 schools, Sherman said.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

While the state does not directly accredit schools — that’s the job of local school boards — it does similarly rate schools. Schools, like districts, rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” are placed on the state’s watch list. If schools do not make enough improvement within five years the state board may make a series of recommendations to the local school board including turning the school over to a private organization like a charter network or closing the campus. If the local governing board does not heed the state board’s advice, the entire district may face a lowered accreditation rating.

Neither the districts nor schools enrolled in the network will be let off the so-called “accountability clock.”

“Our goal is to accelerate achievement so we’ll be able to get them off the clock because of improved student achievement,” Sherman said.

If enough progress isn’t made in enough time to beat the clock, Sherman said, his department would at least be able to stand with those schools in the network as the state and local board negotiate the campuses future.

“We would be able to advocate for [those schools] to some degree,” Sherman said. “We’ll feel comfortable saying the district has taken the right improvement actions and that we’ve exhausted everything we could.”

The network’s program will focus on four areas: culture, school design, personnel development, and district relations. One of the many requirements to enroll in the network, according to the letter, is a set of agreements between the state and the districts the schools reside in.

“We will negotiate with each district

assurances that they will create the right conditions for success for each participating school,” Sherman said.

The state will have no official say in curriculum, personnel or budget, Sherman said. But he hopes by enrolling in the network, schools will be provided autonomy and flexibility by it’s district.

The network will be funded by existing funds allocated to the state department, Sherman said. And his office will continue to offer its support to districts on the accountability clock.