Align Away

Denver Public Schools “back to the drawing board” in search for Common Core-aligned curriculum

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Sofia Aliyeva, a third grader, works on learning the proper use of the word "spent" in an ESL class at Ellis Elementary.

Denver Public Schools officials say they are starting their search for curricular materials aligned to the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts all over again.

It’s been four years since Colorado adopted the Common Core in language arts and math as part of the Colorado Academic Standards. Starting next spring, the state’s standardized test in the subjects will be tied to the new standards.

But DPS has yet to adopt or purchase a new set of curricular resources aligned to the Common Core.

District officials say that the textbooks and other academic resources that are on the market right now aren’t up to snuff, especially for Denver’s large population of English learners.

“It’s a real struggle right now,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer. “Finding a curriculum that’s that’s been redesigned for the Common Core is difficult enough—and finding one that’s aligned for English learners is a different challenge.”

The district reviewed the Common Core-aligned textbooks and curriculum on the market last year, Whitehead-Bust said, but decided that none was worth the millions of dollars the district would have to invest.

The district then decided to create a new curriculum in-house. “That was Plan B. And that turned out to be equally challenging,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Now we’re back to the drawing board.”

Whitehead-Bust said there was no clear date by which the district was guaranteed to have new resources. “We’re continuing to move forward with research and investigation,” she said.

In the meantime, DPS teachers are in limbo, adapting resources that were created with the previous state standards in mind to create lessons that are aligned the Common Core.

Redesigned, not realigned

The Common Core standards for English language arts and math have been adopted in 43 states and the District of Columbia (Minnesota adopted only the standards in English language arts). Though the standards have stirred political and educational controversy, Denver officials say they are more rigorous and will encourage better teaching and learning.

Third graders at Ellis Elementary study English with ESL teacher Bree Roon.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Third graders at Ellis Elementary study English with ESL teacher Bree Roon. Each of the students in this group has a different native language, including Karen, Spanish, Russian/Turkish, Arabic, and Bosnian.

But Denver is not alone in having not found new Common Core-aligned curriculum and textbooks, said Carrie Heath Phillips, program director for Common Core State Standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which helped develop the standards. “Many places didn’t want to rush to buy new materials until there were more quality resources out there.”

She said that’s starting to change: Some states, including Tennessee, Louisiana, and Hawaii, have recommended lists of textbooks that are aligned to the standards.

In Colorado, each district chooses which curriculum and resources it will use. Some districts, including Boulder, have adopted new curricular resources tied to the Common Core.

Whitehead-Bust said that DPS is searching for something that’s not simply old textbooks with a new label. “There are a lot of companies that have remapped their material to the standards. But they haven’t redone their material. We’re looking for materials that are really redesigned, not just realigned.”

In the meantime, she said, teachers haven’t been totally without updates and support. “What we’re trying to do is take the resources that were in place last year, many of which were really strong and solid resources, and deepen the rigor of the content, infuse more informational text, and deepen expectations around text-dependent questions, so we can really guide teachers through.” Elementary English language arts teachers have gotten new guided reading books for their students. A literacy newsletter has suggestions about how to tie lessons to the new standards.

“Great resources in the hands of less-than-well-trained teachers don’t have anywhere close to the same impact as well-trained teachers using resources you’d hoped to replace and upgrade over time,” she said.

But weaving old materials together with new additions aimed at making lessons more rigorous or aligned with the new standards isn’t always easy.

“They do provide us with a lot of resources,” said Margaux Rowley, a second grade teacher at Ellis Elementary, in southeast Denver. “But sometimes you’re getting so much—it’s, ‘do this with the scope and sequence,’ ‘do this with the standards.’ It’s a lot of information.”

Rowley said that making sure the lesson plans and instructional materials she uses in class line up with the standards, and with how other grades in the school are interpreting the standards, is a challenge.

