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Students work on their math skills at Castro Elementary School in Denver. Behind them is a progress chart. Several schools, like Crawford Elementary in Aurora, track student progress against its Unified Improvement Plan.

Students work on their math skills at Castro Elementary School in Denver. Behind them is a progress chart. Several schools, like Crawford Elementary in Aurora, track student progress against its Unified Improvement Plan.

For low-performing schools, a crucial roadmap

For the faculty and staff of Aurora Public Schools’ Crawford Elementary School, there is no escaping the campus’ goals. Not even in the restroom.

Posted directly across from the toilet reserved for teachers and visitors is a single sheet of paper with the school’s three goals. Crawford’s educators are reminded every time nature calls: Teachers will plan standards-based lessons, they will collaborate across grades and content areas, and students will write every day.

“Well, our goals are not on the bedside table,” said Lacey Farmer, a fourth grade teacher. “But they are a part of everything we do. They’re constantly around us.”

In every classroom. In every hallway. In the forefront of every teacher’s mind.

The goals aim to lift student proficiency, especially in writing, and develop every teacher’s ability to understand and teach to the new Colorado Academic Standards. They were developed through the Unified Improvement Plan process, in which the school’s leadership team worked with teachers, parents and central administrators to identify areas of improvement and set clear goals to increase student learning.

Before 2009, school improvement plans, often referred to as UIPs, were a bureaucratic compliance mechanism. There were plans for accreditation purposes, grants, and other state requirements. Since then, the state has combined all of those forms into a single template and its purpose has evolved into the quietest tool of school reform.

Every school and district in Colorado must develop a UIP annually, but the roadmaps are meant to be living documents that school leaders, teachers, administrators and board members refer back to throughout the year.

“If it’s viewed as an annual event, then nothing will change,” Youngquist said.

The intent is to keep focus on those goals educators believe will dramatically increase student performance and let all else fall by the wayside, said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer.

But if school leaders are brutally honest, understand their data, can articulate their desired goals and put together a plan to reach those goals, a big payoff should follow, he said.

New leader, new direction, brutal honesty

When Principal Jenny Passchier joined Crawford this school year, she knew one of her first tasks would be to visit the school’s UIP.

She wanted to honor established building goals, but knew a fresh set of eyes were needed. Hours of conversations and data sessions with her leadership team and teachers yielded a clear understanding of why Crawford was one of the district’s lowest performing elementary schools: teachers here didn’t know what proficient writing is.

That ‘brutally honest’ assessment is the type of inward looking reflection district and state officials are looking for in a school’s plan.

“It came from the teachers,” Passchier said. “They hadn’t had any professional development around writing to the new standards. They so desperately wanted that development to help the kids.”

Fourth grade teacher Clara Hernandez said the discussions were difficult but necessary.

“Other schools would be crushed,” she said. “But we don’t see it that way. We see this process as an opportunity to be a part of something.”

That this realization came from the teachers, not the school’s principal is important, said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the Colorado Department of Education.

“It’s about having those really tough discussions,” Medler said. “When it’s an inclusive process, it really can help.”

To correct this “root cause,” or one of the chief reasons why Crawford students are not demonstrating proficiency on state exams, Crawford students are now writing every day and there are regular schoolwide writing prompts teachers assess together.

Understanding data, correcting along the way

Previous iterations of Crawford’s UIP had a similar collaborative process. But something that was missing, teachers said, was a data component.

“With previous leadership, we had a lot of intention around climate,” said Jenny Buster, Crawford’s assistant principal. “Did we have safe classrooms? Did we meet our student’s social and emotional needs? We have that in place now. And we’re shifting to academics.”

Teachers keep detailed charts of student progress. Every Wednesday teachers team up to discuss student trajectories and create lesson plans focused on the new standards.

“There’s always a reminder of exactly where we are,” said Liz Soltys, a first grade teacher.

Consistently monitoring data is a crucial step, the district’s academic officer Youngquist said.

“Our challenge is making sure we implement our strategies effectively,” he said.

While there are hard deadlines to submit a UIP to the state, Medler suggests schools and districts should be regularly updating their UIP with the most timely information.

“Don’t wait on CDE,” Medler said with a chuckle. “Keep going.”

Because Aurora is on the state’s accountability clock, the district has been receiving direct assistance from Medler’s office. This year the state is expanding its services to individual schools on the accountability clock, as well.

“When you’re at the point of being either a priority improvement or turnaround district,” Medler said, referencing the state’s two lowest accountability ratings, “there’s probably a lot in your system to work on. But we’re trying to help focus on the few things that will make an improvement.”

For teachers at Crawford Elementary School that focus is just one bathroom break away.