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Grant spurs big changes in tiny Center

CENTER – When a federal grant began dumping half a million dollars a year into a cash-strapped elementary school in one of Colorado’s poorest counties, one result – initially – was jealousy.

“It’s been pretty contentious,” admitted George Welsh, superintendent of the 600-student Center School District in the southern center of the state. “If you were to interview my middle and high school principal, they have been at times jealous of the extra support.”

Education funding in Colorado, as in many states, was chopped in the Great Recession as the ambitious effort to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools began funneling billions of dollars into selected campuses.

A year and a half later, Welsh calls the grant “the best thing that’s happened to Center schools in the 16 years I’ve been here.”

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Center, a town of fewer than 2,300 residents, lies in Saguache County in the rural San Luis Valley, ringed by the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar frequently describes growing up nearby on a farm with no running water. The closest chain grocery store is the next town over. The nearest “big city” is Alamosa, population 9,000, some 30 miles southeast.

In 2010, when the district’s only elementary school became eligible for a federal School Improvement Grant, Haskin Elementary was averaging a new principal every two years. Teacher turnover was marginally better:

“The district’s teacher applicant pool traditionally has not been a deep one,” Center’s grant application states, “thus the district has had to do the best possible with the applicants available to fill positions.”

Results of the state’s 2009 exams showed one in three Haskin students reading at grade level or above. One in four students performed at that level in math. In writing, it was one in five.

“I own where we were,” said Welsh, who in 2009 was in his 13th year leading the district.

Starting point: Transformation model, with a twist

Haskin enrolls 310 students in the district’s former K-12 school, built in 1918. More than 90 percent of children receive federal lunch aid and 40 percent of students are learning English. In recent years, as many as one in four students have been from migrant families who work farms up and down the state.

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There are no charter schools or private schools in Center, which lists “new Family Dollar store” among its top 10 assets on the town’s barebones website.

“For us, closing a school down is not an option. It’s the only elementary school we have in the district,” Welsh said, ticking through the four models required for schools accepting the federal grant. “We didn’t see that turning it into a charter made a whole lot of sense.”

As for replacing half the staff, part of the turnaround option, “We’re not Denver. We didn’t think that just firing half of our teachers and hiring whatever was available out there was going to be necessarily a higher quality option than what we currently have.”

But district leaders didn’t want to replace Haskin’s principal, the most dramatic change required in the transformation model, the least radical of the four options.

They had hired Kathy Kulp two years before, in 2007, when their principal search yielded only one qualified candidate – “meaning they had certification but a ‘bounce around’ and ‘asked to leave a lot’ track record,” according to the grant application.

So they chose Kulp, a Center schools graduate and 22-year Haskin teacher nearing the end of her administrative training.

To convince state officials charged with overseeing the grant that they were serious about change, district leaders agreed to hire an instructional coach for Kulp and fund the position at their own expense. Welsh also agreed to spend 15 hours a week in the elementary school working with Kulp.

“Kathy is homegrown – we don’t anticipate her moving on,” Welsh said. “This grant was an opportunity we’ve been dying for for years. We didn’t want to have a person trained and just looking for the next job.”

Constant teacher churn, contradictory instructional theories

Despite concerns about being required to replace half the 20-teacher staff, Kulp ended up doing just that over two years’ time.

In the first year of the grant, 2010-11, Kulp had eight teaching jobs to fill – another came open before the first week of school was up when Kulp and Welsh realized a new teacher hire was “a major mistake.” Said Welsh: “If there was a chandelier in the room, the kids would have been swinging on it.”

This past fall, the second year of the grant, Kulp had four openings, including a teacher who took another job in a nearby district shortly after the school year began. The principal called Kulp to check the teacher’s references on the day after students returned to class.

Few Haskin teachers live in Center – Welsh estimates “maybe two” – because available housing is limited and there are few amenities. Most drive in from slightly larger towns nearby; some commute as far as 45 miles each way.

