improvement efforts

After years of stagnation, Colorado’s innovation schools see breakthrough in improvement, data show

A student takes part in an after-school program at Ashley Elementary School in Denver last spring. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

A year ago, as the State Board of Education began to consider fixes for Colorado’s lowest-performing schools, there was scant evidence that giving schools freedom from some state laws and local policies would significantly boost learning.

Since 2010, only three low-performing schools that had been awarded “innovation status” had succeeded in jumping off the state’s academic watch list for poor performance. Many more innovation schools continued to lag. Gaining innovation status gave the schools flexibility to develop their own calendars, curricula and budgets, and hire and train teachers outside union contracts.

A Chalkbeat analysis of a state report on innovation schools relying on more recent data shows a shift in a short time period: Ten schools with innovation status improved enough between 2014 and 2016 to avoid state-ordered improvements.

The near quadrupling of schools that improved — most of them run by Denver Public Schools — could bolster backers of giving schools greater decision-making authority, an experiment playing out at school districts across the nation.

Some Colorado schools with innovation status continue to struggle. Seven innovation schools continue to rank among the lowest-performing in the state after multiple years of increased autonomy. And four innovation schools that had one of the state’s highest ratings in 2014 dropped to one of the lowest in 2016.

The state report did not provide any possible reasons for the sudden spike in improvement at low-performing innovation schools.

Colorado began issuing quality ratings shortly after the state established innovation schools. The state rates schools each year based on standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rates. Schools that receive the lowest two ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention. That could include granting schools innovation status to try to turn things around — an option that was among those favored by state officials this year.

Any school — not just those with poor quality ratings — can apply for innovation status. Colorado has has 86 innovation schools in 13 school districts. Some schools, like those in the Falcon 49 school district near Colorado Springs, have used innovation to carve out niche programs.

The state has approved more than 30 new innovation schools during the last two years. Concerned about whether the state’s innovation law was working as intended, the state board asked state lawmakers this year to grant them additional oversight of innovation schools, including the possibility of revoking some waivers.

The legislature did not go that far, but did give the board more leeway to reject requests it considers to be poorly designed.

Marci Imes, principal of Roncalli STEM Academy, a Pueblo middle school that was one of the innovation schools that improved enough to get off the watch list, said time, focus and years of hard work were necessary to raise her school’s quality rating.

“We can’t change instruction without changing the climate and culture first,” she said last fall after learning her school’s fate. “We had get the kids to believe in themselves, staff who believed in the kids, and supports to make sure things were happening.”

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said innovation status grants teachers and school leaders the flexibility they need to meet student needs.

But “innovation is not a magic wand,” he said. “The reason our innovation schools have driven improvements and progress is because we have a very talented leader, a talented faculty and a strong culture of teamwork among all the educators in the building.”

Boasberg said it’s likely that innovation schools that have not improved are lacking one of those components.

Last year, the DPS school board approved the formation of a new innovation “zone” of four schools granting them even more freedoms, including much more control over how they spend the state funding attached to their students.

“The zone helped drive some important changes through real dialogue about how we unbundle and allocate funds,” Boasberg said.

Starting next year, DPS will extend the same flexibilities to all innovation schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect number of innovation schools that improved in 2016 — it was 10. 

Colorado’s 2017 innovation report

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.