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Charting a new course in Sheridan

SHERIDAN – In the years before state testing beamed a spotlight on school performance, Fort Logan Elementary in this small district on Denver’s southwest corner was a pretty good place to teach.

Teachers had free rein and, if they wanted, and some did, they could close their classroom doors and shut out everyone else. As a bonus, the day was short – less than six hours of instructional time. Teachers at the nearby middle and high school spent the equivalent of 21 more days in class each year.

But the advent of the Colorado Student Assessment Program proved a rude awakening for the 1,600-student district, as Fort Logan began popping up on the lowest-performing lists that news media and state officials like to compile.

“We realized, oh my goodness, we are not doing as well as we thought,” said Barb Johnson, who began teaching in Sheridan in 1992. “And there was a realization that maybe we’re focused in on making this just a great place to be, and families felt comfortable and kids felt supported.”

About the series

In 2003, Sheridan posted the lowest scores among all Denver metro-area districts on every academic subject in every elementary grade tested by the CSAP. The lone exception was third-grade reading, where Sheridan came in next to last.

That year, state officials put the district on academic watch and reforms began rolling through Fort Logan in waves. There was a new superintendent with big ideas and a hefty state grant that demanded dramatic changes in reading instruction.

There was a new principal – and then another, and then another. For the past decade, Fort Logan has averaged a new principal every year.

But while many things changed, test scores – particularly in reading and writing – refused to climb. In 2010, Fort Logan joined the cohort of schools considered the worst in the nation as the recipient of a federal School Improvement Grant.

In three years, given $769,000 a year, a school with a long history of poor performance is expected to find the way to academic excellence.

“What I found, when I got here in 2008, was a very, very caring environment,” said Sheridan Superintendent Mike Clough, who added nearly two hours to the elementary school day within months of his arrival.

“We did a better job of taking care of our students’ basic needs than any place I’ve ever seen. I often thought, if we’re not careful, we’ll love them to death.”

Making changes: ‘It’s been really rough”

To receive a federal SIG grant, a school must agree to undergo one of four reform models requiring varying degrees of change. Most schools nationwide chose the least radical model but Sheridan picked turnaround, which mandates hiring a new principal, replacing at least half the staff and adding instructional time.

Fort Logan has fulfilled all three requirements, and then some:

  • Only two teachers at Fort Logan in 2009-10, the planning year before the grant funds began flowing, remain at the school today.
  • Fort Logan had one principal during the planning year, a second principal during the first year of the grant and yet another principal in this second year of the grant.
  • In addition to the additional hour and 50 minutes added in October 2008, Fort Logan has added 90 minutes to the school day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
  • Earlier this month, Sheridan school board members approved a new calendar that shortens the summer break and builds in up to nine days for remediation throughout the year.

For Danita Myers, who has taught elementary students in Sheridan for 25 years, the changes were initially painful though ultimately rewarding.

“I am a better teacher,” said Myers, one of four fourth-grade teachers at Fort Logan. “I definitely see the difference in how the kids are learning.”

Sheridan’s SIG budget

  • Sheridan is slated to receive a total of $2.38 million from 2010-11 to 2012-13, which breaks out to $769,190 per year.
  • In the first two years, the district has partnered with the National Center for Time and Learning, the Flippen Group, Focal Point, the University of Virginia and others for a total of $358,953 in outside vendors.
  • Among the training received by teachers – Anita Archer engagement strategies, Capturing Kids’ Hearts relationship building and Orton-Gillingham literacy instruction.

But when outside teams began observing Fort Logan classrooms in 2009-10 to help determine which teachers should stay through the turnaround, Myers was flagged as someone who possibly should go.

It was a surprise: “I had been a lead teacher in this district for a very long time,” she said.

“I really had to make a decision that I can do this, I am willing to do this,” she said. “My son’s in college now so I could spend the hours I needed to turn things around.”

Teachers began weeks of training in literacy instruction, writing objectives, data analysis and classroom management. Myers credits training in engagement strategies, such as choral response, for changing her classroom.

