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State board hints at different paths forward for two very different struggling districts

The two low-performing districts that presented their improvement efforts to the State Board of Education on Wednesday offered a study in contrast: Adams 50 is a Denver metro-area district serving nearly 10,000 students. Vilas RE-5, a rural district in the southeastern part of the state, serves fewer than 140 students, half of whom attend school online.

The differences between the two school districts, both of which face a looming deadline to dramatically improve their student outcomes or face state intervention, are forcing state officials to grapple with how they will tailor turnaround efforts to meet divergent district needs.

Wednesday’s state board meeting was an opportunity for officials to hear directly from districts about their efforts to improve before the state’s so-called “accountability clock” runs out. Officials hope the talks will inform state board members’ thinking when they make decision about accreditation and potential interventions when districts’ time runs out.

Vilas, whose students are divided roughly evenly between a K-8 online school and a K-12 brick and mortar campus, could face a state decision regarding its accreditation as soon as next fall. Westminster, which adopted a district-wide competency-based learning program, has an additional year to show considerable progress.

During Westminster’s presentation, nearly a dozen district and school officials clustered around the table separating them from board members to present their case. They showed the progress the district has made, showing that none of the district’s schools are ranked in the state’s lowest tier, down from seven of the district’s 18 schools that received the ranking four years ago.

Westminster leaders also pointed out their efforts to improve early childhood education access and overhaul data systems that state and district officials said were lacking.

Board members praised those efforts and several, including Debora Scheffel, appeared sympathetic to Westminster officials’ point that their efforts were showing success that state accountability systems could not capture.

“How can CDE support your efforts?” Scheffel asked.

“Cut back on tests and stick to one model” was the refrain from Westminster officials.

Both district presentations are available here, along with additional documents provided by CDE.

What to do about the online school?

When state board members returned to their seats following a short recess, they faced a very different group of district officials, including Vilas’ superintendent Joe Shields and the district’s two other administrators who lead the online and brick and mortar campuses.

Robert Hammond, the state commissioner of education, set the tone for much of the discussion around Vilas’ future as he introduced the district to the board.

“One of the biggest challenges for Vilas is the online school,” Hammond said. “If the online school was not part of district, it would probably jump out of improvement.”

Last year, the district, with the help of the state, shut down its online high school and helped its students, few of whom came from the area, transition to other schools.

Vilas’ new online coordinator also highlighted other efforts to overhaul the online program for elementary and middle school, including hiring an interventionist for struggling students and overhauling the reading curriculum.

“Sometimes you have to slow down and go back to grow,” said Carrie Veatch, who joined the district last fall. “I wish we were in year one because now we are getting somewhere.”

Before, Veatch said, the approach was “if they had a pulse, [we would say,] ‘come on and enroll.'” Now the district screens students to make sure they are a good fit.

Veatch has also introduced more structure to classes, including requiring students to turn in homework on a deadline rather than by the end of the quarter. Struggling students are required to participate in weekly intervention classes, a change which has driven some families from the district.

“Some families have said, ‘we came to online because of the flexibility,'” said Veatch. She hopes families will adjust to the added structure. “This will become part of the status quo.”

Veatch said the district was seeing positive trends, including rising student achievement, higher grades and more participation.

“We’re doing things right,” she said.

But questions lingered about the viability of the Vilas online program. State board member Elaine Berman raised the possibility of closing the district’s K-8 online school.

“I am going to be very optimistic that online students are going to do better,” said Berman. “But if they don’t, are you prepared to have the online school separate from the brick and mortar school?”

Shields said they would make that decision based on this spring’s test results.

“We don’t want to do it if we don’t have to,” he told Chalkbeat in an interview following the board meeting. He plans to look at end-of-year internal testing data and make a recommendation to the school board in May.

But the final decision will be made in August when TCAP scores are released.

The challenges of rural turnarounds

Vilas’ presentation also raised questions about what the possibilities are for rural turnaround efforts. Board members probed the inner workings of small rural districts, asking about Vilas’ financial viability and how staff copes with state reforms.

“I’m always curious how small districts manage to make it financially,” said Berman. She and others commented on the burden of systems like educator evaluations on small districts.

Board member Angelika Schroeder asked Vilas officials about their work with the local BOCES, which are collaborative regional systems that provide services to many rural districts.

“What kind of work are you doing together?” Schroeder asked.

Shields said they worked with the BOCES and nearby districts more than in the past.

“There used to be a great deal of animosity,” Shields said.

While rivalry between districts has prevented collaboration through the BOCES system in the past, they are becoming a tool for many rural districts to adapt to state standards.

State board members praised the district for its efforts and discussed the difficulty of overhauling rural districts.

“In other states, if a district falls below 500 [students], they close them down or force consolidation,” said board member Marcia Neal. “You can’t do that in rural Colorado.”

She said distances were too great and in many areas, “the rural school is a driving economic factor in community.”