Tell Me Why

State board, struggling districts to talk turnaround efforts next week as clock runs short

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Adams 50 Superintendent Pamela Swanson, right, in her office with the district's spokesman Steve Saunders. Adams 50 officials will meet with the State Board of Education next week to discuss its accreditation rating.

WESTMINSTER — When Pam Swanson learned the State Board of Education was interested in hearing directly from leaders of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, she volunteered to go first.

“We have some promising things to share,” said the superintendent of the Adams 50 school district.

So at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Swanson, her board of education president and other district officials will have a chat with the state board about Westminster schools’ successes and struggles as the northwest metro school district enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock.

Since 2010, the state has linked the accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

The conversation, scheduled for 40 minutes, will be the first of many for the state board. The seven member panel has plans to meet each of the 11 school districts nearing the end of the clock between now and June.

No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. What could happen if and when a district hits the end of the clock is still open to debate. The state board of education heard a list of possible consequences and remedies from the Colorado Department of Education in November, which spurred the idea for the forthcoming conversations.

The aim of these meetings, as well as other supports the state has offered the districts, is to help forestall those interventions. However, the state board is also trying to tease out what sort of ramifications these interventions would have on school districts.

State board chairman Paul Lundeen hopes these meetings will provide the governing body, which is responsible for approving a school district’s accreditation, more context about each individual school district’s rating and provide feedback on how the state can better assist the state’s neediest schools.

“It’s more than window dressing,” Lundeen said. “We really hope to seek out the nuances so we can be helpful.”

A qualitative view

The first thing the State Board of Education wants to hear from district leaders during their turnaround conversations is what’s working.

In the four years since the state began rating schools and districts, Adams 50 schools have done an almost entirely about-face.

During the 2009-2010 school year, nearly 75 percent of Adams 50 schools were ranked among the bottom two categories — “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” Today, none of the Adams 50’s schools are classified as “turnaround.” And less than 25 percent of its schools are considered “priority improvement.”

In fact, the Westminster school district has a smaller percentage of low performing schools than Denver Public Schools, which last year was rated as an improving school district and no longer has to fear state intervention.

Swanson, who was appointed to lead the district in 2012 after serving as interim-superintendent since April 2011, points to a systematic overhaul and consistency as key components of the district’s success.

In 2009, Adams 50 abandoned the traditional grade-level approach and adopted a competency-based system. The district has kept teacher and leadership turnover low. There’s a new online program and an innovation school. Parent-teacher conferences have also been overhauled in partnership with the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. And this year the district adopted a new math program that allows teachers to analyze proficiency in real time.

Swanson’s presentation will kick off with a seven-minute video highlighting several of these changes with the hope it will give the state board a qualitative view of the district’s efforts, she said.

These changes, she said, take a long term commitment. “Probably longer than the five years the state’s accountability clock suggests,” she said.

Holding the momentum

Holding the momentum and staying focused is perhaps Adams 50’s greatest challenge, Swanson said.

And there are several obstacles the district will have to overcome to continue on its path toward better student achievement, she said.

First, the district is still tinkering with its districtwide model of competency-based learning. There’s a continued effort to streamline and benchmark its standards to the Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core State Standards. There’s also a greater need for better data management, which can be overwhelming to teachers and students alike.

The district is also expected to trim its budget as school improvement grant money runs out. Adams 50 did ask voters to approve a mill levy in the fall, but that effort failed.

“No matter how you slice it, it’s going to cost more money to educate students in poverty,” Swanson said. Adams 50 students overwhelmingly qualify for free- or reduced-lunch.

And there’s the matter of state- and federally-mandated tests. Swanson would like to reverse the trend of districts needing to plan instruction around assessments, not the other way around.

“We used to have an assessment window,” Swanson said. “Now we have an instructional window.”

Because nearly 50 percent of Westminster students are identified as English language learners, instructors are finding themselves having to administer more tests. More than 700 students at Westminster High School alone were required to take an individual oral exam in January.

