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. 

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.