Tell Me Why

State board, struggling districts to talk turnaround efforts next week as clock runs short

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Adams 50 Superintendent Pamela Swanson, right, in her office with the district's spokesman Steve Saunders. Adams 50 officials will meet with the State Board of Education next week to discuss its accreditation rating.

WESTMINSTER — When Pam Swanson learned the State Board of Education was interested in hearing directly from leaders of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, she volunteered to go first.

“We have some promising things to share,” said the superintendent of the Adams 50 school district.

So at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Swanson, her board of education president and other district officials will have a chat with the state board about Westminster schools’ successes and struggles as the northwest metro school district enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability clock.

Since 2010, the state has linked the accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

The conversation, scheduled for 40 minutes, will be the first of many for the state board. The seven member panel has plans to meet each of the 11 school districts nearing the end of the clock between now and June.

No school district has lost its accreditation — yet. What could happen if and when a district hits the end of the clock is still open to debate. The state board of education heard a list of possible consequences and remedies from the Colorado Department of Education in November, which spurred the idea for the forthcoming conversations.

The aim of these meetings, as well as other supports the state has offered the districts, is to help forestall those interventions. However, the state board is also trying to tease out what sort of ramifications these interventions would have on school districts.

State board chairman Paul Lundeen hopes these meetings will provide the governing body, which is responsible for approving a school district’s accreditation, more context about each individual school district’s rating and provide feedback on how the state can better assist the state’s neediest schools.

“It’s more than window dressing,” Lundeen said. “We really hope to seek out the nuances so we can be helpful.”

A qualitative view

The first thing the State Board of Education wants to hear from district leaders during their turnaround conversations is what’s working.

In the four years since the state began rating schools and districts, Adams 50 schools have done an almost entirely about-face.

During the 2009-2010 school year, nearly 75 percent of Adams 50 schools were ranked among the bottom two categories — “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” Today, none of the Adams 50’s schools are classified as “turnaround.” And less than 25 percent of its schools are considered “priority improvement.”

In fact, the Westminster school district has a smaller percentage of low performing schools than Denver Public Schools, which last year was rated as an improving school district and no longer has to fear state intervention.

Swanson, who was appointed to lead the district in 2012 after serving as interim-superintendent since April 2011, points to a systematic overhaul and consistency as key components of the district’s success.

In 2009, Adams 50 abandoned the traditional grade-level approach and adopted a competency-based system. The district has kept teacher and leadership turnover low. There’s a new online program and an innovation school. Parent-teacher conferences have also been overhauled in partnership with the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. And this year the district adopted a new math program that allows teachers to analyze proficiency in real time.

Swanson’s presentation will kick off with a seven-minute video highlighting several of these changes with the hope it will give the state board a qualitative view of the district’s efforts, she said.

These changes, she said, take a long term commitment. “Probably longer than the five years the state’s accountability clock suggests,” she said.

Holding the momentum

Holding the momentum and staying focused is perhaps Adams 50’s greatest challenge, Swanson said.

And there are several obstacles the district will have to overcome to continue on its path toward better student achievement, she said.

First, the district is still tinkering with its districtwide model of competency-based learning. There’s a continued effort to streamline and benchmark its standards to the Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core State Standards. There’s also a greater need for better data management, which can be overwhelming to teachers and students alike.

The district is also expected to trim its budget as school improvement grant money runs out. Adams 50 did ask voters to approve a mill levy in the fall, but that effort failed.

“No matter how you slice it, it’s going to cost more money to educate students in poverty,” Swanson said. Adams 50 students overwhelmingly qualify for free- or reduced-lunch.

And there’s the matter of state- and federally-mandated tests. Swanson would like to reverse the trend of districts needing to plan instruction around assessments, not the other way around.

“We used to have an assessment window,” Swanson said. “Now we have an instructional window.”

Because nearly 50 percent of Westminster students are identified as English language learners, instructors are finding themselves having to administer more tests. More than 700 students at Westminster High School alone were required to take an individual oral exam in January.

Those assessments, coupled with other mandated tests, devour instructional time, Swanson said.

“We know the students who need the most instruction time have the least of it [because of the number of hours devoted to assessments],” she said.

“Something’s not right”

No one from Team Westminster plans to critique the state’s accountability rating system. But if the issue comes up, they’ll be prepared to share their concerns.

“Something’s not right” in the accountability system, Swanson said.

Swanson — along with officials in many other school districts — is concerned about the different measurements the state uses to hold individual schools and districts accountable. Another widely held criticism is that the accountability measurements are a “one-size fits all” approach in a local control state where school districts’ needs and challenges vary widely. And now, officials are concerned that a proposed bill that would freeze a portion of the state accountability framework for two years will make it more difficult for them to prove to the state that they are making progress.

Board chairman Lundeen said while the intent of the conversations isn’t to rewrite the law governing school accountability, he thinks districts meeting with the state board should air their concerns about the frameworks, which he said can be challenging.

He hopes to learn through the next three months how district-specific nuances are bouncing-off state mandates and measurements.

“There are some minimum lines — thresholds — we do not want to cross,” he said. But, if school districts are proving consistent achievement, he’d entertain certain “earned flexibility.”

Regardless of the merits of the school accountability framework, Swanson said she’s looking forward to going beyond the data with the state board. 

“We’re ready to share our story and get input from the board on how we can improve outcomes faster,” Swanson said.

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.