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Growing pains at Denver’s Lake campus

Few Denver Public Schools’ decisions have ignited the kind of community fury that accompanied the plan to turn around Lake Middle School in northwest Denver.

Then, only one in four students was at grade level in reading and even fewer were proficient in writing and math. Only a third of middle school students living in the Lake boundary enrolled in the school.

Now, nearly two years into a three-year plan that will pour more than $2 million in federal grant dollars into the Lake reforms, progress is evident in some areas and painfully slow in coming in others.

Amy Highsmith became principal of the new Lake International Academy in 2010-11, year one of a campus overhaul that includes adding a charter program and phasing out the existing middle school.

About the series

It is Highsmith’s first principal job but Lake is familiar territory. She spent the previous five years at nearby Brown Elementary and she lives in the neighborhood. She also spent two years teaching in Mexico, a help when many students are native Spanish speakers.

“I am confident Lake can be successful,” she said. “We just need time.”

Time is running out. Lake International is slated to receive just one more year of extra federal funding under the initiative to improve the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Highsmith admits her school is unlikely to meet the final goals set out in its improvement plan, goals that would have required the school to make double-digit academic gains for three years’ running.

In a recent interview, Highsmith talked about the evolution of the school’s turnaround plan, progress that doesn’t show up on state exams and what happens when the federal money is gone:

Lake’s turnaround reform model requires replacing at least half the teachers. Where are you on that piece?

We are hiring new staff each year. We’re phasing in one grade at a time so the first year when we only had a sixth grade, I only looked at sixth-grade teachers. Last year, I looked at seventh-grade teachers and, for next year, we looked at eighth-grade teachers.

Last year, I hired one seventh-grade teacher from the former Lake Middle School and this year, for next year’s eighth grade, we’ve hired one eighth-grade teacher from the former Lake Middle School to remain next year.

The first year, for the sixth grade, I retained more teachers because we combined elective classes and shared teachers for the two Lake programs.

Overall, I expect we will end up retaining somewhere around 30-ish percent in the three years total, so around 70 percent of the teaching staff will be new.

What positions have you been able to add with the federal grant funding?

We have a social worker here four days a week and three of those days are through the grant. We have Suzy (O’Dorisio, dean of instruction) full-time through the grant. The assistant principal is full-time through the grant. Our communications specialist is full-time through the grant.

We have four City Year members, two in the 6th grade and two in the 7th grade, through the grant. They partner with our language arts teachers and track a certain group of students, focused on attendance, behavior and course completion. City Year is part of the Americorps program.

Could we function and show the growth we need and support our kids in the way they deserve to be supported without any of those positions? It would feel impossible, I think.

Your reform model also requires extended learning time – what does that look like?

With the funding we had, it wasn’t going to be enough money to extend our entire school day and have a different schedule. Also, we are not an innovation school and we need to be mindful of the (district-union contract) that teachers can only work an 8-hour total day.

So what we’ve done the past two years is we’ve had academic programs after school. We targeted specific kids that needed support in writing last year and in math this year, encouraging them to come but we could not mandate it. Probably 25 percent of our students attended the extra hour after school Monday through Thursday.

Next year, we will have an additional hour and 20 minutes compared to our current school day. We received additional money from DPS to do so. DPS is giving us a little bit more than $200,000 to be able to cover the costs of paying teachers basically extra-duty pay to work beyond an 8-hour day.

With that extra hour and 20 minutes, we will elongate our current schedule. As part of the turnaround, we increased to 90-minute blocks in language arts and math for all kids but it still didn’t feel like it was enough. So we’ll be able to get closer to 100-minute blocks for reading, writing and math. And 50 minutes for science, social studies and electives classes.

Only 36% of sixth-graders were reading at grade level after your first year – why so low?

We were only able to provide specific reading intervention classes for sixth-graders this year. In our new plan for next year, we’ll have them at the sixth, seventh and eighth grade levels. We know the majority of our kids need that.

The majority of our students enter Lake reading at the 20th percentile. And so, without additional support, even the 100 minutes isn’t enough, because we have to have them in small groups with guided reading support at their instructional level.

We had no intervention classes last year. We had a very minimal staff of very few teachers as a small school of 175 students. We also really wanted to have our language arts teachers, who are experts, teaching those intervention classes. We could say, OK, all teachers will teach a reading block at the end of the day. I really haven’t seen that be successful. Formerly, Lake Middle did that and they didn’t see results.

I also reached out to the Carmel Health Foundation and they help financially support us so we can have the Accelerated Reader program and Star literacy testing. We needed more assessments to be able to really gauge whether our students are making progress. We have the DPS interim test but that’s not very useful for kids who are significantly below grade level because you’re just going to see that they’re continually unsatisfactory.

You’ve only got one more year of the federal grant money – what happens after that?

One avenue we’re looking into is to write an innovation plan, to have a little more autonomy over our student-based budget, compared to what we have as a traditional school. Because that is one way we can manage to fund our school in a different way and provide the supports that we think our students need.

We’ve significantly improved our systems and our structures. We’ve developed our human capital. But still, when you have a new group of kids coming in that also have a lot of needs, you need to have those supports in place for them.

Have you been given the supports you need to be successful?

DPS made a big change from year one to year two, knowing the turnaround office they created in year one was not going to be sufficient to support the needs of the turnaround schools. We basically had an executive director and one other person (in the district turnaround office). That was the only support.

