tick tock

Fewer Colo. school districts on watch list, but looming accountability tests remains for some

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

The number of Colorado school districts on a state accountability watch list dropped this year, but eight school systems still face looming sanctions if they don’t improve soon.

And the path for those districts off the watch list will get trickier this year due to a change in the testing system that produces most of the data the state uses to rate schools. Without that standard measure, districts looking for a higher rating will be required to submit their own data to prove their improvement efforts have worked.

Seven school districts — including two small rural systems that had reached the end of the state’s school improvement timeline — moved off the watch list this year. The two rural districts, Vilas and Karval, narrowly missed state sanctions by shuttering their low-performing online schools.

Since 2009, the Colorado Department of Education has reviewed school district performances annually. The results are based on data from the state’s standardized exams, ACT scores, drop-out and graduation rates. School districts are classified in five categories, the highest being “accredited with distinction” and the lowest being “turnaround.”

School districts that land in the bottom two categories have five years to improve or face a loss of accreditation.

Do your homework
• Find your school district’s accreditation
• Review CDE staff’s slideshow presentation

In total, eight districts are entering the final year of their timeline and face a loss of accreditation. They include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools, and Julesburg Schools.

Aurora Public Schools, the largest system on the accountability timeline, has two years to improve.

“District leaders are working closely with teachers and school leaders to continue to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps,” said Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent. “Our expectation is to make significant gains that move us out of priority improvement status.”

All of the school districts that are being monitored by the Colorado Department of Education serve large populations of poor and Latino students. But not all school districts that serve those populations are on the clock, state officials pointed out. They highlighted the Center Consolidated School District as a medium-size system that has improved student achievement. Center has a higher concentration of poverty than any other school district in the state. More than 90 percent of their students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices.

School districts being monitored
Aurora Public Schools, year 4
Adams County 14 (Commerce City), year 5
Ignacio 11, year 5
Julesburg, year 5
Aguilar, year 5
Montezuma Cortez, year 5
Pueblo City Schools, year 5
San Juan BOCES, year 1
Sheridan City Schools, year 5
Adams County 50 (Westminster), year 5

Because of the forthcoming data gap between the two assessments, the Colorado General Assembly passed a law this year that allowed the state to use this year’s accreditation ratings for tow years.

However, districts may submit additional data, such as internal assessments that are supposed to gauge student progress throughout the year, to the department to have their accreditation rating reconsidered. This year 19 districts submitted such a request; 16 were approved. Due to the gap, state officials are expecting a great number of requests next year.

“We have limited information,” said  Keith Owen, CDE’s deputy commissioner. “A request to reconsider is an opportunity for the school and district to help paint an accurate picture. It’s a great system that Colorado has that not every state utilizes across the country. None of this is perfect, but the whole goal of [accreditation] is to have public accountability with how schools are preforming.”

Overall, most of the state’s school districts should be commended for improving or maintaining student achievement levels despite a heavy burden to implement more laws and policies, like teacher evaluations, Owen said.

“There are a lot of districts doing hard work in the midsts of substantial transition across the state with laws passed, five, six, seven years ago,” Owen said in an interview. “The amount of pressure those laws put on districts — but that we’re still seeing districts making improvement over time, it sends a strong message about the kind of improvement going on in the state.”

The board asked department staff various questions regarding the accreditation process, flexibility around the law, and what they were doing to assist school districts that are at risk of losing their accreditation.

In a rare moment, Elaine Gantz Berman, a Denver Democrat, agreed with chairman Paul Lundeen, an Colorado Springs Republican, that the state should research and develop flexibilities for school districts that are performing well. Ideally, that would allow the department to target more of their efforts on low performing school districts, Gantz Berman said.

“I think there would be strong consensus from the board that it’d be great if you could focus your efforts on the school districts that need the most,” she said.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”