Who Is In Charge

Clock ticking faster for struggling schools

Colorado needs to prepare quickly for the challenge of fixing schools that haven’t improved within the five-year window allowed by state law, the authors of a new study told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

Colorado Department of Education
Colorado Department of Education

“The state board and the department have a huge opportunity to change the lives of 82,000 students in struggling schools,” said former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, the current head of Get Smart Schools, one of the groups behind the report.

The study, titled “Turnarounds in Colorado: Partnering for Innovative Reform in a Local Control State,” was prepared by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver.

The document is intended to offer guidance to the state board and the Department of Education as they look ahead to a tough assignment – possible closures or conversions of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

A 2009 law established an accreditation and rating system for districts and schools. That system requires the state board to impose consequences on districts and schools that remain stuck in the two lowest rating categories for five consecutive years. Those two categories are “priority improvement” and “turnaround.”

Struggling schools
  • 60 schools are starting their third consecutive year of subpar performance and could be eligible for intervention in July 2016
  • 24 of 178 districts are rated as priority improvement or turnaround, including Aurora, Commerce City, Denver, Englewood, Mapleton, Sheridan and Westminster in the metro area
  • 82,000 kids are in the lowest-rated schools, primarily in the Denver metro area, Pueblo, Greeley and in statewide online schools
  • 64 of 178 districts have priority improvement and turnaround schools
  • Those include 81 elementary schools, 20 elementary/middle schools, 33 middle schools, 14 middle/high schools, 32 high schools and 11 K-12 schools

Consequences include replacement of school leadership, conversion to a charter school, designation as an innovation school or closure. The system enters its fourth year starting July 1, which means the clock is ticking for some schools stuck at the bottom. In the case of failing districts, the board could order reorganization or consolidation.

The board also can intervene earlier for some schools that are stuck in turnaround status.

“This is going to be coming pretty fast and furious for you,” said Kelly Hupfeld, one of the CU researchers who prepared the report.

A central conclusion of the report is that failing schools need “tough love” (in the words of a CU news release), not incremental attempts at improvement.

“Turnaround is substantially different from thinking about school improvement generally,” Hupfeld told the board, saying the kind of incremental steps that can improve student achievement at most schools don’t work at turnaround schools.

“Turnaround schools can be best understood as dysfunctional organizations,” she said. “It really takes dramatic action. Turnaround is very hard.”

The report analyzed Colorado’s capacity to deal with turnaround schools. The study listed a credible accountability system, a good balance between state and local responsibilities and appropriate timelines as strengths.

But, the report said, the Colorado system doesn’t offer appropriate autonomy for turnaround leaders, has cumbersome processes for district consolidation, lacks funding, doesn’t have pipelines for developing turnaround leadership and lacks processes for finding outside operators to take schools over. The state also needs a way to set priorities for which schools and districts to focus on, and there is a wide variation in district capacity and willingness to handle changes.

Teacher of the year honored

The board Wednesday honored Amanda Westenberg of Rangeview High School in Aurora, the 2013 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Westenberg has been in education for eight years and serves as the social studies department chair at Rangeview. According to a CDE document prepared for the board, Westenberg “feels her mission is to enable students to become literate thinkers with the skills to succeed in their post-secondary pursuits. Westenberg believes education must be rigorous, relevant and engaging. She has developed a supportive classroom community grounded in positive teacher-student relationships. She feels it is teachers’ obligation to students, parents, and society to provide the highest quality education.”

Senate Bill 10-191 update

Near the end of a long agenda, board members got an update on implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the law that created a new evaluation system for principals and teachers.

The system is being pilot tested in a couple of dozen districts this school year. Next year all districts will evaluate their staff under the terms of the law, which requires that 50 percent of evaluations be based on student academic growth. Evaluations in 2013-14 will not count against teachers in terms of losing tenure. That doesn’t happen until 2014-15.

Board members asked if the first set of evaluations might show that a very high percentage are proficient, as has happened in other states that have rolled out new evaluation systems. (See this EdWeek story for details on that phenomenon in Michigan and Florida.)

Katy Anthes, the lead CDE executive on teacher effectiveness, said, “I think we are going to see a skew toward proficiency” when the first teacher evaluations are released.

Jill Hawley, another top department official, told the board that the first statewide teacher evaluation data won’t be available until the spring of 2015. “We expect those will look wacky,” she said. Both Anthes and Hawley said they expect the evaluation system will balance out over time and yield more realistic data about teacher effectiveness.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: