First Person

Voices: Uncertain future for building funds

Colorado schools need an estimated $13.9 billion in upgrades and Matt Samuelson, special projects director for the Donnell-Kay Foundation, wants to ensure they’ll get it.

A week ago, a board charged with recommending ways to help schools pay for capital construction finalized its list of grant recipients to send to the State Board of Education for approval. If the school districts and charters reach their required matches, $282.7 million worth of school facility projects will move forward across the state through the Building Excellent Schools Today program, otherwise known as BEST.

BEST program illustrationAltogether, provided the current recipients of BEST grants successfully reach their local matches, the state and local schools will have green-lighted nearly $1 billion in K-12 public school facility work in five years. Read more about BEST grant finalists.

All the more impressive, this work has been done without using general fund dollars. The source of BEST funds is the public school capital construction assistance fund, which consists of money earned from a portion of lottery proceeds, interest from the fund and revenue from state public school lands.

The state of Colorado owns roughly 2.7 million acres of surface property and 3.9 million acres of mineral property rights specifically dedicated to the state’s permanent school trust fund, which helps fund BEST and a variety of other educational programs. Revenues generated from these lands occur through three types of land uses: mineral, surface and commercial.  In recent years, oil and gas royalties and leases account for roughly 80 percent of the revenues generated on state trust lands.

Schools need $13.9 billion

The successes have been impressive, but the needs remain great. In 2009, an assessment that examined more than 8,400 public school facilities statewide determined that school districts in Colorado had $13.9 billion in capital construction needs projected through 2013. Just as disconcerting as that staggering number, the assessment determined that the 10-year capital renewal needs of all the state’s K-12 public school facilities was $10.1 billion. That’s a billion dollars annually just to maintain the current stock of facilities.

Created in 2008 with bipartisan support, the state’s capital construction grant program for K-12 public schools has had an immense impact addressing Colorado’s crumbling classrooms. The competitive grant program has provided $674 million in matching grants to school districts, charter schools and boards of cooperative services in order to address public school facility needs. Since its inception, 143 grants have been awarded to 78 school districts, 13 charter schools and the Colorado School for the Deaf & Blind. These projects with BEST funds have taken place across the state of Colorado. See map.

Communities such as Akron, Center, Holly, Monte Vista and Rush now have new schools due to voter-approved bond issue coupled with a BEST grant. The BEST grant was absolutely essential to constructing these schools because many Colorado school districts with low local property wealth are legally restricted by the state from raising enough funds to address their school facility needs locally.

BEST helps older schools too

But it’s not solely new schools that BEST addresses. New roofs and boilers extend the lives of buildings and help to create an effective learning environment. For example, South Routt School District replaced its coal-fired boiler with a biomass boiler by bundling a BEST grant with a local bond issue and other state funds.

John Noriega, a classroom aide at Center's Haskin Elementary, helps student Odalys Mendoza with a math lesson. With help from BEST, Center is replacing the school built in 1919. File photo

By partnering with local school districts and charter schools, BEST has helped tackle some of the state’s public school facility needs. Since the assessment was completed, voters in 30 school districts have been asked to vote on bond questions. Of the 13 successful local bond elections, 12 were to match a BEST grant. Amazingly, in seven of those bond elections, the school district maxed out its bonding capacity in order to provide that local match.

That’s a tall order for school districts lacking a substantial property tax base. For example, in 2010, when voters of Center School District in Saguache County approved its bond measure to match its BEST grant, the district’s mill levy – or tax rate – jumped from 27 to 45. But on Saturday, the community will celebrate the ribbon-cutting of its new PK-12 school facility, which replaces a school constructed in 1919.

However, these ribbon-cutting ceremonies will slow to a trickle under BEST’s current statutory arrangement. The state has a $40 million annual cap for its share of BEST certificate of participation or COP payments. COPs are lease-purchase arrangements utilized by the state to fund large project grants, such as new schools and major renovations.

The current state share of COP payments is $28 million. Entering into last month’s BEST grant selection meetings, the state had $12 million remaining that it could obligate to annual payments for school projects.  According to current interest rates, that would support about $260 million in state share of school projects.

The BEST board will not reach the annual payment threshold after this year’s round of grants. However, the COP cap will most likely be reached in June 2013. Once the state hits that cap, the BEST program runs the risk of not funding new schools and major renovations for several years.

Saving money for schools’ capital needs

Here are some ideas as we barrel toward the COP ceiling:

  1. The cap could be raised by $10 million, which would provide the BEST program another two years of COP funding to address the most egregious facility needs in the state.
  2. A school district could run a bond election based on 6 percent of the district’s actual valuation instead of 20 percent of the district’s assessed valuation. Colorado law (C.R.S 22-42-104(1)(b)) allows districts to use the actual valuation, but the district may want to secure pro bono services from a law firm prior because whispers of TABOR compliance concerns have plagued the actual valuation option.
  3. Wait. After a couple years of payments, the annual COP payment will decrease and there will be another opportunity for a round of new school and major renovations.
  4. Keep the funding mechanism in place. The Colorado Constitution requires that the “public school fund of the state shall, except as provided in this article IX, forever remain inviolate and intact and the interest and other income thereon, only, shall be expended in the maintenance of the schools of the state.” BEST uses income from the fund to help school districts construct buildings that will last 50 to 60 years. Multiple generations of school children will benefit from these schools.

Rumblings of knee-capping the BEST program in order to grow the states permanent school trust fund to $1 billion seem misplaced. Under current investment strategies, a $1 billion permanent school trust fund – used for a variety of educational purposes such as BEST, the School Finance Act and the recent literacy law – will spin off $42 million in interest. That is a significant amount. But it will take upwards of a decade to reach that number. In the meantime, thousands of Colorado children will be forced to attend schools in classroom environments that hinder learning rather than enhancing it.

Leveraging BEST grants with local dollars now allows children across Colorado the opportunity to be educated in safe and secure facilities.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.