Future of Schools

A-rated Cold Spring School prepares to make a leap for more freedom

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Cold Spring is one of the IPS schools that had the biggest gains on ISTEP.

For sixth-grader Amal Yousuf, the best part of going to Cold Spring School is the time she spends kayaking, fishing and sledding.

Those aren’t the sort of activities she might expect at an average school, but Cold Spring isn’t an average school. It’s not even an average IPS magnet school.

Its unique setting made Cold Spring perfect for the environmental magnet theme it long ago adopted, but which the school is now pushing hard to fully embrace. Cold Spring sits on a 39-acre campus with a greenhouse, gardens and hiking trails.

Teachers and Principal Carrie Scott now hope to make those assets even more central to the way their students learn over the next few years with a plan that would convert Cold Spring into one of the district’s new “innovation” schools next fall.

More time by the creek waters or spent with the small animals and fish who share the school’s land is a good fit for Amal.

“At most schools, they would just stay inside,” she said, “but our school, when it’s warm outside, sometimes if we have time, they will take us outside.”

A chance for schools to take control

More freedom for how lessons are taught is the big value school leaders see in becoming an innovation school. Strict district requirements for how teachers use instructional time leaves less time for learning through the many opportunities that accompany a rich natural campus, Scott said.

Things should look different with the educators at the school making the key decisions.

“It encourages our creativity and our teachers’ creativity,” Lori Garcia, a literacy coach at the school, said of the flexibility to choose curriculum.

Innovation schools are part of the new IPS strategy to shift power from the central office to school leaders.

Innovation schools are managed by outside partners, usually charter school networks or non-profit groups. Cold Spring leaders plan to form a new non-profit organization to oversee the school, Scott said.

Cold Spring made it through the initial IPS innovation application interview in the fall, Scott said. In December, it received a $50,000 planning grant from the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based non-profit that pushes for educational change. School leaders are completing the final application, which they plan to present to the IPS school board in the spring. The Mind Trust brought a busload of community leaders to the school today to learn about the school and its plan.

Innovation schools work sort of like charter schools, but they are embedded within IPS. School leaders have a lot of flexibility to decide how they run the schools, making decisions about curriculum, class time and staffing. But the district can end its contract with the partnering organization if it’s not satisfied with the school management. And the state attributes student test scores at innovation schools to IPS.

Innovation schools may choose whether to contract with the district for services, such as food service or transportation. Teachers are employed directly by the managing organization, not IPS, and they are not part of the union. That has sparked some concern from union leaders and from teachers who have to give up the protections and benefits of falling under a union contract.

In part because Cold Spring would be one of the first IPS schools to convert to innovation status, it’s a relatively unfamiliar proposition for staff.

“There’s still a lot of things we don’t know,” said Garcia, who’s concerned about the potential instability for educators. “Change is always hard.”

But Garcia said she is becoming more comfortable with the idea as she learns more about it.

A diverse school with an A-rating

Cold Spring is a diverse school with a high poverty rate that mirrors many schools across IPS. The student body is nearly 69 percent black, more than 10 percent Hispanic and about 13 percent white. More than 67 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, just 3 percentage points below the district average. To qualify, a family of four must make less than $43,500 annually.

Cold Spring students typically perform well on state tests. In 2014, more than 77 percent of students passed both the math and English sections of ISTEP. But when new standards and a new test were introduced in 2015, scores at Cold Spring had an unusually steep decline, down to just 29 percent of students passing both parts of the test.

Because of a state law protecting schools from penalties for low scores on the new test, however, Cold Spring remains an A-rated school. If the IPS board approves the innovation plan, Cold Spring would be one of the first high-performing IPS schools to become an innovation school. The process so far has mostly been used to try to turn around deeply troubled schools or to incorporate existing charter schools into IPS.

A plan to expand science offerings

In this case, Scott said she sees it as an opportunity to intensify the school’s focus on science. When she took over as principal at Cold Spring four years ago, it was officially an environmental magnet, but there were no dedicated environment classes, she said.

“From the very beginning, as a science magnet school for the district, I could not figure out why we didn’t have a science class,” Scott said. “This year we were able to be a little creative with our staffing and create an environmental studies class for our students.”

As an innovation school, administrators would have the flexibility to add another class using Project Lead the Way curriculum, a privately developed science program heavily based on learning through student projects. Another idea on the table is to extend Cold Spring’s school day to offer science focused clubs and enrichment activities for students, Scott said.

Cold Spring has a strong partnership with nearby Marian University, and leaders were considering converting to a university lab school, Scott said. When the district launched the innovation model, they decided to go that route instead.

