Too much of something is bad enough

Dougco parents, board express concern on “testing madness”

Douglas County school officials met with parents on Friday to describe an educational landscape choked by tests and shed some light on why its board of directors has decided to attempt an opt out mechanism for state and federal testing mandates.

Officials also hoped to gather input on how the south suburban school district should proceed, but most parents were ambivalent about the current testing systems and were only beginning to process the board’s decision.

Douglas County schools administer some sort of mandated test nearly every day, leaving little time for instruction, said the district’s assessment chief Syna Morgan, who led the parent forum. Her hope is to create a balance of assessments and instruction, with more discretion from teachers in the classroom and less from the state.

“External testing demands have increased,” she said.

That’s because, as she explained to parents, the state’s educational infrastructure and accountability created by a series of laws — including the School Accountablity Act, the Educator Effectiveness Act and the READ Act — rely on the results of standardized tests.

Since 2010, Colorado schools and districts have been evaluated based on students’ proficiency and academic growth as measured by the state’s standardized tests. Soon, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be calculated by how well their students perform on the same tests.

She called the laws and mandates an interdependent “spiderweb” that, if unwoven, would need to be done so carefully. She said the district was interested in representing all sides of the argument and making sure all parents voices are heard.

But the board’s unanimously passed resolution indicated the historically conservative district is already taking the necessary steps to author and lobby legislation allowing districts to opt out of the mandates.

The board is drafting legislation with an unnamed legislator and reaching out to other lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill, board members said Friday.

State Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told Chalkbeat Colorado Monday that he’s talked with Dougco board members about such the idea but won’t decide whether to introduce a bill until after further discussions among school districts and state education officials. He also said he hasn’t yet talked to other legislators about a testing bill.

Board member Judy Reynolds, who attended the parent forum Friday, said the board’s position boils down to local control of schools, which is guaranteed in the state’s constitution.

“Our community should be in charge of our kids’ education,” she said.

The resolution, which was passed late in the evening Tuesday, has raised eyebrows from education activists and other metro school districts.

That wasn’t the intent, Reynolds said. “We don’t want to go rogue.”

Echoing Reynolds, board president Kevin Larsen said he believes several districts will join the district in supporting the not-yet-public legislation. And he believes the bill will have bipartisan support.

“This should cross ideology,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “But politics is not my concern. The D-and-R count doesn’t matter. What matters is do we have enough legislators that will look at the issues the same way we do.”

The board believes, Larsen said, the district can provide its students and teachers with better and faster feedback. Currently, “the kids are tested in April and don’t get their results until August,” Larsen said.

Student performance on standardized tests should also have less to do with a teacher’s evaluation because, Larsen said, teachers have no control on students take or perform on the test.

“There are better ways to measure teacher effectiveness,” he said.

But one parent, who asked not to be identified because of her association with out-of-state education legislation efforts, said the state’s adoption of Common Core standards and the PARCC consortium tests, will provide parents with better context on their children’s aptitude and post-secondary competitiveness.

“To say we’re above this is crazy,” she said. “We need to know how we’re doing compared to the rest of country. We need comparable standards and tests. I need to know how my student does compared to students in Kentucky and Alabama.”

The district is hosting another set of back-to-back parent forums Jan. 31. The district is also building an advisory committee as it moves forward with its legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, which implements all legislation and oversees standards and testing, said in an email Friday, “There have been no challenges or changes in CDE’s operational systems.”

— Todd Engdahl contributed to this report. 

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

Future of Schools

What time does school start? Some IPS parents concerned about coming schedule changes

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Dozens of parents filled the Indianapolis Public Schools board room Tuesday afternoon for a last-minute meeting about changing school start times, a sign of how disruptive many believe the changes could be.

Next year, the district is rolling out a new all-choice high school model, where students choose schools by focus area rather than neighborhood. In order to bus students from around the district to those schools without swelling costs, the administration is shifting start and end times for elementary, middle, and high school campuses.

Ultimately, the district says the new schedule will make it more likely that buses will arrive on time.

“With the all choice high school model, there has to be some modification,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said ahead of the meeting.

The administration’s recommendation, which was developed after feedback from parents, aims to limit the number of schools with significant changes in start and end times. For about 80 percent of schools, bell times will not change by more than 10 minutes, according to the administration. Under the latest proposal, most middle and high schools will run from 7:20 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. Most elementary schools will run from 9:20 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. The board will vote Thursday on new school start and end times.

The process for developing the plan inspired significant criticism from parents at the transportation meeting.

Dustin Jones, who has two children at the Butler Lab School, said he was particularly concerned that the district was still deciding on the new schedule in April after many parents already made school choices for next year.

“The appearance is the all choice model was ideologically kind of the direction to go, and then that the transportation to support that decision is lagging behind,” Jones said. “That shows a lack of ability and foresight.”

For months, the district has been holding meetings and asking parents for input on the schedule for next year. The administration, however, has struggled to develop a plan that would balance myriad challenges, such as containing costs, limiting disruptions for families, and handling a shortage of bus drivers that is posing significant challenges.

“There’s been an ongoing discussion of the transportation dilemma and challenge,” said board member Mary Ann Sullivan at the board meeting after the discussion. “I think this reflects a very good resolution to most of the concerns. It does not address every concern of every family or every commissioner.”

Initially, leaders were also considering flipping school start times so high schoolers could start at a later time because research shows adolescents benefit from sleeping later. But in the face of practical concerns, such as high school student work schedules, the board abandoned that goal.

That was a disappointment for Molly McPheron, a pediatrician and parent in the district.

“The evidence is really clear that when high schools start later, children have improved health outcomes as well as improved graduation rates, better grades,” McPheron said. “We are going through a lot to make sure high schoolers have choice, have all these options. And then there’s kind of this simple thing that we could do that could potentially substantially improve their lives.”