'the outliers'

Which Colorado school districts are outshining the rest — and which are falling behind? New report seeks answers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A parent mentor helps a student with a math problem at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale in 2013.

A Denver charter school posted the highest average ACT scores for black students in the state last year. Multiracial students in the Roaring Fork school district showed more academic growth on state tests than their white peers. And the Platte Valley district in Weld County has over time achieved impressive improvements in the number of students at grade level.

Meanwhile, graduation rates are declining for all groups of students in El Paso County’s Falcon 49 district, and a district with several new online schools has seen its test scores fall.

Those are some of the findings from a new report by Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado. Called “The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts,” it examines how school districts across Colorado are serving different groups of students.

Here are six interesting findings from the report:

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a link in Denver’s biggest charter school chain, is the only high school in the state, out of nearly 500, where black students scored at least an average of 22 points on the ACT college entrance exam. The average score in 2016 was 23.2.

On a district level, the district with the highest average ACT score for black students was Poudre in Fort Collins. The district with the lowest average score for black students was Pueblo City 60.

The school where Latino students earned the highest average ACT scores last year was D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in Jefferson County, with an average score of 27.4

Another Jeffco school, Evergreen High School, had the highest average ACT score — 25.9 — among students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Similar to smaller Platte Valley, the 3,200-student Fort Morgan district has shown dramatic improvements over the past four years in the percentage of students who are proficient on state elementary math tests and middle-school English tests. More than two-thirds of students in Fort Morgan are children of color and the same proportion qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 90,000 students and has similar demographics, also leaped from ranking in the 15th to 20th percentile statewide on state English and math tests in 2013 to the 43rd percentile in 2016, near the state average.

Among the districts that showed declines over that time period were Manitou Springs, Johnstown-Milliken in Weld County and Aspen, which ranked high in elementary math when compared to other districts in 2013 but fell 34 percentile points by 2016.

The mostly white, mostly non-low-income 2,500-student Steamboat Springs district saw a higher proportion of students meet grade-level standards on state tests last year than districts with similar demographics, such as Boulder Valley and Littleton.

On the whole, Colorado’s students of color and low-income students show slower academic growth on state tests year to year than their white, more affluent peers. But students in some districts buck that trend. One example? The 170 Latino students in the East Grand school district — which serves Winter Park, Granby and other communities — showed higher academic growth on state English tests last year than the district’s 1,000 white students.

The 3,000-student Byers school district, east of Aurora, showed some of biggest declines in student performance over the past four years when compared to the rest of the state. However, the report notes that Byers authorized several multi-district online schools in that time period, which “continues to beg the question of the value of these particular school options.”

While Colorado’s overall four-year high school graduation rate has improved from 2011 to 2015, some districts have made even faster progress. For instance, the 1,500-student Sheridan school district saw its graduation rate improve by 39 percentage points during that time period.

Other districts stand out for the graduation rates of certain groups of students. The 2015 graduation rate for black students in Cherry Creek, where 11 percent of students are black, was 84 percent, the fifth-highest graduation rate for black students in Colorado.

However, several districts still maintain low graduation rates. Aurora had among the lowest rates for black students, Latino students and English language learners in 2015. Englewood is at or close to the bottom for all three groups, as well: in 2015, just 25 percent of black students, 40 percent of Latino students and 41 percent of English language learners graduated.

The report did not seek to determine what factors, such as a curriculum or teaching staff, may be contributing to why the schools and districts were successful or not.

Read the report in its entirety below.

No time to play

Will recess cuts boost learning? One struggling Colorado district wants to find out.

A suburban Denver school district on a state-mandated improvement plan has cut recess time for elementary students in a bid to devote more time to instruction.

On a good day, elementary children in the Adams 14 district get about 15 minutes of recess at lunch time, but sometimes it’s as little as seven, according to teachers who’ve spoken out about the issue.

The change, instituted at the beginning of the school year, has angered both parents and teachers who say the lack of outside playtime is stressful and unhealthy for students and has led to more behavior problems in the classroom.

The reduction in recess is one of a series of controversial decisions this year in the 7,400-student district, where almost half the students are English language learners and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals. Also contentious this year were decisions to end parent-teacher conferences and scale back a biliteracy program once envisioned as a model for other districts.

It’s not uncommon for students in high-poverty schools like the ones in Adams 14 to get less recess compared to their more affluent peers.

A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the students in the highest poverty elementary schools got 17 to 21 minutes of recess a day while those at schools with relatively few students from poor families got 28 to 32 minutes a day.

District spokeswoman Janelle Asmus said the recess changes came out of feedback from state education officials and a contractor charged with helping the district improve. They urged district leaders to use school time more effectively.

“We’re a district that’s on turnaround … and the state has told us, ‘We expect dramatic improvements from you,’” said district spokeswoman Janelle Asmus. “What we keep hearing (is), ‘You’re not using every single minute to the maximum amount.’”

Last year, district elementary schools generally had around 45 minutes of recess a day, said Asmus. While there was some variation between schools and some of that time was spent donning jackets, lining up, and filing out of the building, most had a 15-minute morning recess, 15-minute afternoon recess, and a 30-minute midday break split between lunch and recess, she said.

This year, students have only the 30-minute lunch/recess break. At a school board meeting held a week into the school year, a string of parents and teachers complained about the lack of both recess time and eating time, and a few were moved nearly to tears as they described the consequences.

Some children were throwing most of their meals away because they didn’t have enough time to eat. Others, particularly special education students who required extra help going through the cafeteria line and feeding themselves, were getting little to no recess with their peers.

