Engaging parents

No more parent-teacher conferences: Why one Colorado school district is going with an online data system instead

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

A school district north of Denver is doing away with the traditional parent-teacher conferences this year, instead urging parents to log in to a website to find out how their children are doing.

The Commerce-City based Adams 14 school district says it made the change in an effort to squeeze in as much instructional time as possible. The 7,500-student district — where almost half the students are English language learners and about 85 percent qualify for subsidized lunches — has long struggled academically and is under a state-ordered improvement plan.

Frustrated parents and teachers, however, said in interviews with Chalkbeat that the new online system is either confusing or incomplete and can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

“Teachers would tell me at conferences what I needed to help my son with, they would tell me how he was behaving and everything they did in class, like what they were studying,” said Carolina Rosales, a mother of two elementary school kids. “The portal might tell me he failed an assignment, but what does that tell me?”

The system the district introduced this year is called Infinite Campus, a commonly used parent portal program in schools. In addition to weekly grades, parents who log in can get information about specific assignments and attendance, district officials said. The site can be accessed on a computer or smartphone.

“What we know is that the information available to a parent through the parent portal is much more robust than what they were able to get through a parent-teacher conference,” said Janelle Asmus, the spokeswoman for Adams 14. “We believe this is going to be better over time.”

Asmus said there are 1,267 accounts for parents on the district’s Infinite Campus system. Officials believe there may be others who are using alternate names that the district can’t track.

District-wide, parents did not receive information about the elimination of conferences and the switch to the online system. Many parents said they found out through word-of-mouth, as they started asking why conferences hadn’t been scheduled.

Asmus said that if parents are concerned about not getting face time, they can still reach out to teachers and ask to meet with them.

Elementary school teacher Jodi Connelly, who is also a union representative at her school, said that she’s had several parents this year asking to talk to her before or after school.

“They want to have that conversation with a teacher, but it doesn’t replace the actual conference,” Connelly said. “My Spanish is OK, but not great, so I have to take time to find someone to have a phone call with me.”

Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union, said teachers are stuck trying to find time on their own to talk with parents, often after hours when they aren’t being paid. Teachers and union leadership want the district to continue parent-teacher conferences, she said.

“All the teachers are really frustrated,” McDowell said. “We want to meet with parents. We send texts. We call. We try to have conversations. But at the same time, teachers know if they start doing it, it’ll just be expected of them.”

The district says it doesn’t have data on how many parents in Adams 14 attended conferences when the district held them. Asmus, however, said many times teachers were spending hours preparing for conferences only to sit waiting for parents who didn’t show.

Connelly said her records show 98 percent of families attended conferences in her classroom last year. McDowell, a teacher at Kearney Middle School, said participation does drop in higher grades. But she stressed the need for conferences, citing an example from a conference she had last year.

One of her students was having issues and hurting herself, and in talking with the student’s parents, Connelly was able to help. This year, the student “is doing great things,” she said.

“It’s powerful when we know there’s communication back and forth,” McDowell said.

The district is rolling out several changes this year as part of their plan to improve its state rating, including new district observations of schools and using a consultant to help train teachers and provide curriculum resources.

Several other metro area districts have used Infinite Campus for years, and still schedule parent-teacher conferences. But using the system is an adjustment for teachers, district officials say, and they wanted to free teachers from another responsibility.

“We aren’t like all the other districts,” Asmus said. “They aren’t in turnaround. They aren’t having to make the changes we’re trying to make in an expeditious manner. People can only take so much change in one year.”

On Aug. 11, before the school year started, the district did designate a “parent-engagement day” where principals could choose activities to better involve parents.

At least one school used the August day to teach parents how to use Infinite Campus. Other schools held a more traditional back-to-school day. The next one is set for Jan. 9.

The district also has been trying to build parent engagement by increasing the number of home visits teachers do each year.

Teachers and experts say those are helpful in building relationships with parents. But because teachers aren’t supposed to talk during home visits about a child’s academics or school behavior, it doesn’t replace the value of a conference, they say.

Across the country, a handful of school districts have tried eliminating parent-teacher conferences. But experts say that even if parent-teacher conferences aren’t the best way to fully engage parents, doing away with them eliminates an important communication point.

“Generally speaking, everyone believes parents need an opportunity to meet with their child’s teacher,” said Steven Sheldon, a research scientist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “I personally find this policy decision troubling. I feel like it is creating greater distance between the schools and the families that they’re serving and they’re really putting the onus on parents to get all the information.”

Sheldon said research on parent teacher conferences as a way of engaging parents is limited, but plenty of research exists about online parent portals.

“What researchers have found is people who are using parent portals tend to be the more highly educated or more affluent families,” Sheldon said. “Often times portals can be a greater source of inequities. Families with poor or no access to the internet are cut off from that information.”

