A unique approach

Is Westminster Public Schools’ investment in competency-based learning paying off?

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Teacher Amy Adams will tell you that her class at Flynn Elementary School is loud and chaotic.

Her class of almost 30 students is used to doing a lot of independent or small group work. In Westminster Public Schools — the only Colorado district to use what is known as competency-based learning in all its schools — it’s common.

The model does away with traditional grade levels — meaning there is no such thing as third grade, sixth grade and so on. Students are grouped together based on proficiency in each subject, and they are expected to know what they need to master to move up a level. That means during the day, students are moving around, talking to each other and sometimes working on different assignments — raising the volume in the process.

“We don’t like quiet classrooms,” said Justin Davis, principal of Flynn Elementary. “These teachers know what they’re doing. But most importantly, the kids know what they’re working on.”

Seven years since beginning to adopt the competency-based model, Westminster Public Schools is still working out problems and testing changes to try to make the system work, all while the district remains on the state’s watchlist for poor academic performance.

Among the lingering problems: Teachers have been inconsistent in tracking data, the district hasn’t pinned down just how long is too long for a student to linger on a single level, and many students and parents remain confused about how the model works.

Still, the district credits the competency-based model with improving district schools on the state’s performance ratings between 2010 and 2014 so that no district schools are on the state watchlist for a fifth year in a row. That distinction would trigger state sanctions.

But those improvements have not been enough to move the district itself off the watchlist for low performance, according to preliminary ratings. Westminster district officials are contesting this year’s rating, in part insisting the state’s evaluation is not adequately considering their model.

The idea for the new model was simple: Kids should move grade levels when they prove they’ve mastered a learning goal, not based on how long they’ve spent in a class. Students would be grouped in classrooms based on their performance levels and would be able to move levels — or sometimes physical classrooms — in the middle of the year. For state tests, students still must be tested based on their age, not considering what material they’ve been taught based on their proficiency levels.

If the latest rating doesn’t change, the state will decide in the next several months what action to take against districts such as Westminster that have failed to move out of the bottom two performance ratings for five years.

Nationwide, the popularity of competency-based education models is growing. In Colorado, Westminster is the only district using it in all schools and across all grade levels.

Aurora Public Schools included competency-based learning in its innovation plan for Aurora Central High School earlier this year. But officials there said they are still reviewing how it would work and have yet to put a system in place.

As more schools try the model, the research around it is trying to catch up. In a report published last year by CompetencyWorks, an initiative of the advocacy group International Association for K-12 Online Learning, researchers found that school districts switching to competency-based models varied in their time to make the switch. Leaders suggested the first phases took at least five years.

“All the districts highlighted here emphasize they are still involved in continually improving the design and implementation of the system,” the report stated.

In October, Westminster officials presented at a conference in Texas about challenges in tracking how students progress through the levels. This week, district officials will also be in Washington D.C. after they were invited to participate in a White House discussion about improving testing.

Superintendent Pam Swanson has said that it would make sense to test kids “in real time” when they move levels instead of once a year. The tests also need to stay consistent so data can start to be compared and used for more analysis, officials say.

“This progression data doesn’t exist anywhere,” said Jeni Gotto, Westminster’s executive director of teaching and learning. Gotto said having progression data would help teachers plan for students to get on track, and would help the district aggregate data to identify students who are struggling.

Every month, teachers meet with their principal to pore over data about individual students to determine if they’re making progress toward moving levels. Interventionists and psychologists recently began joining those meetings to discuss each student’s needs.

But at a district level, officials couldn’t provide data showing how long students take to move each level compared to how much they should take. Without that, it’s hard to track district-wide trends, including whether any one segment of students is more or less likely to struggle with the model.

Data that is available, such as graduation rates, shows drops. In 2015, 59.4 percent of Westminster students graduated on time, down from 62.3 percent for the class of 2010.

The last two years of PARCC state test scores didn’t show students in Westminster growing much, either. Westminster’s growth scores this year showed students were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state, and achievement scores also showed several groups performing worse than last year’s classes. For example, among third graders, 15.8 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on English language arts tests in 2016, down from 16.8 percent of last year’s class.

To get more information on progress, Westminster officials last year hired AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to audit the program.

The group gave the district an accreditation — and a mostly favorable review — but still found many problems and suggested several changes that the district is working on now.

“Many students could describe in varying degrees the concepts of grading and reporting, but often even they could not articulate a simple, clear explanation of the process,” the report stated. “When parents and students do not understand how learning progress is reported, engaging them in meaningful ways becomes much more difficult.”

Teachers say that getting students to take responsibility for their pace of learning is a challenge.

“That’s been perhaps the most difficult — to get the kids to buy into that,” said Westminster teacher Seth Abbott.

Abbott said students in his class have remained engaged by showing their creativity in proving they understand a concept. When he gives them suggestions, they have come up with other ideas including designing a test, he said.

“Everyone learns differently and everyone can show evidence in different ways,” Abbott said. “It’s neat to think of the ways someone can show what they’ve learned in ways I maybe hadn’t even thought about.”

District officials say that’s evidence of positive change that needs time and flexibility to expand.

“Not only have we seen progress,” said Swanson, the superintendent. “We’re still very humble and learn every day.”

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”