tick tock

For Colorado schools on verge of state intervention, PARCC scores provide first clues of promise or peril

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A new student at Scott Carpenter is learning English for the first time at the Adams County middle school.

They did it.

The staff and students at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School, one of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools, boosted their test scores after a year focused on literacy, using technology to speed up learning, and building relationships between students and teachers.

“There was a challenge, and we met it,” said Chadwick Anderson, principal of the unincorporated Adams County school, which is operated by Westminster Public Schools. “It’s a credit to our kids and how hard they worked, and the staff at Scott Carpenter being committed to consistent classroom structure and instructional practices.”

While it’s still too early to tell whether Scott Carpenter made enough progress to ward off state intervention for chronic low performance, district- and school-level data from last spring’s state standardized tests released Thursday are providing the first clues.

After a one-year timeout because of a change in state assessments, Colorado’s accountability system is back on. Schools that have received a failing grade from the state for five consecutive years face sanctions that could include closing schools or handing off management of districts to third parties.

Schools on that list that showed increases on their spring test scores, such as Scott Carpenter, have a fighting chance. But schools that lost ground, such as Aurora Central High, are all but certain to face consequences.

“I don’t necessarily expect that to change,” said Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn, referring to Central’s fate.

Here are a few other data takeaways about the 30 schools and eight districts on the accountability clock.

Scott Carpenter might be saved, but the fate of Westminster Public Schools is less clear.

Colorado’s accountability system rates schools and districts independently of each other. So while Scott Carpenter might have made enough progress to jump off the list, its school district is still in jeopardy. That’s because the district lost ground on math tests.

Oliver Grenham, Westminster’s chief education officer and a vocal critic of the state’s accountability system, said he’s waiting for the state to provide growth data before taking any action.

Student growth is Colorado’s most valued data point. It measures how much academic progress students make year-to-year compared to their peers. About 75 percent of a school’s state rating is determined from growth data.

“The context of the education system has totally changed. And we as a school district do not know where the goalposts are.” Grenham said.

State officials have not said when they’ll release growth data.

Pueblo City Schools, the largest district facing sanctions, posted moderate gains on both English and math tests.

The 17,665-student district in Southern Colorado improved on 10 of 14 tests. That’s good news following a summer of controversy following the sudden resignation of Superintendent Constance Jones.

The district made its strongest gains on math tests. More students passed the state’s math test this year in every grade except for sixth. Meanwhile, elementary school students made progress in English, while middle and high school students lost ground.

Most of the Pueblo schools on the state’s watch list had mixed results. But Roncalli STEM Academy stood out for gains on every test.

HOPE Online — mostly — delivered on high-profile promise of increases.

Last spring, Aurora Public Schools decided to end its relationship with HOPE Online Learning Academy, a multi-district charter school with learning centers in the district. Superintendent Munn said his recommendation to shut down the learning centers was part of his broad school improvement effort.

HOPE, which has been on the state’s accountability watch list for five years, asked the State Board of Education to step in. The charter school’s leaders promised increased test scores, and the State Board overturned Aurora’s decision to shutter the learning centers.

HOPE mostly followed through. HOPE posted gains on five of the seven English tests. Meanwhile, more students met or exceeded state expectations on five out of six math tests.

Other Denver-metro districts, Adams 14 and Sheridan, lost more ground on tests than they gained.

The picture is grim for the remaining metro-area school districts on the state watchlist. In the 7,500-student Commerce City-based Adams 14 School District, students made gains on only three of the seven English tests. And the number of students who met the state’s benchmarks dropped across the board.

Meanwhile, the Sheridan School District lost most of its ground on English tests. Every grade in the 1,500-student district lost ground except for ninth. In math, scores jumped in three out of seven tests, most noticeably. The largest jump, 7 percentage points, was on the fourth grade test.

new faces

State Sen. Dominick Moreno among candidates for Adams 14 board vacancy

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

A state senator is one of five candidates seeking to fill a vacancy on the school board for the troubled Adams 14 school district.

Dominick Moreno, a Democratic state senator whose district includes most of Adams 14, will be among the candidates the board will interview for the position on July 9.

Moreno said he got a legal opinion from legislative services that states he can serve on a local school board while maintaining his seat as a state senator.

The other candidates include:

The vacancy was created two weeks ago when then-board president Timio Archuleta abruptly resigned, citing the need for new voices and opinions on the board.

Many parents and advocates celebrated the resignation, saying it brought hope that the district, which has had made several unpopular decisions in the last year, would listen to the community and change. Adams 14 is facing state intervention after years of low performance and has experienced significant staff turnover in the last year.

The board, by law, has 60 days to fill the vacancy. The board is currently scheduled to vote on July 9 after the candidate interviews. The selected candidate will serve out Archuleta’s term until the next election in November 2019.

Moreno, who graduated from Adams City High School, has been a vocal supporter of the district throughout their turnaround process.

“Obviously the district is at a critical juncture on the accountability clock, and there’s been some unrest in the community,” Moreno said Thursday. “I believed we needed candidates who could come on to the school board and have the relationships and the experience needed to pull everybody together with a common vision.”

Moreno said he didn’t have any strong opinions on the controversial decisions the district has made this past year, including the pause of a biliteracy program, saying only that he would have a lot of homework to do if appointed and that every decision would be reviewed.

In the legislature, Moreno served on the influential Joint Budget Committee and sponsored legislation that required schools to serve breakfast to students from low-income families. He also supported a bill last year that created the opportunity for school districts to offer the seal of biliteracy, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas for students who could demonstrate fluency in two languages. Adams 14 was one of the first three districts to offer the seal, and it is still one of the components of its bilingual education program.

The school district posted the list of candidates Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, last week, the remaining four members of the district’s board voted to name Connie Quintana as the board’s president in a long process that included two failed attempts to reach a decision. Board member Bill Hyde criticized the process as a “circus.”

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.