Those assessments, coupled with other mandated tests, devour instructional time, Swanson said.

“We know the students who need the most instruction time have the least of it [because of the number of hours devoted to assessments],” she said.

“Something’s not right”

No one from Team Westminster plans to critique the state’s accountability rating system. But if the issue comes up, they’ll be prepared to share their concerns.

“Something’s not right” in the accountability system, Swanson said.

Swanson — along with officials in many other school districts — is concerned about the different measurements the state uses to hold individual schools and districts accountable. Another widely held criticism is that the accountability measurements are a “one-size fits all” approach in a local control state where school districts’ needs and challenges vary widely. And now, officials are concerned that a proposed bill that would freeze a portion of the state accountability framework for two years will make it more difficult for them to prove to the state that they are making progress.

Board chairman Lundeen said while the intent of the conversations isn’t to rewrite the law governing school accountability, he thinks districts meeting with the state board should air their concerns about the frameworks, which he said can be challenging.

He hopes to learn through the next three months how district-specific nuances are bouncing-off state mandates and measurements.

“There are some minimum lines — thresholds — we do not want to cross,” he said. But, if school districts are proving consistent achievement, he’d entertain certain “earned flexibility.”

Regardless of the merits of the school accountability framework, Swanson said she’s looking forward to going beyond the data with the state board. 

“We’re ready to share our story and get input from the board on how we can improve outcomes faster,” Swanson said.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

college knowledge

‘This levels the playing field’: How New York City is trying to get more high school students to apply to college

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Bryant Ramirez about his college plans at Pace High School on Monday.

Bryant Ramirez hunched over a worksheet Monday listing the private colleges where he plans to apply and, next to each one, whether he thinks he has a good shot of getting in.

It wasn’t long before the senior had written out his top choice — the Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn — and fired up a school laptop to begin filling out an electronic application.

“I feel confident,” Ramirez said of his chances of landing a spot at one of his preferred schools. “But you never know.”

On Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Ramirez and more than 20 of his peers at Manhattan’s Pace High School to showcase a growing citywide program designed to give schools more time and resources to help students through the college application process.

The program, called “College Access for All,” is meant to address the gap between students whose families already understand the application process and can help give them a leg up, and those who might be first-generation college students or who might not apply at all. This year, the education department expanded the program to include roughly 274 of the city’s high schools, or more than half of the total.

Participating schools help students craft post-graduation plans for specific careers or colleges, and ease the application process through school-sponsored college visits and additional counseling.

“More students are saying ‘I want to go to college,’” Fariña said. “This levels the playing field.”

At Pace, which is part of the program, students begin conversations about college in their advisory groups junior year, and later take college counseling classes where they are given time to fill out applications, financial aid forms, and learn about the college application process. The school also offers the SAT during a school day (instead of the weekend, when some students might not make it), and takes juniors and seniors on college visits — trips that school leaders are planning to extend to ninth and tenth graders.

Lancia Burke, the school’s college counselor, said some of those initiatives didn’t exist when she started at Pace 11 years ago and tried to cram as much information as possible into a single workshop with the entire senior class. (She also met with students individually.)

At one point, she felt overwhelmed as she tried helping students craft their college essays, so she approached the English department.

“‘Hey, I can’t handle going through all these personal essays,’” Burke recalled saying. After that, the department added college essay writing into their curriculum, she said.

The College Access for All program is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which aims to get 80 percent of students to graduate high school on time and two-thirds of graduates college-ready by the year 2026.

About 51 percent of New York City’s graduates were considered college ready in 2016, meaning they could enroll at a CUNY school without having to take remedial classes, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The proportion of students who enroll in college or a work-training program within six months of graduating has also ticked up to 55 percent, also 4 percentage point increase since 2014.

Fariña said she hopes the program boosts the number of students who apply to college. But simply applying to college isn’t enough, she added.

“We always want to see the numbers going up in terms of applying,” Fariña said. “But once you get there, do you stay there?”