So from year one to year two, they vastly changed that model. This year, we’re in the West Denver Network (led by former Lincoln High School principal Antonio Esquibel) and in our network, there are additional personnel that have more strategic roles – a data partner, an instructional partner. The school improvement partner for our network actually provides professional development for our deans.

We’ve had some growing pains in figuring out how can they best provide support and I think now we have a model that is supportive.

We also have a teacher effectiveness coach who is not part of the grant, she’s district-funded. We have her two days a week and that’s huge.

How close will you get to your achievement goals after three years?

What the plan lays out is that we will be equal to a school that is low-poverty and high-achieving. Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that. I don’t think you see the trajectory in where we’re at, it’s going to take more time.

If you look at the research for schools that improve, it typically doesn’t happen in two to three years, it happens closer to five years. And I experienced that myself at Brown (Elementary). In the first two years, it didn’t feel a lot different than in year one. Really, what helped to change was as the community said, Wow, this school has a lot of potential.

(At Brown), the scores really are just inching up, they’re not amazing, we’re not seeing this huge high growth … but parents are committing to the school and helping to improve it. I think that’s where we saw the change occur. I think the same could be true for Lake.

It’s also very difficult, on some of the measures, for our student population to show growth when they’re so significantly behind. It’s hard to show growth because you’re still going to be low or unsatisfactory when you’re reading at the third-grade level and you take the sixth-grade test or the seventh-grade test.

How are you measuring parent engagement?

We know when there was a possibility that Lake may no longer exist, there was a lot of community outcry. But as far as the actual parents of students in our school, they were not highly engaged. We’ve increased parent engagement every single month this year and that’s something that would not be possible if we didn’t have someone in that role.

We offer different events, anything from parent workshops to parent nights about what’s going on at the school to coffee with the principal. We’ve tried to reach people at different times of the day. We’ve offered college campus tours on Saturday, we’ve gone to the Denver Art Museum on non-student contact days.

Each month, involvement is increasing. The number of parents we see is probably about 30. We took a bus down to the art museum the Monday after President’s Day and there were 30 to 40 parents. I wouldn’t say those numbers are off the charts but before, it was zero to five, so it has been a positive change.

If there was one thing you could add to the mix of what you’re doing, what would it be?

I’d say it’s those wraparound supports for kids that are failing. We have several – three – students who no longer come to school. We know them well, we’re in very close contact with their parents and all the entities that support them. And yet it’s a big loss to us to feel like we haven’t been successful with these students. Sometimes a lot of our resources are going to a few kids who have really significant needs.

Some of my learning in being principal here is that I believe there is a school for every single student and every student can succeed and achieve but not every student can succeed in one model. And so this particular model may not work for some students and so we’ve got to be able to offer better alternatives for them. It’s in the best interest of all kids.

I am confident Lake can be successful and we will succeed. It’s just I think the timeline of three years is unrealistic.

Our teachers go above and beyond, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. And that’s what we often say, whatever it takes. Like, I will go looking at the Sixteenth Street Mall for a student because that is what it takes. They need to be here. You have to create those relationships and develop that buy-in of, I’m here and I’m going to find you and I care about you and your future.

I think we’ve got the right people in the right place doing the right things but it’s difficult and it’s going to take time.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Issues identified as contributing to Lake’s history of poor performance

  • “Academic rigor that attains the level of proficient as defined by the Colorado Model Content Standards … is not the norm at Lake Middle School.”
  • “Most teachers employ a limited range of instructional strategies.”
  • “School leadership provides limited feedback to teachers.”
  • “Not all teachers believe that all students can learn at high levels.”
  • “Currently there is a culture of low expectations of students. The use of excuses as to why students cannot achieve must be eliminated.”
  • Source: Colorado Department of Education diagnostic review, executive summary, October 2009

Federal School Improvement Grant funding for Lake campus

  • Total three-year award – $2,083,232, equal to $694,411 per year
  • 2010-11 budget – $425,643 shared by existing Lake program, phasing out one grade per year, and Lake International, adding one grade per year; $200,000 to West Denver Prep charter program at Lake, growing one grade at a time; $34,721 in district support for the schools; $34,047 to DPS for overhead costs related to the grant
  • 2011-12 budget – $427,183 for Lake programs; $200,000 to West Denver Prep; $47,896 for district support; $19,332 for district overhead costs
  • 2012-13 budget – Line items not yet set; existing Lake program will be completely phased out; Lake International and West Denver Prep at Lake will be fully phased in with grades 6, 7 and 8
  • Source: Denver Public Schools, Colorado Department of Education

Enrollment changes at Lake campus over past three years

  • “Only 1/3 of the students living within the Lake boundary actually attend Lake Middle School.” – DPS SIG grant application, May 2010
  • Fall 2009 – 568 students, Lake Middle School before turnaround
  • Fall 2010 – 601 students, 349 in existing Lake Middle, 167 in new Lake International, 85 in new West Denver Prep
  • Fall 2011 – 717 students, 185 in final year of Lake Middle, 292 at Lake International, 240 at West Denver Prep
  • Poverty rates at schools – 96 percent at Lake Middle, 96 percent at Lake International, 94 percent at West Denver Prep

Student academic achievement at Lake campus over time