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Gates gives $9.7M for Colorado reforms

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing $9.7 million to help Colorado school districts implement and integrate key education reforms.

Part of the three-year grant will be used in four selected school districts to help them implement new content standards, new tests and new educator evaluation systems, all mandated by state laws passed from 2008 to 2010. Another part of the grant will be used to support the work of the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Legacy Foundation in implementing those laws.

The grant was announced Monday during a news conference at CDE. Helayne Jones, president of the Colorado Legacy Foundation, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and education Commissioner Robert Hammond spoke at the event, which drew a crowd of legislators, State Board of Education members, representatives of local foundations, education bureaucrats and others.

The ultimate goal of the grant and the programs it will fund is to translate the reform laws “into powerful classroom instruction,” said Garcia, who is the Hickenlooper administration’s point man on education issues.

Jones said, “We know that there are pockets of excellence throughout Colorado. … Taking this work to the next level will require integrating these elements in a systematic, systemic and sustainable manner. This investment will give us the boost we need to take accelerated steps in that direction.”

The pilot programs in the four districts are intended to develop and demonstrate concrete ways, such as new curricula aligned to the standards, to translate the standards, new tests that will coming in the future and new educator evaluations into classroom changes that will yield increased student performance. “We can deliver on the promise of increased student achievement,” Jones said.

The experience of the four districts will be used to help implementation of the reform laws in the state’s other 174 districts, she added. Foundation officials said Denver Public Schools is expected to be one of the districts.

“The state and the country will be looking to us to take the lessons learned from these four districts across Colorado to ensure that every district is able to implement them with high quality,” Hammond said.

The Legacy Foundation and CDE are sponsoring an all-day conference on June 20 at which district leaders can learn more about the grant program. The conference also is intended to showcase tools and resources that CDE is developing for implementation of school reforms. Jones said she hopes to hear after the conference from districts interested in participating and to select the final four “as early as possible in the fall.” (Check the foundation’s website for more information about the event.)

Separately, CDE is conducting a series of two-day meetings around the state this summer to provide school districts with information about reform measures and their implementation. Get more details here.

The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids required creation of definitions of school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, setting new academic standards in 13 content areas, selection of new state tests to match the new standards and, ultimately, improved alignment of high school graduation requirements and state college admissions requirements.

The readiness definitions and the new standards have been adopted, but a new state testing system fully based on the new standards won’t go live until 2014 at the earliest.

The 2010 educator effectiveness law, Senate Bill 10-191, calls for annual evaluations of teachers and principals that are based at least 50 percent on student growth. CDE currently is drafting regulations for implementation of the law, which won’t fully go into effect statewide until 2014-15. Pilot testing of new evaluation methods is expected to begin in about a dozen districts this fall.

The one thing the legislature didn’t do in those laws was to provide state funds for implementing them. That, combined with Colorado’s failure to win federal funding in the first two rounds of Race to the Top, has forced a reliance on outside grants. The Legacy Foundation has taken the lead in fundraising and before the latest grant had raised about $2 million for educator effectiveness efforts and about $3 million for health and wellness initiatives, Jones said.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia

“We anticipate this will be the first of many significant investments,” Garcia said of the Gates grant.

Jones noted, “There’s still Senate Bill 191 money to be raised,” adding that the foundation, CDE and the governor’s office are working that that. The report of the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, issued earlier this year, estimated it could cost $42.4 million to launch new evaluation systems statewide.

Hammond noted that funding in a challenge but that department will push ahead with implementation plans. “We’ll try to find the money.”

The Gates grant was made to and will be administered by the Legacy Foundation, which was founded in 2007 as an initiative led by then-education Commissioner Dwight Jones. Legacy has raised about $8.5 million since it was formed, about $7.4 million in 2010-11.