Failure to launch

Freeing failing schools from bureaucracy hasn’t worked as hoped. So why is Colorado still doing it?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Colorado’s effort to boost student learning by allowing low-performing district-run schools additional freedoms from state and local bureaucracy appears not to be working as well as hoped.

Since 2010, only three of the 18 failing schools granted “innovation status” under a 2008 Colorado law have improved student results on annual standardized tests enough to jump off the state’s accountability watch list, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Education and additional state data reviewed by Chalkbeat.

The report and Chalkbeat analysis come as the State Board of Education is preparing to grant more failing schools innovation status in an effort to boost student achievement.

In July, the state’s school accountability clock turns back on after a one-year pause due to a change in the tests used to rate the quality of schools.

These schools, many of which serve some of the state’s poorest students, have been the lowest performing schools in the state for six years running. And despite previous efforts and millions of dollars in investments from the state and federal governments, the schools have failed to rally.

Some 30 schools that serve 13,000 students from every corner of the state are expected to face sanctions next year if they do not improve. Those sanctions could include being turned over to a charter school operator or closed.

But according to a committee of education experts commissioned by the state, most of the schools shouldn’t be shut or converted to charters. Instead, the group urged, they should be allowed to remain under district management with innovation status. That would allow the schools increased decision-making authority over curriculum, teacher hiring and firing, and budgeting.

Some schools — including the Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo — already have innovation status.

“I’m very wary of using innovation as a turnaround strategy,” said Robin Lake, executive director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington. “If a school has gotten to the point of being in the lowest 5 percent, usually there is something going on that is very hard to repair.”

Because so few chronically low-performing schools with innovation status have made meaningful improvement, some education reform activists, state officials and State Board of Education members are concerned the state is about to do more harm than good.

“This is not OK,” said Angelika Schroeder, a state board member and Boulder Democrat who has raised questions for several months now about innovation status as a turnaround effort.

A history in innovation

In 2008, Colorado became the first state in the nation to codify in state statute school-level autonomy for district-controlled schools. The law, which passed with bipartisan support, was celebrated as a major education reform victory.

Manual High School teacher Olivia Jones reviews classwork with a student in 2013.
PHOTO: M. Piscotty
Manual High School teacher Olivia Jones reviews classwork with a student in 2013.

Since then, other states such as Tennessee and cities including Boston have taken steps to provide schools with some flexibility from state regulations.

But Colorado’s law goes further than most, Lake said.

The state’s new innovation law quickly became a go-to school improvement strategy in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. No other district has more innovation schools than Denver.

The results are mixed. The only three schools to improve in the entire state — Ashley, Green Valley and McGlone elementary schools — are in Denver. But Denver still has another dozen innovation schools on the state’s accountability clock.

Not all innovation schools in Colorado use the law for school improvement efforts. Ten Falcon 49 District schools in El Paso County use the innovation law to create education programs with specific focuses such as STEM or international studies that stretch from kindergarten through graduation.

A tale of two schools

There’s no explicit reason why some innovation schools have seen improved student learning while others have not. But researchers and state officials have a few good guesses.

It comes down to the quality of the plan, how the school is using its waivers from rules, leadership and the relationship between the school and the district.

“Sometimes autonomy and a chance to innovate can be a good thing for a school that needs a fresh start,” Lake said. “But the test should be, ‘Does the school have a convincing plan that will result in something for kids very soon?’ When you’re dealing with low-performing schools, that’s not the time you just start pulling ideas out of a hat.”

Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.

Green Valley Elementary School in Denver’s far northeast corner is one of only three Colorado schools to use innovation status as a turnaround effort and succeed.

“You can’t leave anything up to chance. That opens the door to failure,” said TJ McManus, the school’s principal. “You can’t plan too much.”

McManus started at Green Valley five years ago as its assistant principal. She was part of a new team to reboot the school using the state’s innovation laws. The principal at the time had a year to plan a vision for his school, hire a new staff, and develop the curriculum and instructional methods those teachers would use to boost test scores.

Within three years, the school climbed from the state’s lowest school rating to the highest.