Teachers frequently leave Center because it’s not hard to find a job paying more than $30,000 a year. Those who’ve stayed have had disparate instructional training as the district chased different grants.

“If you’re a school in a district rolling down the path of accountability, when different grants become available, you tend to want to jump in and participate in the grants,” Welsh said.

So teachers received grant money for training in Reading Excellence, a whole-language literacy program. That was followed by Reading First, a phonics-based literacy program. Somewhere in between, in chronology and theory, was Read to Achieve.

“A kid being taught literacy in Center would bounce between one theory and another … I know the intent of those grant programs was all well and good, but I think we kind of became a pinball machine as a result.”
— Superintendent George Welsh“A kid being taught literacy in Center would bounce between one theory and another, back and forth,” Welsh said. “I know the intent of those grant programs was all well and good, but I think we kind of became a pinball machine as a result.”

Kulp, who taught kindergarten and first grade, said teachers were working hard.

“Every year, we’d come back and get the bad news about our CSAP scores, the elementary had low scores,” she said. “We’d be kind of defeated and we’d roll up our sleeves and try again. But it was just so unfocused.

“We had so much money coming through this place, so many different kinds of grant programs that made you buy something. We just never had a clear enough plan about implementing it, making sure it was happening, sticking to something.”

Major step: A curriculum for the first time

In 2009, Colorado Department of Education officials sent a team to Haskin to conduct a diagnostic review. One of the “root causes” of the school’s poor performance, the team found, was lack of a defined curriculum in reading, writing and math.

Center’s SIG budget

  • Haskin Elementary is receiving a total three-year grant of $1.66 million, or $555,000 each year in 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13.
  • More than 65 percent of those dollars in the first year went to two outside consultants, which dropped to 36 percent in the second year of the grant. Superintendent George Welsh said the consultants are teaching Center educators to “fish for ourselves.”
  • Center hired Focal Point, a for-profit company started by Mike Miles, another Colorado schools superintendent. Focal Point has focused on leadership training and selecting a curriculum – something Center did not have.
  • Center also hired Lindamood-Bell, another for-profit company focused on intensive literacy training, including implementing summer and after-school academies for struggling readers and moving a trainer into Center for 18 months.

Welsh said educators in the tiny district struggled for years to create a curriculum based on the state academic standards approved in the mid-1990s that sets out what is to be taught, and when. They failed.

“We, as a district, were never able to really come together and put it into some kind of document form that said, teach this in August, teach this in September, teach this in October, for each subject area That’s a big process. Now Cherry Creek or Denver, they have the personnel to do that,” Welsh said.

“I believe for the most part, what we were teaching kids, kids were learning. We didn’t know what to teach kids. We weren’t able to figure out what the state was going to hold us accountable for.”

Part of the federal SIG grant went toward purchasing a K-8 curriculum from Focal Point, a for-profit company started by Harrison Schools Superintendent Mike Miles. The document sets out a sequence for teaching the state standards and color codes those that show up most frequently on annual state exams.

The company has agreed to update the curriculum to the recently adopted new academic standards.

Welsh said it’s frustrating the state officials did not assist smaller districts by offering a baseline, optional curriculum for them to follow.

“We’ve got 600 kids and 50 certified staff and if I’m creating kindergarten curriculum, I’m pulling a kindergarten teacher out of the classroom to do it and that’s not an effective model,” he said.

Kulp said teachers might once have been reluctant to accept a purchased curriculum, preferring to go it on their own. But she said the past years spent trying to create their own, with little success, made it more attractive.

“The curriculum is no longer dependent on who the teacher is. The curriculum is the curriculum,” Welsh said. “How effectively it’s delivered is dependent on the teacher. And that’s what we get to focus on, how effective your delivery of the curriculum is. We’re not focusing on what you teach.”

Center teachers say expectations higher, work harder

JoAnn Lopez, an 11-year kindergarten teacher at Haskin, said she was initially “overwhelmed” when she saw the curriculum or instructional map last year.

