appeal to a higher power

Struggling district may appeal accreditation rating

A tiny suburban school district is considering challenging the state over its accountability system, arguing its rating does not accurately reflect the district’s progress.

Sheridan Schools, one of 11 districts nearing the end of the so-called state “accountability clock,” will decide by the end of the month whether it will ask the State Board of Education to have its annual accreditation rating upped to create some breathing room after four years of intense turnaround efforts southwest of Denver.

Those efforts, district officials believe, have been enough to ward off the possibility of drastic state intervention and should be seen as a model school district that serves mostly poor students of color

“We believe we ought to be heading down [to the state department of education] to receive an award,” said Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough.

Additionally, Sheridan officials contend that the state’s data-driven assessments are warped to favor larger school districts and add undue disadvantages to already struggling school districts.

Since 2010, the Colorado Department of Education has evaluated districts and their schools. The annual rankings, or performance frameworks, are linked to district accreditations. Districts that fall in the bottom two categories, “priority improvement” or “turnaround,” have five years to meet the department’s expectations or lose their accreditation.

No district has lost its accreditation — yet. But within a year, the state board of education may be faced with striping two rural districts of their accreditation. And within two years, Sheridan and another eight districts could face similar consequences if they don’t improve.

What the loss of accreditation means and how a district may re-establish good standing is mostly a mystery in Colorado, and certainly untested. Last fall the state’s board heard potential scenarios from CDE staff that included converting performing schools into charters, or closing them out right, to a complete reorganization of the district.

Diplomas in a safe    

No one at Sheridan Schools doubts they can — and must — do better.

“Our kids need to catch up,” Clough, the superintendent said.

And they have been. While Sheridan students’ proficiency levels still drastically drag behind state averages, the district’s academic growth — the state’s most coveted measure of student learning — in most subjects and grade levels has either met or is approaching the levels the state believes students need to close the achievement gap and be proficient.

“It has not been without some pain and a lot of hard work,” Clough said.

That growth is also, importantly, seen in historically marginalized groups of students like those who qualify for free or reduced lunch, those who speak a language other than English at home and those who live with disabilities.

In fact, neither the district’s elementary or middle school rank among the lowest-performing nor are they on the state’s school accountability clock.

CDE’s Executive Director for Accountability and Data Analysis Alyssa Pearson said such a scenario is rare.

And in spite of the positive indicators on half of the four measures that make up a district’s accreditation rating — student growth and how quickly the district is closing its achievement gap — the district is still on the clock because of one measure: post-secondary preparedness.

Under the 2008 state statute that created the rankings and accountability clock, growth and post-secondary readiness are the most important factors in evaluating Colorado schools. Because of that, the state weighs those two measures more heavily, and make up 70 percent of a district’s rating.

To gauge student’s post-secondary preparedness, the state evaluates ACT scores, graduation and dropout rate. Sheridan’s composite ACT score is four points shy of the state’s expectation. And its 2012 graduation rate is eight percentage points behind the 80 percent requirement.

But Clough believes his district’s graduation rate is much higher, north of 90 percent. 

That’s because Sheridan Schools offers three different diplomas: standard, advance and 21st Century. To qualify for a 21st Century diploma, students much complete all of their high school requirements and at least one year of college, usually at Arapahoe Community College.

The district has about 60 students enrolled at ACC, Clough said. And he argues those students, who are usually 19- or 20-years-old, should count toward the district’s graduation rate because they’ve already been through the pomp and circumstance of a traditional graduation, but have relinquished a standard diploma back to the district while they complete their college classes that the district is paying for.

The diplomas, Clough said, “are sitting in a safe.”

Because of the possibility Sheridan may appeal its rating to the state board, CDE staff declined to comment on Clough’s claim, but said the issuing of diplomas is left to the discretion of the local school board and district.

In an earlier appeal to CDE staff before the accreditation levels were made public, Sheridan requested CDE use the 2013 graduation rate and add those students who have been issued diplomas but have chosen to stay enrolled. At the time the annual report was issued, graduation rates for the immediate spring aren’t finalized.

And, CDE staff said, “the students that Sheridan would like to include will be included when they do formally graduate.”

“We don’t relish the game”

Both Sheridan officials and CDE staff have complimented each other back-and-forth on the willingness to improve the outcome for students.

Every district on the accountability clock has a dedicated CDE employee assigned to them to work through data, instruction and alignment. Sheridan’s caseworker, Cindy Ward, “lives with us,” Clough jokes. 

The goal is to move the districts off the clock. But Sheridan officials feel they could be trapped in a perpetual state of turnaround because of how the state awards points on their annual reviews.    

Each year the state assigns an average growth percentile, or AGP, to districts based on how much students need to grow in order to be proficient.

In some instances, Sheridan was asked to post growth scores in the 99 percentile, or catch students up by at least two grade levels — an impossible feat, Sheridan and CDE staff agree. 

Districts that do not meet their AGP are assessed by a different scale than those districts that do. And that scale is harsher, Clough said. If Sheridan were to be awarded points based on the latter scale, the framework report would have a higher outcome, maybe even enough to be taken off the accountability clock.

But Pearson defended the state’s practice of defining growth goals. It’s important, she said, for school districts to know how much it will take to bring students to proficient levels. 

“We don’t believe the measure is adequate,” Clough said.

Defending the framework, Pearson said CDE developed the measurements with stakeholders throughout the education community and up and down the state. And, she said, the current framework is a far fairer instrument than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress report that only gauged whether students were proficient. The framework, in its current iteration, creates statewide context and a consistent understanding.

“The accountability system is to measure how we’re doing on getting all of those kids to the goal,” Pearson said.

Clough is fine with measuring progress toward a finish line. But believes the state should find a better way to hold districts accountable to a realistic pace.

“We don’t relish the game.”

Sheridan Schools will make its decision on an appeal by the end of the month.

Update: This post has been updated to more accurately contextualize CDE’s Executive Director for Accountability and Data Analysis comment regarding the rarity of Sheridan Schools’ accreditation rating; the inclusion of dropout rates as a measure for post-secondary preparedness and comments from CDE about how school districts are solely responsible to determine which of its students graduate. 

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.