McManus credits a consistent leadership team, hard-working teachers and methodical planning.

That’s not to say Green Valley has not evolved since it relaunched in 2010, McManus said. Both the school’s curriculum and discipline code are drastically different compared to when the school first opened.

“We look a lot different, but we’re very intentional about what we do,” McManus said.

Marci Imes, principal of the Roncalli STEM Academy in Pueblo, agrees planning is paramount. But she had to learn that the hard way, she said.

Roncalli was the state’s lowest performing middle school in 2014, the last year data for which data is available. It is also one of the state’s innovation schools that has not improved academically.

“Year one was crazy,” said Imes, who served as the school’s assistant principal at the time. “Although it was a great plan, it wasn’t laid out clearly. … We tried to do it all at once. We quickly realized that couldn’t happen.”

When Imes took control of the school in 2014, she scaled back the school’s ambitions and focused on just a few efforts including the school’s culture and its instructional approach. This year, school officials focused on increasing the complexity of reading and math assignments.

“Like every school, you learn what you need to tweak each year,” she said.

Imes said her school’s innovation status has allowed her to better train teachers to focus on building relationships with students and understanding the state’s academic standards. It’s also allowed for more tutoring.

Retaining teachers is still a struggle for Imes, but she hopes when new testing data is released this summer Roncalli will have moved the needle.

“What I do know, with everything we put in place this year, the kids really, really felt more comfortable going into the assessment,” she said.

Pushing innovation as turnaround

For months, the Colorado Department of Education, the State Board and some school superintendents have debated whether the state’s school innovation and accountability laws work in harmony or are in conflict.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn has been a leading voice in that conversation.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

Last summer, the State Board gave Munn its blessing — with caveats — to pursue innovation status for a cluster of failing schools in the Denver suburb. As Aurora developed its plans, it became unclear whether the State Board would accept the school redesigns as a turnaround plan, flustering Munn.

Under the innovation law, the State Board of Education must approve any plan forwarded to it so long as board members believe the plans won’t decrease student achievement and are fiscally responsible.

Some believe that’s too low of a bar for the state’s most challenging schools.

State Board of Education Chairman Steve Durham said not all innovation plans are created equally. He said he might advocate for a change in the law to allow the State Board more authority to reign in poorly executed innovation plans.

“I think districts are looking at them as panacea and they certainly are not,” he said.

In March, Munn sent a letter to Education Commissioner Rich Crandall posing dozens of questions about how the state plans to navigate the two laws, especially where they conflict.

Among his questions: what law will the State Board use to approve innovation plans, which education department office will vet Aurora’s plans, and what is the criteria for a turnaround plan under the state’s school accountability law.

Only some of Munn’s questions have been answered.

At the State Board’s May meeting, Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl told the State Board that it has the authority under the state’s accountability law to reject innovation plans that it believes would not improve student achievement and could add stipulations to existing innovation plans like those just approved for Aurora.

A higher bar

In an effort to ensure innovation plans the State Board approves under the accountability law can make a difference, the state’s school improvement office will review the plans for quality.

The evaluation will focus on a variety of issues including school leadership, instructional changes and data systems, said Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer. Whether the schools will take his office’s advice is unclear.

Sherman’s office has already provided feedback to Aurora and Pueblo City Schools, which also hopes to create its own innovation zone to improve six schools that have run out of time. Three schools — Roncalli and Risley middle schools and the Pueblo Academy of Arts — already have innovation status and are among those that have failed to improve.

Superintendent Constance Jones, in her second year leading the Pueblo school system, said she hopes the schools working more closely together, coupled with an additional $2.5 million in staff and resources, will be able to drive changes through the district.

“We don’t see these schools or collection of schools working in isolation, but working closely with the total district,” she said. “I feel very solid about what we have in place in able to move our schools forward.”

Perhaps the most important unanswered question is whether the State Board will have the political will to compel schools and districts to make drastic changes in a state with strong local control laws.

Some school leaders have already threatened lawsuits if they believe the State Board violates their constitutionally protected local control of schools.

“It remains to be seen,” Schroeder said, “what we have the courage to do.”


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.