As the school goes through the innovation application process, Scott has been learning about the elements of school management that principals typically leave to district administrators.

“I’m used to just being able to pick up a phone and call somebody downtown at the district office,” she said. “(But) I’m getting a lot better with knowing what questions to ask when I go into finance meetings or (human resources) meetings.”

forward and back

Four takeaways from a new report on the status of Colorado’s children

Children on floor with building blocks. (Image Source | Getty Images)

Teen pregnancies are way down in Colorado. Teen suicides are alarmingly high. More of the state’s kids are attending full-day kindergarten than ever before, but half of them start school without the skills they need.

These are a few of the findings from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report released today by the advocacy group Colorado Children’s Campaign. While the report always includes a trove of state and county-level data about child well-being, this year’s version — the 25th anniversary edition — touches timely topics ranging from gun control to the state’s school funding formula.

Here are four takeaways from the 147-page report. Read it in full here.

Half of Colorado kids aren’t ready for kindergarten
KIDS COUNT highlights the results of a new state report that looks at how prepared Colorado kids are for kindergarten. The report, mandated by an ambitious 2008 school reform law and released for the first time this year, reveals that just under half of the state’s kindergarteners meet benchmarks in all six areas of kindergarten readiness, which include everything from basic math knowledge to language comprehension and motor development. About a quarter of kindergarteners meet three or fewer benchmarks. (Here’s a look at the debate over the assessments used to gather kindergarten readiness data and one county’s effort to clarify what students need to know when they start kindergarten.)

The KIDS COUNT report also spotlights racial and ethnic disparities in kindergarten readiness, revealing, for example, that 55 percent of Hispanic kindergarteners met at least five of six benchmarks compared to 73 percent of non-Hispanic kindergarteners. While the authors of the KIDS COUNT report laud the new baseline data, they note one major shortcoming: The state report doesn’t pinpoint the specific areas where kids most often fall short, limiting the public’s ability to identify trouble spots.

School funding lags and full-day kindergarten explodes
Picking up on Colorado’s perennial school funding squeeze and recent efforts to get a statewide education tax measure on the ballot, KIDS COUNT examines the state school funding landscape. It shows that in 1995, Colorado spent $402 less than the national per-pupil average with adjustments for regional cost differences. By 2014, that number had ballooned to nearly $2,700 less per student.

Even as the state’s school funding has lagged, there’s been impressive growth in its full-day kindergarten population. This year, nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners are enrolled in full-day programs, compared to 14 percent in 2001-02. Still, the state only pays part of that cost, leaving districts to make up the rest through other government funding or parent tuition dollars.

While some lawmakers routinely seek (and fail to get) full state funding for full-day kindergarten, the coming gubernatorial election could mix things up this year. At least one candidate wants to offer free full-day kindergarten to all Colorado kids.

Colorado’s youth suicide rate is alarming —  and guns figure into the equation
At a time when school shootings are fueling a push for gun control legislation in some quarters, KIDS COUNT’s authors note the prominent role that guns play in youth suicides, especially for boys. About half of males 10 to 19 who die by suicide use firearms. (In comparison, only about 20 percent of suicide deaths in girls involve firearms.)

Besides noting that suicide risk is lowest for youth who live in homes without firearms, the report says, “Evidence suggests that laws aimed at preventing children and youth from accessing firearms reduce firearm suicides among this age group.”

KIDS COUNT also raises concern about Colorado’s high youth suicide rate, which came up in the state legislature earlier this year after a high-profile suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl. In 2016, there were 18 suicides for every 100,000 people aged 15 to 19 in the state — higher than in all but two of the last 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in two counties: El Paso and Mesa, where teen suicide rates were 29 per 100,000 in 2016.

Teen pregnancy goal met, with a caveat
One success story highlighted in this year’s KIDS COUNT report is the sharp decline in Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate over the last two-and-a-half decades. Given the likelihood that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, the decrease is good news educationally and otherwise.

In 1991, there were 56 births per 1,000 Colorado teens. In 2016, it was down to 18 — well below the goal of 25 cited in the 1991 edition of KIDS COUNT. (The teen abortion rate has also dropped substantially in the last decade.) Despite major decreases in teen pregnancy for every racial and ethnic group, Colorado’s Hispanic teens still fall short of the 1991 goal with 30 pregnancies per 1,000 young women.

Even with huge strides across the state and nation in reducing teen pregnancy, recent cuts to a federal pregnancy prevention grant don’t bode well. One victim was the nonprofit Colorado Youth Matter, which focused on teen pregnancy prevention and sexual health. The organization, which got most of its funding from the federal grant, closed its doors at the end of December.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”