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. 


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

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

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”