Turn It Around

Why Denver Public Schools thinks “Year Zero” may be the answer to rocky turnarounds

Jesse Tang won’t start his new job as the principal at Schmitt Elementary School for more than a year.

But by this May, he had already made the trip from Massachusetts, where he was finishing graduate school, to Denver, where he met with students and staff at Schmitt, more than half a dozen times.

Tang’s visits represent a shift in Denver’s approach to school turnaround. Turnaround entails making dramatic changes to staff and programs at a school, with the help of federal or district funds, in an effort to improve students’ outcomes.

One of the first steps in the district’s efforts to rapidly improve struggling schools has often been hiring a new principal. But while those principals have usually had just months to make big decisions about the future of the schools they are tasked with improving, Tang has an entire school year to get to know the school and create a plan before taking the reins. In the meantime, Cindy Miller, an interim principal, will be running the day-to-day operations of the school.

Denver Public Schools is referring to the approach as its “Year Zero” turnaround strategy. Harrington, Schmitt, and Goldrick, three elementary schools in southwest Denver, will all have both an interim and a “Year Zero” principal next year.

The DPS board will vote on whether to approve redesign plans that give principals the ability to select all staff at those schools and to change academic programs at the schools this Thursday. The board will also approve the 2015-16 budget, which includes funds to support having two administrators at each school.

The board is also planning to vote on a redesign plan for Valverde Elementary. Valverde already has a new principal, Drew Schultze, but teachers at the school will also be asked to reapply for their jobs at the end of next year and Schultze will also have the ability to make changes to the school’s current program.

The overall goals of turnaround haven’t changed. Denver Public Schools has identified the four schools for improvement efforts due to persistently low academic achievement and other signs that the schools need a change. At Schmitt, just about a third of students are on grade level in math and reading. Nearly 50 percent of students zoned to the school choose to attend other schools.

But the hope is that giving school leaders more time to prepare, plan, and build relationships before turnaround will both help school leaders’ jobs be more sustainable and improve the culture and outcomes at turnaround schools.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created; the ownership of that plan by a leader; and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”

The idea of having more time for preparation is not entirely new: Some of the district’s other new schools, including DCIS: Fairmont, have given future principals a planning year before starting their schools.

Cordova said that the relative stability in those schools, compared to high rates of teacher turnover and lagging results in some other turnaround schools, “helped us start thinking about ‘Year Zero,’ to give principals a chance to plan, to engage with the community, to build the right structures, and hit the ground running with that plan.”

The district has had a high rate of principal turnover in recent years, especially in its high-needs schools.

Cordova said teachers in these turnaround schools will also know more about what they’re getting into before they are asked to reapply for their jobs and that community members will have a chance to get to know the principal and give input on the future of their schools.

At a work session of the district’s board in June, Tang, Schultze and the interim and “Year Zero” principals at Harrington, and Goldrick shared their plans for the schools. Board members were optimistic.

“I’ve got a big smile on my face,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver.

The outcome of the upcoming turnarounds remain to be seen.

But Tang said that the chance to have the extra year to prepare had made a significant impact on his decision to come to Denver and his ability to plan. “I have the professional space to do all of this research, listening, and diagnostic work with a partner who has years of experience and knows the DPS system,” he said.

“I’m getting to know individuals and communities at this level that completely informs the work that I do in a way that I might not have an opportunity if the timeline were much shorter,” he said.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.