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.

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.