“It states kids should know their letters and sounds by October,” she said. “And in the past, it was a yearlong journey for us. Now we’ve stepped up the expectations.”

Expectations were also raised for how many words kindergartners should know on sight – before, it was 25 to 32 words by the end of the year. Now it’s 100.

Before the Focal Point curriculum or the new reading program, Lindamood-Bell, Lopez said teachers from grades K-12 met to discuss annual benchmarks for students. The results weren’t as detailed.

Lopez said some teachers used textbooks, working from start to finish over the course of the year. Others had favorite lessons they taught.

“If there is something you wanted to teach,” she said, “you could find a standard to cover it.”

Nicole Neufeld, a six-year teacher in her first year at Haskin, said the curriculum is “a relief.”

“I think in some ways there’s been kind of an assumption that teachers would or could look straight to standards for some scope and sequence for what should be happening in their classroom and I think that is a good idea – but I don’t think that was happening,” she said.

Both Lopez and Neufeld said they’re working harder in Haskin as a SIG school than they have previously, citing the higher expectations, the requirement that detailed lesson plans be submitted weekly and an infusion of classroom technology.

“We are constantly evaluated … It’s ‘A’ game all the time or you’re going to see that reflected in a walk-through.”
— Teacher Nicole NeufeldThey’re also being observed in their classrooms more frequently. Teachers with less than three years of experience, or those who lack tenure, are observed six times per quarter. Teachers with more than three years of experience, or those who have tenure, are observed three times per quarter.

“Wanting to do right by our kids is a huge driving force,” Neufeld said. “But the other part of it is we are constantly evaluated … It’s ‘A’ game all the time or you’re going to see that reflected in a walk-through.”

In her prior job, she said, she was observed once a semester and the feedback was along the lines of, “Maybe you could put more posters on the wall.”

The feedback at Haskin is more immediate, with Kulp inputting her observations electronically and the forms sent automatically to the teachers. An instructional coach then follows up on Kulp’s suggestions.

“I think I’ve changed more as a teacher in this school year than I had in five years previously,” Neufeld said.

Lopez said some teachers weren’t happy with the changes, worrying that a curriculum was too scripted, for example. But the progress shown by students on district assessments has eased those concerns.

“It helped justify everything we’re doing and it helped us to know that we’re doing the right work,” she said.

Improved results, and sustaining the changes when grant dollars are gone

Welsh said the SIG grant is providing something the district’s other grants did not.

“The missing link in all of these things was the leadership training,” he said. “I’ve become the best administrator that I’ve ever been because of this turnaround and that’s what is happening at my elementary school as well.”

Because the consultants have allowed it, the middle and high school principals – along with others identified as potential leaders – also have sat in on the training. Welsh said that’s helped the hard feelings about the extra dollars going to Haskin.

State test results after one year of the transformation were improved. Spring 2011 scores were 4 percentage points higher in reading than in 2010; writing was up two points and math was up nine points.

Welsh said mid-year exams this year show greater growth.

“I can’t wait to see our state test results this year,” he said. “Because what you can see happening in the building and from the benchmark results we’ve already received, it’s going to be pretty exciting.”

A key concern is sustaining change after the grant money runs out. Welsh believes the school’s newly trained staff is invigorated and will stick around.

But other pieces are less certain. For example, the federal dollars help pay for extended learning time for struggling readers – a five-week summer reading academy and small-group instruction after the regular day during the school year.

The burden for that has fallen heavily on teachers. To help relieve some of that, Welsh is now writing another grant – this time to pay Lindamood-Bell to teach community volunteers to help in any way they can.

“Our community isn’t full of people we can train and have them do this,” Welsh said. “We’re going to take ladies out of the church and retired teachers and everyone we can muster in the community who’s capable.”

Achievement, enrollment data for Center School District, Haskin Elementary