These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Stay Sharp Newsletter: September 2018

stay sharpColorado school districts are feeling the heat at the beginning of this school year. We’ve got updates on the Denver Public Schools superintendent search, community asks in Aurora, and big decisions coming up for Adams 14. Community engagement is key in all of these districts as we highlight below.

A+ Updates

Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho

Did you know over 128,000 students (14%) in Colorado are receiving supports to help them learn English? Did you know that as a state we invest over $56 million annually to support these students? Do you know which Colorado schools and districts are best serving emerging multilingual students? Where students are most likely to be on-track to English proficiency? Where students are most likely mastering academic content? Our new report, out next month, seeks to shine some light on these questions. In the meantime, who do you think fills out the following spots? 

A+ is growing!

We’re excited to announce that Katie Martinez will be joining the A+ Colorado team leading our communications and engagement work. Katie joins A+ after recently moving to Denver in May 2018 after completing her Master in Social Work at the University of Houston. As part of the program, her internships focused on public policy, education, and community outreach.

Prior to joining A+, Katie was the Associate Director of Development at Children At Risk, a research and advocacy nonprofit in Texas. She has worked for over six years in various fields of the nonprofit sector, where she discovered her passion to address social issues, specifically issues which impact children.

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from Texas Tech University, Katie volunteered with at-risk youth which influenced her career trajectory. She has served as a mentor as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for over four years, and enjoys engaging the community with programs and policies which will ultimately better the lives of children. Katie’s self-care involves a lot of yoga, traveling, and being outdoors with her two dogs, Lincoln and Maia. 

Remembering Les Woodward

Colorado lost a great civic and education leader this month, Les Woodward . Les was active throughout his career in working towards improving Denver Public Schools as a successful law partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs for 40 years. He served in a variety of leadership positions in Denver and at the state level but most notably was the school board president of Denver Public Schools from 1999-2005. This was a time of great transition as forced busing ended and the district struggled mightily to turn itself around. Les did much to lay the groundwork for Denver’s improvement in later years and was always focused on what could be done to better serve the students that needed the most help. We will deeply miss Les’s tireless optimism, compassion and commitment to improve our schools.

News to Share

A Super Search: DPS seeks community feedback

It’s been a busy first few weeks in Denver with the launch of “Super Search” to get community feedback on the current state of Denver Public Schools and what characteristics community members seek in their new Superintendent. While the first meeting was full of fireworks, successive meetings have been less explosive yet still full of debate over the future of DPS. A+ applauds DPS for taking on such a large and expansive community dialogue – it’s important to have conversations with the community on these critical issues. DPS should also ensure that a fact-based discussion is central to the dialogue. A+ has attended every meeting so far and has been impressed with turnout from all corners of the city. We have also noted the wide range of blurriness on key facts on DPS whether it’s about previous community efforts, how charter schools operate, or how schools are funded. DPS should take this opportunity to level-set with the community and bust myths about how the system operates. It should be clear about current performance gaps and also help families understand more deeply how decisions are made. It’s a rare opportunity to have this level of engagement and participation – DPS should seize the moment to ensure everyone is entitled to their own opinions – not their own facts.

Much Ado About School Performance

The State released its preliminary School and District Performance Frameworks in late August, and Denver’s, the only district in Colorado that issues its own School Performance Frameworks, are due out early next month. Each of these rating systems help communities:

-Understand how schools are, or are not, supporting students to master academic content (academic measures are by far the primary focus of each of the ratings).
-Help guide decision-making by families (as they chose schools and advocate for opportunities for their students), for educators (as they identify any challenges and align supports to address them).
-For administrators (as they make decisions about management and resource allocation).

Both of these releases are critical as they relate to transparency, and drive decisions about how to improve schools.

The State system, for the most part, is primarily concerned with identifying those schools that are the most underperforming relative to other schools across the state. With the preliminary ratings Colorado identified 33 schools as “Turnaround,” the lowest category of performance, and 103 schools as “Priority Improvement” meaning that around 8% of schools that received a preliminary rating are on the accountability clock and could face state intervention without improvement over the course of five years. Indeed, pending the request to reconsider process this fall, the State Board of Education will have to make decisions about how to support districts to make significant changes in the 6 schools that are in Year 8, the 2 schools that are in Year 6, and 3 schools that are in Year 5 on the Accountability Clock. The extent to which districts and schools actually share this information with their communities is variable.