The rollout of the Infinite Campus system could create inequity in another way.

This year, the system is only producing report cards in English. The district, under a federal order to better serve students and families who are not native English speakers, let each school create its own cover sheet to send with the report cards giving parents information on how they could request a translator or an explanation of the report card if they needed it.

Asmus said the system will be updated over time so report cards can be produced in other languages.

The language barrier is also one reason some parents want a face-to-face conference with their child’s teacher.

Guadalupe Castro, a mother of a student at Adams City High School, said she has not been able to meet this year with any of her child’s teachers, or with the school principal. She has an account with Infinite Campus, but hasn’t actively used it.

“I don’t understand it,” Castro said. “There’s a language barrier, so for me it’s more comfortable to talk in person. My thought is that it was the only space we really used to find out how our kids were doing. And most of all, for me it was about building that trust with the teacher so that I could collaborate with them and they could get to know me and know that I’m accessible to support them.”

District officials say they are gathering feedback now on the change, but Castro said she wished they had asked parents about it before.

“No one asked me if I agreed with this or not,” she said.

top down

Board president of troubled Adams 14 school district abruptly resigns

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

In a surprise announcement Tuesday night, the president of the Adams 14 school board abruptly resigned — a departure that could reshape the leadership of the split board.

In a statement Wednesday Timio Archuleta noted the need for “new energy” in the troubled district.

“As the board president, I have worked hard to represent the community and make decisions that put students first,” Archuleta wrote. “After reflecting on all the work that needs to be done in Adams 14, I believe at this time, that we need new energy that will help the district and our students succeed.”

Timio Archuleta. (Photo courtesy of Adams 14)

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18. But Adams 14 appears to be struggling to meet required benchmarks. If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.

Archuleta, whose first term would have ended in November 2019, is part of a majority on the five-member board who has supported Superintendent Javier Abrego’s efforts to improve school performance, despite criticism from some parents.

Archuleta’s vocal opponents welcomed his departure.

“It’s actually going to be a step forward in the right direction,” said Joanna Rosa-Saenz, who organized a meeting earlier this year calling on the board majority to fire the superintendent or step down themselves. The group specifically targeted Archuleta and two other board members and threatened a recall.

She said the resignation could provide hope to parents who felt the board was not listening to them.

Archuleta, 65, said he will miss his time on the board, but will continue to advocate for the district. Reached briefly by phone, he said that he still believes in the district, but said he has been frustrated by the lack of parent involvement in district improvement efforts.

“It’s not just the board. It’s not just the district. It’s the parents also that have a role,” Archuleta said. “That’s a message that people refuse to hear. It’s hard to make decisions that are best for kids that way.”

Board member Bill Hyde, part of the board minority, said in a statement Wednesday that while he disagreed with Archuleta on several issues, he appreciated his service.

“I see his resignation as a sad commentary on the state of affairs within the district,” Hyde said.

In a written statement, Abrego praised Archuleta for improving the district.

“Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mr. Archuleta to push the district forward as we make improvements and changes for the betterment of the district,” the statement read. “I have admired his passion for the students of Adams 14 and the community. As a long-time Commerce City resident, we cannot thank him enough for his service and he will be truly missed.”

District officials promised to post online information about the board’s process to appoint a new member to finish Archuleta’s term, but did not say when.

According to state law school boards have 60 days to appoint a new member to fill a vacancy. The law does not specify how a board should seek out candidates for appointment.

Hyde said the board is likely going to meet Thursday to elect a new president and start the search for a new member.

Janet Estrada, a Denver educator and Adams 14 resident and parent, said she had already been considering running for Archuleta’s seat next year.

“One of the issues with the board members is a lot of them don’t have an education background,” Estrada said. “They haven’t really been in the classroom and I think that really helps a board in their decision-making. I want to run because I think this district for a very long time has been in need of change.”

Estrada said she would consult with her family about applying for the seat a year earlier than she had anticipated.

The surprise resignation came at a meeting that included a public hearing on next school year’s budget and a report about Beyond Textbooks, the external partner that is helping with the district’s state-approved improvement plan.

catalyst

Adams 14 could get a grant to replace Commerce City elementary school with safety problems

File photo of fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Adams 14.

Facing serious hazards including sewer backups, vehicle crashes and security concerns, Alsup Elementary is among a select group of schools to win a state grant for school buildings.

The State Board of Education this week is expected to approve a $19.6 million grant for the school’s replacement. Then the district, Adams 14, will have to provide $14.2 million, likely from a combination of savings and new debt, to cover the rest of the reconstruction cost.

“We’re really excited about getting a new school,” said Melinda Rios, a parent of two students, including one who will be a fifth grader at Alsup this fall and a middle-schooler. Her children will not get to enjoy the new school, but her niece will. “The principal had done a good job from the beginning of asking the parents what we felt we could change and what we wanted. We were kind of on the same page.”

