A new twist in turnaround

8 struggling schools opt in to Colorado’s new turnaround network

PHOTO: File Photo

When Rob Stein, chief academic officer for the Roaring Fork School District, learned third-grade reading scores at Crystal River Elementary School dipped this year, he called his old friend and former colleague Peter Sherman to ask for some advice.

Unlike his other elementary schools, which saw spikes in reading scores, something just wasn’t working at Crystal River, which has been on and off the state’s school accountability watch list for four years.

Sherman, the state’s executive director of school and district performance, suggested Crystal River apply to be a part of his new endeavor: the Colorado Turnaround Network, a state-run but voluntary co-op of schools working together to boost student achievement.

The network borrows some inspiration from efforts by other states that share a federal mandate to track and improve low-performing schools.

But unlike controversial initiatives in Louisiana and Tennessee, which have concentrated weak schools in districts run directly by the state, Colorado is leaving control of the turnaround schools up to local districts. Colorado also formed the network quietly, rather than trumpet its tough-on-struggling school approach, as some other states have done. And instead of requiring all low-performing schools to undergo the same changes, Colorado is asking schools to opt in — and to decide for themselves what changes would help students.

Colorado’s Turnaround Network
  • Adams 12 Five Star Schools: Hillcrest Elementary
  • Adams County School District 14: Rose Hill Elementary
  • Pueblo City Schools: Haaff Elementary, Irving Elementary
  • Calhan School District RJ1: Calhan Elementary
  • Roaring Fork School District: Crystal River Elementary
  • Lake County School District: West Park Elementary, Lake County Middle

The collaborative approach piqued Stein’s interest. “What I like about the network is that it’s do-with, not do-to,” he said.

The eight schools in the network — which include Stein’s Crystal River — met for the first time last month to hear more about Sherman’s vision for school-based solutions to four kinds of challenges: culture, internal operations, personnel, and district relations.

Entering the turnaround network doesn’t take schools or districts off of the state’s “accountability clock,” in which persistently low-scoring schools get five years to improve or their school districts could face state sanctions.

But it does offer a last-ditch effort for schools that have failed to boost performance for as much as four years already.

“Our belief and one of our theories of action is that we can provide some resources, some frameworks, for what we believe is necessary for success,” Sherman said. “We believe strongly that solutions for low-performing schools will come from the local communities.”

Balancing its influence against Colorado’s cherished local control could be a challenge for the turnaround network.

Pat Sanchez, the superintendent of the Adams 14 School District, said he got on board only after becoming convinced that the state’s priorities for Rose Hill Elementary, his lowest-scoring school, corresponded to the district’s own. The state network will provide training for the school’s new leader and will offer support to help the school reach the district’s reading and math goals.

“A big selling point is that the network will not create a new set of priorities for my principal,” Sanchez said. “She won’t have two sets of marching orders. The state is about supplementing that will hopefully help accelerate learning.”

Colorado’s approach has benefits, according to Ashley Jochim, a researcher for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE, who has researched the role of state education agencies like CDE.

Because the state is acting more like a broker of resources and advice than directly running the schools, the state’s limited turnaround staff of five isn’t likely to be strained.

But Jochim said the resources will only be fruitful if principals are allowed to adopt the best ideas, even if they run counter to district polices — something that could be a challenge when it comes to personnel, budget, and curriculum.

If Colorado stumbles, it won’t be alone, Jochim said.

“We’re not in a place where anyone has done [a turnaround network] right,” she said.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.