In Denver, SPF ratings arguably have much higher community traction (from both supporters and critics), guiding many discussions both within and outside the system. This year’s SPF release will be particularly meaningful given shifting policies and community conversations. Here’s what to watch for in this year’s release:

  • Implications of technical changes: last year, A+ was amongst community groups calling for a fix to the DPS SPF when early literacy data, which was not well aligned to state standards, skewed the elementary ratings, making some schools look better on the SPF than much of the underlying data supported. In response, DPS is shifting cut points with the aim of ensuring the ratings better align to the underlying data. How this plays out will be particularly interesting given this year’s data: improvement in early literacy and stagnation (3rd grade) or slight improvements (4th and 5th grades) in elementary CMAS English Language Arts.
  • Implications for low-performing schools: The School Board is taking a hiatus from the School Performance Compact which initiated conversations about restart and other interventions in the district’s chronically low performing schools. A school rating will no longer trigger conversations about intervention; instead Red and Orange schools will now have to present their plans for improvement to the Board. The School Board and the district’s new leadership will have decisions to make about how to best support students in low performing schools.

Aurora turns to community

In August, the APS School Board authorized a mill levy request to appear on this fall’s ballots. If it passes, the mill will provide up to $35 million in annual funding that would support: expanded mental health staff and training, increased funding for recruiting and retaining teachers, expanded after-school offerings for students, and seat belts on buses. The mill would cost taxpayers just under $10 per month for every $100,000 of their home’s value, and would join previously approved mill levy overrides from 1990, 2008, and 2012 which are estimated to contribute $50.27 million in revenue to the 2018-2019 APS budget.

At the same time, Aurora Public Schools has embarked on an ambitious effort, Blueprint APS, to gather and solicit community feedback on the next stage of growth and investments.  In an exceptionally well facilitated meeting that A+ attended at Mrachek Middle School, attendees were asked important questions like “Why do families choose charter schools?” and “What type of educational programs should be added?” Using electronic voting methods in a very efficient process, we learned so much about how the Aurora community thinks about education. In follow-up small groups, the facilitators asked for a lot more context from families and community members on the previous questions. In a remarkable display of facilitation, the district didn’t get involved in a back and forth with families, but rather earnestly listened and sought understanding. If engagement like this continues, Aurora will be able to marshall community trust for the next stage of their efforts.

Adams 14: Decision time nears for state turnaround and KIPP Colorado authorization

It’s been a busy time in Adams 14 at the start of the school year. While the district increased performance in some key schools and key areas, it was not enough for the state to move off the state turnaround clock. This means that this November, the state board will be faced with a big decision about how to address generations of poor performance. What actions will the state take to significantly alter the trajectory of the school district? Efforts are underway to provide new options for families in Adams 14. On November 13th, the Adams 14 Board will announce their decision around the new KIPP application.  They will be hosting community meetings in September and October to hear feedback during their authorization process.

This past August, A+ Colorado presented at public comment at the Adams 14 Board meeting. We shared comments around the positive growth but also the significant challenges ahead for the district. Our analysis indicates that the district has major gaps and compared to other metro area districts, the level of student performance is significantly lower than it must be.


Standout Schools

Chalkbeat Colorado’s reporting series digging into CMAS is an excellent view of the data. A big takeaway? Gaps in how different student groups are being served across the state persist. In a big way. Also in the data? Stories of schools where students from different backgrounds are excelling. Here are some schools across the state where kids (and educators) knocked it out of the park:

A+ in the News

Letting boys read what they want can help boost lagging language scores, Colorado educators say, The Denver Post
A bastion of student data privacy, Colorado yields a bit to demands for more openness, Chalkbeat Colorado

Want A+ Colorado news delivered to your inbox? Subscribe!