PUEBLO — Feeling confident in the work she had accomplished, Pueblo City Schools Superintendent Maggie Lopez announced her retirement in January.
Some of the city’s chronically low performing schools were improving. She’d built up many of the basic systems that a school district needs to operate, like new evaluations and streamlined curriculum across the city. The southern Colorado school district, one of the first to be labeled failing when the state’s accountability law took effect in 2010, had upward momentum.
“We’re at a point where we see the rollercoaster [of achievement] heading up,” Lopez said this spring. “It isn’t going to be easy. But it’s a good time to hand off the baton.”
But while the school system has gotten better since Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains.
And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new superintendent, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year.
“I have a fear with Maggie leaving, we’re going to lose some ground,” said Rod Slyhoff, president of the Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know. I’ve seen it happen before with leadership changes.”
The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans like Slyhoff feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.
Pueblo has had rocky leadership transitions before — most notably, in 2005, when Pueblo’s former leader, Joyce Bales, a key figure in boosting Pueblo’s academic performance, left. Bales’ replacement, John Covington, got off to a tumultuous start with the city’s teachers union during tense contract negotiations.
Many teachers, principals, and observers privately believe that Covington, who left the district in 2009, never healed the rift between his administration and the city’s instructors, and that tension contributed to Pueblo’s academic losses.
Part of the reason the board hired Jones to replace Lopez was because they believed there could be a seamless handoff between the two.
“We cannot — we will not — miss a beat,” said Kathy DeNiro, the board’s president and former district administrator.
Jones, and the public, will have a clearer idea today on exactly what state Lopez left the district when the state releases the results from last spring’s standardized tests.
For now, Jones is carrying on the belief that Pueblo will beat the clock in time.
“I absolutely have a concern and feel a sense of urgency,” Jones told The Pueblo Chieftain. “But I’m also very confident, based on the conversations I’ve already had, that we will make the improvements we need to make in order to reset the clock and to make the progress we need to become accredited at the highest level of distinction.”
Pueblo solutions for Pueblo problems
The district did make many strides under Lopez — progress that can be seen at the Pueblo Academy of Arts.
Principal Karen Ortiz remembers when all six of the elementary schools that sent their students to the academy, formerly known as Pitts Middle School, were running different programs.
“Eighty percent of my students that first year were not at grade-level,” she said. “It was almost assured if you came here, you’d need remediation.”
At the school itself, there was no trust, the campus was dirty, and teachers had no guidance.
Today, the school is perhaps Pueblo City Schools’ greatest turnaround success story. Students enter classrooms in single file, shaking the hands of their teachers as they enter. Guests are also welcomed onto campus by a handshake. Instruction begins almost immediately and multiple hands rise to the air even on the most difficult of chemistry questions.
And the school, which was once labeled failing, is off the clock.
Ortiz credits the school’s music program, led by Lymon Bushkovski, as the foundation of her turnaround effort.
Amid all the chaos, “we had a shining star and it was our music program,” Ortiz said. Students from across the city would choose to attend Pitts for a chance to learn from Bushkovski. “That was the piece of hope we saw coming through.”
So, when given the opportunity two years ago to redesign the school’s model through a districtwide initiative to grant more autonomy to three of its struggling middle schools, Ortiz capitalized on the music department’s success and pushed to become a school for the arts, or the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.
In addition to the new name and focus on arts integration in the classroom, the academy has made use of its new found freedoms by establishing daily collaboration time and school specific professional development for its teachers, extended its day, and will soon add primary grades.
Since Ortiz took over, the academy has accelerated student achievement. It’s climbed off the state’s accountability list completely. And Ortiz hopes her school’s continued academic rise will help push the district off the clock as well.
Ortiz’s efforts illustrate Superintendent Lopez’s two key strategies: alignment and innovation.
When Lopez started, the district had no formal evaluation tools for its teachers or principals, curriculum and instruction varied from school to school, and the district did not track lesson plans or have any strategic plan regarding professional development or school improvement.
Lopez has spent the bulk of her four years at the helm of Pueblo City Schools either creating or drawing together those functions of a school system. And, in the case of three of the city’s middle schools, she provided leaders to be set free of some central district policies, like at the academy.
But even with all the work Lopez and her team has done, there is little doubt among the locals here that the schools are still in trouble. Many community members in Pueblo believe that the key to progress is consistency — but without knowing how the transition will play out or how the state will intervene, if it does, guaranteeing that consistency is impossible.
“We have clearly demonstrated that Pueblo schools can achieve,” Slyhoff said. “But they have to stay the course.”
Slyhoff argues if the state has a solution for five years of chronic low performance, it should give the communities struggling to improve their schools the answer immediately rather than leaving them waiting on an uncertain future.
The state, which does not want Pueblo or any other school district to lose its accreditation, wants solutions to be based on the needs of the individual school districts. They regularly dispatch members of their school accountability team to troubled districts and, in an effort to focus more on schools, has created a voluntary turnaround network with the hope of accelerating achievement.