“I’m not calling on one student at a time so everybody’s just waiting on whoever raises their hands to be the one that answers the question,” she said. “There’s a lot more partner work now. I feel more like a coach at parts of my day than I am the distributor of the knowledge. And that seems to be real positive.

“I find myself learning to walk around the room a lot more. Where it used to be me-centered, now it’s student-centered.”

Myers likened the past two years to “a self-searching climb up a 14er.”

“It’s been really rough,” she said. “But it’s been satisfying to see that something we’re doing to reform education is working.”

A challenging school, a challenged community

Like most of Colorado’s SIG schools, Fort Logan is a high-poverty school in an impoverished neighborhood facing a myriad of challenges.

More than 90 percent of students come from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch assistance. More than one in three students is not a native English speaker. One in ten is homeless. As many as 37 percent of students taking state tests change from one grade to the next.

Enrollment across the district, already smaller than that of some Denver high schools, has declined in fits and starts over the past decade.

For years, Sheridan has relied on pulling kids from other districts – namely Denver – who wanted a small school experience. The district markets itself as knowing each student “by name and need.”

But the numbers of families choicing in to Sheridan has dropped, from 40 percent of its total enrollment in 2004 to 25 percent in 2011. And the number of Sheridan students leaving for another district has grown.

Families tend to come in from the north and leave to the south, for Littleton Public Schools, a high-performing district also facing enrollment declines. In the past 18 months, after a K-8 college prep charter opened in north Littleton, Sheridan has lost 55 gifted students.

“That is a typical demographic that we lose,” Clough said.

Because the number of students determines funding in Colorado, the district relies heavily on grants to prop up its budget as it tries to keep its salaries on par with the larger districts that surround it. Last year, Sheridan’s $12.2 million operating budget was supplemented by $9 million in grants.

The city itself, covering two square miles in Arapahoe County, lags the state in education and earnings, according to census data:

  • The percent of Sheridan residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 10 percent, compared to 36 percent statewide.
  • Sheridan’s median average income is $32,382, compared to $56,456 across Colorado.
  • The number of Sheridan residents living below the poverty level is 28 percent, versus a state average of 12 percent.

Clough repeatedly praises a school board willing to embrace change, but he also acknowledges an uncomfortable reality. Those who serve on the board are not necessarily representative of those families served by the district.

Only 16 percent of Sheridan’s voters have a Hispanic surname, Clough noted, which, while an imperfect measurement, is far smaller than the 75 percent Hispanic student enrollment. Forty percent of Sheridan residents are Hispanic, according to census data.

And then there’s a tell-tale sign of apparent community apathy – one of Sheridan’s five school board seats has been vacant since 2007.

Drawn to the work: “It seemed like home”

If the challenges of working in a school like Fort Logan drives some educators away, those same obstacles draw other teachers like magnets.

“I feel like with students in a turnaround situation … they really need you,” said fourth-grade teacher Sarah Wood, who is in her first year at Fort Logan. “They need those good teachers because you have to know the strategies in which to best teach them, in order for them to do their very best.”

Wood, who taught in a high-poverty school in Greeley before losing her job to budget cuts, said the training, which began before school started, and the scrutiny has seemed overwhelming at times. She cried 13 times in her first four months – she counted – but she has no desire to leave.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Wood said. “This is where I want to be. I love my kids.”

Both Wood and Myers, who is her mentor, point to the school’s latest principal – Barb Johnson, a 19-year veteran of Sheridan classrooms – as a reason to stay.

Before Johnson, the principal came with top-notch recommendations as a turnaround leader. But he’d done that work in high schools and, by mid-year, he’d decided that was a better fit. The principal before that got hired by another district. The list goes on.

