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Commentary: Was Life Skills closure warranted?

This commentary was submitted by Martin Schneider of the Colorado Coalition of Alternative Education Campuses.

On March 7 the Colorado State Board of Education agreed with Denver Public Schools board on the decision to close Life Skills Center of Denver. As the organization that worked with the alternative education campus (AEC) leaders to develop the initial alternative performance framework, the Colorado Coalition of Alternative Education Campuses (CCAEC) Board of Directors is disappointed in the decision to close Life Skills.

We believe that the decisions made by both the district and state boards were made based on inadequate evaluation frameworks, without adequate knowledge of the existing frameworks on the part of both boards, and without a full understanding of the difficulties of assessing the performance of alternative schools.

The CCAEC is a non-profit, membership organization established in 2009. The CCAEC’s mission is to provide support for alternative education campuses (AECs) by advocating for appropriate policies at the local, state, and national level for the education of high-risk students through research-based best practices.

The Colorado Department of Education asked CCAEC in 2009 to work with the AECs across the state to develop a proposal outlining a fair but rigorous set of criteria that could be used by the state to assign appropriate plan types to this set of schools. The proposal was submit and adopted by the State Board the following year.

Since that time several tweaks to the initial framework have been made, and CDE has relied heavily on the CCAEC to assist in the revisions and to vet them with their membership. No one believes the framework to be perfect.  Indeed, AECs present the inherently difficult problem of trying to find standardized measures for the performance of nonstandard organizations.

But with the revised framework, many AECs felt that they were being held accountable to a standard that was at least more appropriate ― a reasonable approximation of their performance.  Under the criteria applied to regular schools, in contrast, every AEC in the state would be classified as a failure, simply because AECs admit students who, at the median, are that far behind the day they walk in the door.  While the new state system provided a good start, districts are not required to use this framework for district accreditation purposes.

The Denver Public Schools’ alternative School Performance Framework (SPF) has been under construction and reconstruction for the last five to six years. While we applaud the district for being forward-thinking on the issue of accountability for AECs, the goals and criteria by which AECs in DPS have been judged have fluctuated annually.

Most recently, Denver brought together all the alternative programs in a series of meetings to gain feedback from all the schools and programs on the measures and metrics being used in the alternative SPF—reaching conclusion on Feb. 23. Again, we commend DPS for its attention to the issues. But despite ongoing development of an improved system of evaluation, the district chose to close a school based on an old framework the district has already begun revising due to its inadequacies.

More importantly, the state’s alternative performance framework, adopted in May, 2011 in its current form, has significant differences from the framework used by DPS in making the Life Skills decision.

For example, DPS asserted that Life Skill’s ranked 71st out of 74 among all Colorado AECs. This ranking, however, is in significant part a misleading artifact resulting from differences between the DPS and state systems.  Without going into too much detail, the state allows schools to use optional measures.  These measures allow AECs to report on important aspects of student growth, achievement, engagement, and readiness for postsecondary life that are unique to a particular schools’ students, programs, and missions.

DPS did not allow their AECs to use their own optional measures but instead submitted their own framework, which was not accepted by the state. Due to lack of time for DPS to revise its system to CDE’s criteria, DPS AECs were not allowed to demonstrate student progress on at least four additional, in some cases mission–critical, measures.

Other Colorado AECs were given this opportunity. Therefore, every DPS AEC, including Life Skills, was at a systematic disadvantage in relation to AECs state wide.  As a result, nearly all of the DPS AECs, not just Life Skills, appeared at the bottom of the state’s list

Whether Life Skills would have ranked substantially higher on the state’s framework had it been able to submit additional mission-critical data is unknown, but high-stakes decisions, such as the closure of a school, should not be made based on what we know to a certainty is an unreliable ranking and comparison.

What does this mean for other AECs and the students they serve? For some AECs it means life or death. In the coming year at least four AECs that we know of are up for review or renewal. Three of these are in DPS.  For the students now leaving Life Skills and those at any other AEC at risk of closure, we would reiterate the concern of those State Board members who worried that students will be poorly served by this decision.

When a school serves high-risk students the stakes of school closure for those students are extraordinary and the risks created are little studied and less understood.  Some Life Skills students might find a new educational home.  Some ― we can be certain ― effectively ended their educational career the day of the State Board vote.

There is a genuine risk that closing AECs will be portrayed as an educational “success” because of improved achievement scores. However, this “improvement” may not be the result of those students being better served elsewhere, but instead because they leave the system, taking their low test scores, or poor attendance, or difficult behavior with them.

Without a clear understanding of and a common agreement on how AEC performance should be judged, high-stakes decisions such as closure should be put on hold. Students’ lives hang in the balance. Decisions to close these schools, more so than other types of schools, must be made with absolute certainty. To do otherwise is unacceptable.

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