“[The accountability system] forces the local community to face the challenges of the local community,” said Keith Owen, deputy commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education and former Pueblo elementary school principal. “There’s no magic solution up here in Denver. What we want — we hope for — is local, contextualized solutions.”
But despite the state’s emphasis on helping Pueblo officials come up with their own paths forward, state officials’ involvement at all has generated some anger and skepticism.
“They can close our school, but they’re going to have to put the kids somewhere,” said DarciAnn Samples, a teacher at Roncalli.
Many possible paths
Technically, the state isn’t going to close any schools itself — it can’t, by law.
What state officials can do is strip the district of its accreditation and place conditions that the district must follow for the state seal of approval to be reinstated.
How long a failing district can go without accreditation is the most ambiguous portion of the state’s accountability law. Currently, state officials suggest the duration will depend on how quickly the state board and district come to an agreement on what the district needs to do. That could take minutes, but it also could take months.
There’s a broad range of possible conditions the state might place on a district to reinstate its accreditation. The district may be forced to close failing schools or turn them over to a charter network; the district might break apart into smaller (and hopefully more manageable) bureaucracies; or it could merge with a nearby high-performing district.
Another, potentially more likely scenario — especially for the city’s struggling middle schools — is that the state could ask the local school board to take specific actions around individual schools, such as closing them or handing them over to a charter operator.
“If I were the state, I’d send in the charter schools,” said board member Rose Holloway.
But that scenario is complicated by the fact that there seems to be little parent demand for the two local charter schools that are already available.
While there is a wait list at the Pueblo School for the Arts and Sciences, or PSAS, that school’s operator had to close its high school due to low enrollment numbers. And the K-8 school’s former leader, Natalie Allen, said a recent study suggested there was not enough demand to warrant an expansion.
And the Chavez-Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy can fill another 300 desks, said its director and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Joe V. Aldaz.
The Chavez-Huerta charter network, Aldaz said, is still recovering from a public scandal that included accusations of embezzlement and nepotism by its founders. But he also believes that the lack of interest in charter schools in Pueblo, especially at the secondary level, has more to do with the city’s celebrated traditions at its four high schools.
“I can offer their children an associates degree when they graduate from here,” Aldaz said. “But I guess it’s more important about where the parents went to high school.”
In their own hands
While they wait to see how the leadership transition will play out and what, if any, action the state will take, some community members have taken matters into their own hands.
Cindy Ayala first became suspicious of the Pueblo’s schools were doing when young men and women couldn’t successfully fill out a job application at her family’s Mexican restaurant, Nachos.
Back-to-back community surveys in 2007 and 2010 commissioned by two different organizations proved her theory correct: there were problems in the city’s schools.
“Something needed to be done,” said Cindy Ayala, a local business owner and director of another Youth program, Trio Upward Bound. “And it needed to start before the students reached high school.”
So, with the help of two local organizations, the MyLife Program was launched. Today, 90 students participate. They go on monthly field trips to focus on different skills and they meet monthly at Pueblo Community College, in part to create awareness about options after high school.
Separately, the Pueblo branch of the United Way has launched its own mentorship program to work with at-risk youth.
“There was a big gap in our middle schools,” said Andrea Aragon, president of Pueblo’s United Way. “We wanted to make a difference.”
Aragon convinced a principal at Heaton Middle School on the city’s north side to allow mentors to work with 10 students. Within a year, those students’ failing grades dropped by 50 percent, Aragon said. One student has moved from below proficient on the state’s standardized test to advance. Another student, for the first time in his academic career, received no failing grades on his report card.
Almost since Colorado’s current school accountability process began in 2010, school leaders and observers from across the state have been critical of it.
The state, they argue, is asking the most disadvantaged to do more and often with less. If the adults can’t muster it, the students are the ones penalized, labeled as failing. And, they point out, the state does not have the capacity nor the authority to operate the nearly dozen districts that are near the end of the statutory timetable.
But Pueblo officials, unlike many in the community they serve, say they see their status as an opportunity to improve.
“We adopted a ‘we can do this’ attitude,” said Brenda Krage, a former assistant superintendent who left the district in June.
The public will get its first indication of whether Pueblo managed to pull itself out of the red zone or whether it’s down to one more year on the clock today, when the state releases the results from last years state standardized tests.
While the official state ratings based on those scores won’t be released until later this fall, careful observers will likely be able to read the tea leaves.
If Pueblo students have demonstrated even the slightest bit of improvement, that bodes well for the district officials who have worked tirelessly. But if scores are stagnant, or worse, if they drop, that means the hardest challenges are ahead.
But even with the difficulties and uncertainties, Suzanne Ethredge, president of Pueblo’s teachers union, believes that the district is scrappy enough to pull through.
“Pueblo is often the stepchild of the state,” she said. “Pueblo is used to having to fight for what we need — and we usually get it.”