Theresa Winslow, a fifth grade teacher at Ellis, said that math materials are more up-to-date than language arts. “In literacy, we’re still tied to the lesson guides from ten years ago.”

Frustrated board

At a meeting of the district’s board in November focused on academic programs and teacher and leader training initiatives, board member Arturo Jimenez said he was concerned about the delay. “If we don’t have the curricular materials chosen and implemented and ready to go, it’s difficult to see the logic that we’re focusing on teacher leadership development, evaluation and incentives,” he said. He compared it to sending paratroopers into battle without parachutes.

The Denver school board discusses academics, including curriculum, at a meeting in November.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
The Denver school board discusses academics, including curriculum, at a meeting in November.

“How do we focus teachers without planning and practice guides, without curriculum that’s focused on the Common Core? It seems like we’re doing it backwards,” he said.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said while he understood the concern, “we have kids on the ground who desperately need our teachers. Are not going to say we’re not going to coach or develop them?”

Whitehead-Bust described the district’s efforts to “bridge” between old materials and new. “Many districts are in our position,” she said. “It’s frustrating for teachers.” She said there would likely be an update to the timeline for finding resources as the district develops its new strategic plan this winter.

Board president Happy Haynes said she was surprised to hear that materials appropriate for English learners were hard to come by. “I don’t know why it took [publishers] so long to figure out that that’s an extraordinary need—but we need to keep the pressure there in order to get the materials we need.”

Challenges for English learners

Ellis Elementary educates students who speak more than 20 different native languages.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Ellis Elementary enrolls students who speak more than 20 different native languages.

States and districts have been developing ways to make sure the standards are accessible to English learners, according to the CCSSO’s Phillips. The state of New Jersey, for one, has developed scaffolding guides for English learners. The school district in San Diego has translated all of the standards into Spanish. The Council of the Great City Schools released a “user’s guide” for districts looking to find instructional materials tailored to English learners’ needs this August.

In 2013-14, 35 percent of Denver’s public school students were English learners.

District chief schools officer Susana Cordova said the new standards highlight an already-existing challenge: “It’s difficult to find material in Spanish in general–and even more difficult to find material that’s been revised and aligned to the rigor of the Common Core.” The district offers several Transitional Native Language Instruction, or TNLI, in programs, in which Spanish speaking students spend some time learning in their native language.

She said there also aren’t enough materials with features that make it easier for students who are learning English to process text (such as on-page definitions for tricky words). She said the Common Core standards’ emphasis on informational text and problem solving in math means that English learners are confronted with more technical language and, in math, just more language than ever before.

And even resources that are advertised as aligned don’t always live up to the hype, she said. When the district reviewed one publisher’s Common Core-aligned materials, Cordova said, eight of the ten lessons built for English learners focused on idioms. “That’s not the bulk of what English learners need to learn,” Cordova said.

The district adopted a new program called E.L. Achieve, intended to be a more effective literacy program for English learners, earlier this fall.

At Ellis Elementary, where more than 24 languages are spoken and fewer than a third of students speak English as a first language, “we didn’t get the new standards and think, oh my goodness, how will we teach our English learners,” said Linda Miller, the dean of instruction at Ellis. “It was, how will we get STUDENTS to show that they have mastered or are where they should be with the standards? So now it’s this aftermath—so now we’re going to use E.L. Achieve. How will that support teaching the standards as well?”

“We’re working as hard as we possibly can to teach all our students,” Miller said. “A large majority happen to be English learners. But that hasn’t changed.”

Teachers were most concerned about how students, especially English learners, would fare on PARCC, the state’s new computer-based, Common Core-tied assessment, which, they said, is very text heavy. Even the instructions for how to navigate the online exam—drag and drop, or figuring out which box is an answer box—can trip up students, especially those who are still translating in their heads.

“A lot of our English learners are brilliant,” Winslow said. “But the test isn’t really going to show you what they’re capable of. And then it looks like we’re not doing our jobs.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.