Johnson, who grew up not far away in southwest Denver and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School, taught elementary for nine years and then became an elementary instructional coach.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge. This is where I want to be. I love my kids.”
— Teacher Sarah Wood“Coaching really at that time was about who would be willing to let you come in and not shun you,” she said, adding, “We had a lot of very good teachers here. I think our struggle has always been, What’s our goal? What’s our outcome?”

After nine years of coaching, with yet another principal heading out the door, Johnson signaled her interest in the job. She was the unanimous choice after a selection process that included input from other district principals.

“It’s funny, when I came here and I would hear people say this was an at-risk community, I thought ‘This is where I’ve grown up, it doesn’t seem like at-risk to me.’ ” she said. “It seemed like home.”

Johnson is at ease in the classroom – it’s in the office, dealing with discipline and other managerial tasks, where she’s on less familiar ground. There is no assistant principal.

“It’s complex because kids need to know exactly what we do here and here’s what’s going to happen if and when,” she said, citing a recent focus on more consistent discipline as an example. “Because we’ve had so many principals, there’s been a lot of different approaches so kids have had different responses.

“If we’re going to turn around, there are several systems that need to be worked on simultaneously and sometimes that’s hard to manage. But it has to happen. So it’s really figuring out how are we going to get this worked on, and maintain our instructional level.”

Results: “We are one year behind”

Nearly two years into the three-year grant, the pressure is on for Fort Logan to post strong growth on scores released in August.

After the first year, the school’s results in reading actually declined by 5 percentage points, from 44 percent proficient or advanced to 39 percent. Results in writing were flat at 26 percent proficiency and math scores rose five percentage points, from 48 percent to 53 percent.

Math was also the only area in which Fort Logan students appeared to be progressing at a rate near the statewide average. In reading and writing, student academic growth lagged the state averages.

That means Fort Logan missed its achievement goals, which were to meet state averages or grow proficiency by at least 10 percent, in both proficiency and growth.

Neither Clough nor Johnson expects the school will meet those goals on the 2012 state tests either, though they do expect stronger growth. They said the school’s internal assessments aren’t predicting 10 percent gains.

Progress at Fort Logan “will start showing up this year,” Clough said. “It will really show up next year. We are one year behind where I wish we were.”

One key change this year was to fold Fort Logan’s only feeder school, Alice Terry Elementary, into the federal SIG grant. While both schools have operated as K-5s in the past, Alice Terry more recently has served grades K-2 while Fort Logan serves grades 3-5.

“Fort Logan takes the brunt of everything and the kick in the pants,” Clough said. “But in actuality, the problem is starting much lower.”

“Fort Logan takes the brunt of everything and the kick in the pants. But in actuality, the problem is starting much lower.”
— Superintendent Mike CloughLess than half the students coming from Alice Terry to Fort Logan demonstrate the ability to be proficient or advanced on state exams as third-graders, Johnson said.

“What it feels like is, as they come in to third grade here … you’re constantly playing catch up,” she said. “So you’re teaching skills that are remediation type skills as opposed to grade level skills. That is a combination that is not going to allow you to be proficient on CSAP.”

Teachers at Alice Terry have received similar training this year and the two staffs are working on creating a K-5 reading sequence that sets out academic goals for each grade.

“I feel we have to create reading experts across all elementary staff,” Johnson said. “We know we’re going to have kids coming to us, regardless of what position we’re in, who struggle.”

Alice Terry Principal Lynn Bajaj said more than half of the school’s kindergartners tested at well below grade level at the beginning of the school year. In December, 90 percent tested as proficient.

“We really are starting to move the needle in a pretty exciting way,” she said.

Johnson said she understands the need to show progress but she doesn’t believe in “quick fixes” such as six-week CSAP prep boot camps.

“If you’re teaching well every day, if you’re teaching the right things, if you’re getting feedback around the effectiveness, if you’re looking at the data, you’re going to make gains,” she said.

“What would make me feel sick is no growth, no continuous growth. That would bother me and I would expect someone to say, ‘What is going on?’ Absolutely.”

Stats for Sheridan School District, Fort Logan Elementary