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State board to hear options for turnaround schools as ‘clock’ runs short for two

For the first time, the State Board of Education is hearing specific recommendations about its legal options and mandates when a school district is deemed failing for five years.

The conversation is being held as two small rural school districts edge closer to the possibility of losing accreditation.

No Colorado school district has lost its accreditation since a 2009 law created a framework to assess schools and districts and built a ratings system to hold them accountable for student achievement.

A district’s accreditation is directly linked to the rankings established in the framework, which span from “distinction,” the highest rating, to “turnaround,” the lowest. When a school or district earns a turnaround or priority rating, it is given five years to show improvement or risk state sanctions.

The five year period is often referred to as the “accountability clock.”

While there has been public speculation about what the state might do, until now the state board has not publicly explored what steps it must take if a district runs out the clock without improvements.

“The state is entering uncharted territory,” said Peter Sherman executive director for the state’s district and school performance unit, which tracks and supports turnaround districts.

2013 district ratings

Here are the 2013 statistics for Colorado school districts under the state’s five-step system.

  • Distinction – 16 districts or 8.8 percent, down from 19 in 2012. 8.8 pct
  • Accredited – 95 or 52.2 percent, up from 87
  • Improvement – 54 or 29.7 percent, up from 52
  • Priority improvement – 15 or 8.2 percent, down from 19
  • Turnaround – Two or 1.1 percent, down from 5

See the full list of districts and their ratings here. This CDE slideshow has more information, including color charts that show district ratings in a visual format.

On Wednesday, the state board was briefed on this year’s district performance framework reports. Vilas Schools, in southeast Colorado, and Karval Public Schools, about 75 miles east of Colorado Springs, both earned turnaround status for a fourth consecutive year.

If the Karval and Vilas districts maintain their trajectory, Sherman said on Tuesday, in a year’s time, the state board will be compelled to strip their accreditation beginning July 1, 2015, which is likely to have adverse effects on their students.

“We will be very clear with the board that it is an action they’d have to take,” Sherman said.

What’s more open to interpretation is what steps the state will require districts to take in order for accreditation to be re-established. Possible scenarios include a complete reorganization of a district, school closures or converting failing schools to charters.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen told the board if Vilas and Karval were to shutter their online programs they would move off turnaround.

Both districts, and those with similar status, have been assigned performance managers to find solutions before accreditation is stripped.

“We don’t want them to get to the end of the clock,” Sherman said. “It’s our intention to work with (school districts) to improve.”

Several larger school districts are one year behind Karval and Vilas, including Pueblo District 60, Sheridan and Adams 14. Other large districts that remain in “priority improvement” status, one step above turnaround, include Aurora, Mapleton, Montezuma-Cortez and Westminster.

Ratings for 81 percent of districts didn’t change from 2012. Some 12 percent of districts moved up at least one level.

Seven districts plus the Charter School Institute moved off the clock by moving to “improvement” status from priority improvement. That list includes Denver Public Schools, Englewood and Greeley.

Two districts, East Otero and Trinidad, moved down the scale into priority improvement.

Accreditation contracts are extended to school districts in July after they have a six-month period to evaluate their ratings and develop an improvement plan.

Possible outcomes of the loss of accreditation include, but are not limited to, the withholding of federal funds, possible student disqualification for scholarships and devaluation of diplomas.

“The loss of accreditation, as we know it, is not a good state of affairs to be in,” he said.

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the Englewood school district’s performance framework rating. As of this year’s rankings, they are no longer on the accountability clock.