Alsup Elementary School:

  • 7101 Birch Street, Commerce City
  • About 519 students
  • 88 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch
  • Building was constructed in 1959

Construction of the new building is expected to start later this year for a possible opening in 2020. The district’s challenge will be to prevent the district’s internal turmoil and constant turnover of top officials from stalling the project.

Gionni Thompson, who led the work on the grant request and the projects, suddenly left the position last week. Although he has not been replaced, district officials said they have handed off the project to another staff member.

District officials were excited about the grant, not just for the serious problems it would help address at Alsup, but because the project is expected to become a catalyst for more school renovations in coming years.

The idea is that Alsup’s replacement would be built on the former site of Adams City High School less than a mile south. Alsup’s current site, just blocks away from a new RTD commuter rail line and Park-N-Ride station, is expected to rise in value, meaning its sale will help Adams 14 pay for its next project: moving Adams City Middle School to share the new campus with Alsup. The freed-up space from the middle school could then also be sold to finance a future project.

Thompson, formerly the district’s chief operating officer, said last week that the impact of the grant for Adams 14 was unique.

“This really changes the forecast for Adams 14,” Thompson said. “Without this grant we wouldn’t have been able to build this momentum. And to do it without passing a bond, this really shows the community we are making every effort possible to make sure we are building facilities that our kids and their kids deserve.”

Just before Thompson was scheduled to meet with state officials to help plan financing for the new Alsup, he was removed from his position. The reasons are unclear, as the district refused to comment.

State funding for Alsup will come from its BEST grants, which funnel a portion of lottery and marijuana revenues to struggling school districts to help address facilities problems. The grant requires school districts to pay for a portion of the project.

About half of Adams 14’s share will come from the district’s savings. Thompson had said the district is planning to get the remaining $7 million by issuing certificates of participation, or COPs, which are a government financing mechanism used by school districts and other government bodies to pay for construction.

More commonly, school districts fund capital improvements with voter-approved bonds. But three times in the past eight years Adams 14 voters have rejected bond measures, so the largely low-income community will instead rely on COPs, whose debt will be paid through the general fund.

District officials said Tuesday the project remains on track despite Thompson’s departure.

Although several schools in Adams 14 need replacement, safety concerns lifted Alsup to the top of the list. The sewage backups have forced the school to close several times. Recently, an Amber Alert intensified campus concerns.

Principal Mike Abdale explained that a sibling and a parent of a third-grader at Alsup were kidnapped from their home in Commerce City in August. After an Amber Alert was issued, Alsup employees realized that they had seen the suspect walking on campus days earlier.

“We do not know his intent for being in the building, but we believe he was there for the child,” Abdale said. “The video showed that he walked in, took a drink of water, and walked out of the building. Nothing occurred on that day, and he had no contact with the child or any other students at any point.”

The kidnapped mother and child were later found safe.

But the incident was a reminder that the school’s design makes security a challenge, because the main office is far from the main entrance. Although staff try to keep an eye on the doors, it is not enough, the principal said.

“A person could enter the building without being seen because of the crowds, and that is what happened in this case,” Abdale said. “We have no way of seeing if a person walks down the main hall instead of heading to the office.”

Outside, the grant application describes other safety issues caused by the placement of the building and the lack of a clear, designated place to drop off students. It mentions students hit by vehicles, dangerous street crossings, auto crashes, “near misses of students,” and an increase in traffic from commercial trucks.

Officials said it takes nearly all school staff to stand outside before and after school to try to keep kids safe. The application also states the principal has at times had to call the police department to help patrol and to handle road rage.

Parent Rios said that is one of the big concerns she has observed at Alsup.

“The drop-off is kind of hectic,” Rios said. “Some parents just let their kids jump out of the car, which I’m not a fan of. That is definitely an issue.”

Thompson has said that he worried problems will get worse as RTD completes the new N Line commuter rail, which will have tracks just a few blocks from Alsup. Along with that project, Commerce City is planning to widen 72nd Avenue, where Alsup sits, from two lanes to four lanes later this year.

Thompson said some students regularly cross 72nd Avenue, especially to help siblings, from Alsup to Adams City Middle School, and that as the street widens, the danger will increase. In a letter, the city manager for Commerce City agreed with those safety concerns.

RTD officials said last week they were not aware of the district’s safety concerns, but said that as a regular part of their projects, they are scheduled to start a safety campaign this fall for schools along the N Line to teach students how to be safe near buses and tracks.

“Our safety demonstrations include using a mock railroad crossing with bells, flashing lights, and arms that go down when a train is approaching,” said Lisa Trujillo, RTD’s manager of project outreach.

Thompson said a parent committee was being considered to help guide the next parts of the project and the transition of the school.