While Colorado law requires elementary schools to provide students with an average of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, many observers consider it a weak law because it allows so much flexibility in what counts as physical activity and no minimum minutes for any particular type of physical activity.

Critics of the recess cut in Adams 14 say it flies in the face of research showing that physical activity improves focus and helps students better absorb information.

But Asmus said district officials agree with the research and are simply integrating physical activity into the elementary school day outside of recess. This approach entails lessons that incorporate movement or “brain breaks” — short periods of exercise in the classroom.

But teachers like Derene Armelin have their doubts.

A first grade teacher at Dupont Elementary, she said this week that some children sit out during movement breaks because they’re embarrassed to follow the choreographed moves that popular brain break videos rely on — dance moves or pretend wall-climbing, for example.

Plus, she said, there’s no replacement for getting fresh air outside.

Asmus said ensuring kids get time outdoors is up to teachers.

“This is where we rely on our teachers’ professional judgement,” she said. “How are they using their lessons to address all the needs of the student?”

Asmus said teachers can take kids outside as part of lessons, say for a butterfly hunt or to count flowers in a garden.

Armelin sees signs that the daily schedule is hard on youngsters. Some act tired. Others ask repeatedly for bathroom breaks just to get up and move.

“They’re walking down the hallway. They’re getting a drink of water,” she said. “They’re doing whatever form of exercise they can come up with.”

Parent Elizabeth Vitela said her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter mention the lack of recess almost every day.
“They say it’s too little,” she said. “It’s not a good amount.”

Vitela, whose children attend Dupont Elementary, said she’s upset that no one ever explained the recess cuts or the discontinuation of parent-teacher conferences to parents.

Parent Carolina Rosales, who has a kindergartner and third-grader at Hanson Elementary, said her 5-year-old son sometimes misses recess altogether because he prefers to use the allotted 30 minutes to eat. Her 9-year-old daughter is the opposite, often gulping down just fruit and milk before dashing outside.

Recess practices vary in Colorado districts, including those that face the same kinds of academic hurdles as Adams 14. In nearby Westminster Public Schools, which is also on a state-required improvement plan, most elementary students get a 10-minute morning recess, a 10-minute afternoon recess and 10 to 20 minutes during the lunch/recess period, said district spokesman Stephen Saunders.

In Pueblo City Schools, which improved just enough in 2016 to avoid a state improvement plan, elementary students get a 35-minute lunch/recess break plus 10 to 15 minutes of additional recess during other times of the day, said district spokesman R. Dalton Sprouse.

While the recess cuts in Adams 14, like other recent changes there, are intended to boost learning and raise test scores, some district teachers believe the plan will backfire.

“I honestly think it’s going to bring scores down,” said Hanson Elementary teacher Jodi Connelly, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders.

“To tell them you’re going to have to sit in a chair all day long … and have things put in your head,” she said. “That’s not how they’re wired.”

Connelly, who is currently on a health-related leave of absence, said before she went on leave in late fall she was seeing more student conflicts and disruptions. One boy, who had gradually shed his previously defiant behavior, was regressing. He’d become mouthy and rude again, habits that were landing him in detention.

“We spend more time dealing with behaviors as a result of not having the time for kids to get out there and be kids,” she said.

moving forward

State board OKs new A-F grade plan that ‘will affect every school in Indiana’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board met for its January meeting on Wednesday.

Student test scores would play a bigger role in determining school A-F grades under new draft rules approved by the Indiana State Board of Education, despite concerns from some board members and educators from across the state.

The rules, approved 7-4, are only proposals at this point. Next they go into a formal rulemaking process that begins with opportunities for public comment. After revisions, the state board will vote on final A-F grading rules so it can go into effect for 2018-19. The vote would probably be this summer.

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, said he was frustrated and disappointed that the board didn’t vet some of the changes with educators or have a public discussion before working them into the draft that would begin rulemaking.

“Not one educator I talked with knew about this,” Baker said. “Yet this plan will affect every school in Indiana.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who is a member of the board, voted in favor of the changes. But the rules are far from final, she said, and she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in their current form.

“Do I think it’s going to change? Yes,” McCormick said “I think it’s a good thing for people to know what the board’s thinking.”

The changes come as Indiana works to create a plan comply with new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The vote followed a contentious conversation that took hours. Initially, board member Gordon Hendry suggested the board table their vote until they could discuss the grading changes further. Last week, educators and some board members were caught unaware by some of the grade formula changes, which hadn’t received a discussion in public.

“Some of the language didn’t receive the proper discussion before being crafted,” Hendry said. “The cart was a little bit before the horse, and there should have been, in my opinion, a full board discussion before pen was put to paper.”

Chad Ranney, an attorney for the board, said some board members asked him about making some changes in the A-F model. When he saw the number of changes coming through, Ranney said he decided to solicit feedback from the entire board.

It’s not clear which board member saw what email when, particularly over the winter holidays, but some did not offer input and were surprised when they learned the new rules would be up for a vote in January without additional discussion.

Ultimately, a majority of board members wanted to stick with the new proposed rules, arguing that they had plenty of time to weigh in.

The proposed formula would give more weight to the number of students who pass tests and stop measuring how much high school students improve their test scores. Also, two new measures would be added: “Well-rounded” for elementary and middle schools and “on-track” for high schools.

The “well-rounded” piece is calculated based on state science and social studies tests given once in elementary and middle school. The “on-track” measure would be calculated based on whether high school students, by the end of their freshman year, have received at least 10 course credits and have received no more than one F in either English, math, science or social studies. For high schools, improvement in test scores would be removed entirely in 2023, as would the “college and career-readiness” measure.