Colorado weighs another shot at R2T

Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien talk to reporters Monday about R2T.

Colorado’s loss in round one of the federal Race to the Top sent state leaders scrambling Monday to figure out how to up their odds in round two – if they chose to apply again.

That’s up to Gov. Bill Ritter, who described it as “likely,” but was careful not to commit.

Colorado made it to the finals stage with its $377 million application to jump-start education reform statewide but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan named only two winners on Monday: Delaware and Tennessee.

Duncan said he hopes to name another “10 to 15 states” winners in round two of the overall $4.3 billion national grant competition, part of President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

But to do that, Duncan said states must adhere to budget guidelines based on school-aged population in the second round, which has a June 1 deadline. That means Colorado will have to slash its application to between $60 million and $175 million.

Ritter said state leaders will look at the winning applications and see how they differed from Colorado’s before deciding, within the next week, whether to apply again.

“We’ll look … and see what distinguished their applications from ours,” the governor said. “If they’re going to fund another 10 to 15 states, we still think that we have some chance if we decide to go forward.”

Tennessee will receive $500 million and Delaware will get $100 million for winning round one of the federal Race, leaving $3.4 billion to be awarded in round two. See how all the states stacked up in the ranking here.

Colorado won the most points for its standards and assessments and for its plan to turn around low-performing schools, winning 90 percent of the points possible in both areas. See the state scorecard here and reviewers’ comments here.

Comparing Colorado’s bid to winning states

Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for the first round of Race to the Top, and panels of outsider reviewers hired by the U.S. Department of Education cut that number to 16 finalists on March 4. Monday, Duncan named the two winners and released states’ rankings and reviewers’ comments.

Colorado ranked third from the bottom of the 16 finalists, with 409.6 out of a possible 500 points, topping only New York and Washington D.C. In contrast, Delaware received 454.6 points and Tennessee earned 444.2 points.

Reviewers judged the weakest spots in Colorado’s application to be its plan to improve teacher and principal quality, which netted 75.9 percent of 138 possible points, and in its likelihood of successfully implementing the overall reform plan, which won 76.1 percent of 125 possible points.

Scroll down in the chart below to see how Colorado compares to the winning states in each category:  

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Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who led Colorado’s Race effort, pointed out the state did not lose points, as some had predicted, in its creation of a council to define effective teachers and principals and to come up with ways to measure them linked to student growth.

Other states passed laws locking in educator evaluation systems. Days before the first Race deadline, Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation requiring the annual evaluations of teachers and principals based at least 50 percent on student achievement.

But reviewers did fault Colorado for failing to provide quality alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals, noting those in place produce fewer than 10 percent of the state’s educators.

Reviewers also took points away for what they saw as the state’s failure to explain how it would ensure effective teachers are equitably distributed in high-poverty, high-minority schools and across hard-to-fill subject areas.

“The application does not adequately address how the state monitors or evaluates all areas of need related to critical educator shortages,” one reviewer wrote.

O’Brien said the state can strengthen its application language in those areas.

“We were talking like a Western state,” she said. “But we have to have incentives to get districts and teachers to distribute themselves and to have alternative pathways because that’s how you do it in a local-control state.

“I do think we can be much more explicit about, ‘This is our goal and we will reach it.’ ”

Low marks for academic track record, participation

Other parts of Colorado’s application cited as weaknesses were its lack of demonstrated significant progress in raising achievement and concerns about buy-in from school districts and unions.

One reviewer said “the overall gains suggest real progress” among Colorado’s students but that the state did not link specific strategies to some data.

For example, national and state test scores “shows a general flat performance in reading across the 2003-2009 period” but the application “fails to provide an explanation of how the state is adjusting its strategy based upon the data story.”

Another reviewer said the state attributes a rise in math scores to “a focus” on standards and alignment but since reading scores haven’t similarly improved, “perhaps there was no parallel focus on reading … this lack of focus would need to be explained.”

Several reviewers also cited concerns about the fact that only 41 percent of local teachers’ unions signed on to participate in reforms if Colorado won Race dollars.

In the metro area, Aurora and Cherry Creek unions declined to participate though the statewide teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, submitted a letter of support.

“Successful state reform efforts must have the strong support of the local unions,” a reviewer wrote. “Without their participation, the possibility for obstruction of the reform agenda is heightened.”

In Delaware, 100 percent of union leaders agreed to participate and, in Tennessee, 93 percent of unions signed on. Both winning states also had 100 percent of school districts climbing on board for Race reforms, which Duncan cited in Monday’s press conference.

“Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies,” he said. “And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Next steps in the Race to the Top

In Colorado, 134 of the state’s 178 school districts have indicated they will participate in reforms funded by Race dollars.

The other 4o are “mostly small, mostly rural” districts wary of federal entanglement, O’Brien said.

“They don’t like federal mandates and they want to make sure there isn’t federal takeover of education,” she said.

As state leaders figure out whether to re-apply for Race to the Top, they’ll be talking to those superintendents again to see if they’re willing to reconsider. It likely won’t help that the state will be seeking half its original bid in round two.

O’Brien said education officials are poring over the 46 pages of reviewers’ comments as they figure out next steps.

“We want to look at all the comments for several other states, definitely Delaware and Tennessee and maybe some others that are ahead of us,” she said, “and try and drill down to what we think we can do on a reduced budget if we apply for a second round.”

State leaders said they still plan to implement the education reforms detailed in Colorado’s 152-page application but that, without the Race dollars, it will take longer.

Race to the Top grants are for four years – Colorado’s $377 million bid, then, represents a tiny portion of the state’s four-year spending on K-12 education or about $25 billion.

But in tough economic times, many were looking to the grant to help finance education initiatives already enacted but little funded, such as the Ritter’s Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids.

“There are things we are going to do no matter what,” O’Brien said. “We are designing a new evaluation system no matter what, we are going to have internationally benchmarked standards no matter what, we are going to have a new CSAP (state test) no matter what.”

She said state officials are seeking other sources of finance, including private dollars and other federal grants.

“We’ll be looking everywhere for every dollar we can find,” she said.

To learn more:

Related: R2T decision may spur teacher quality bill

Click here to go to the Colorado Department of Education’s Race to the Top page, to see a summary of the state’s application, its full application and a budget.

Click here to see all of the states’ applications for Race to the Top, including the winning bids from Delaware and Tennessee.

Click here to read a statement from state Education Commissioner Dwight Jones and here to see a statement from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Click here to see prior EdNews’ stories about Race to the Top.

Click below to hear state leaders describe next steps for Colorado in the Race to the Top:

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.