by Jennifer Brown – at the Denver Post (ECT reprint)
Colorado’s failing schools, some with as little as 15 percent of students passing standard math exams, were given five years and millions of dollars in federal aid to turn themselves around.
At best, the results of this nationwide experiment that shoveled money at the country’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools are unconvincing. A Denver Post analysis of student achievement data and federal School Improvement Grant funds found little correlation between money and academic gains.
Among the 29 schools in Colorado that have one year remaining on their “accountability clock” before the state school board could move to shut them down or turn them into charters, most have not made significant progress, and some have gotten worse.
Still, there were bright spots: a handful of schools that could help shape new efforts in school turnaround in Colorado and the nation.
Of those 29 schools that are nearly out of time, six shared $8.8 million in federal grant funds. Four of those have yet to show progress or had test scores decrease, while two — Carpenter Middle School in Westminster and Trevista Elementary in Denver — saw improvement, moving up a level in the state’s four-tiered accountability system: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.
In the past five years, 39 failing schools in Colorado received federal grants totaling more than $50 million. Most have a couple of years left on the clock to improve test scores, achievement gaps and graduation rates that would pull them out of failing, or turnaround, status.
Of the schools that received federal aid, half have either dropped a level or remained static, while the other half moved up one level from turnaround status to priority improvement.
“If you funnel a whole lot of money to the same dysfunctional districts that have been running the dysfunctional schools, these are the results you should expect,” said Andy Smarick of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. “What’s mystifying to me is that people thought the school improvement grant program was going to get dramatically different results than the dozens of other similar efforts at school turnaround in the past.”
Aurora Central stagnant
At Aurora Central High School, which has received $1.7 million in federal school improvement grants, student achievement has been stagnant. In 2010, 14 percent of students were proficient in math, compared with 12 percent in 2014. Reading proficiency improved slightly from 36 percent to 40 percent.
The high school’s four-year graduation rate is 42 percent.
Pueblo city schools have struggled to improve at all, despite receiving $9.7 million from the federal grant program divided among six schools. Much of the funds went to an education consulting company that specialized in changing school culture and training teachers and principals. When the district applied for additional grant money last year after showing no improvement, the Colorado Department of Education denied the request.
Student achievement remains abysmal.
At Pueblo’s Central High School, scores in reading and math have dropped. In 2010, 12 percent of students were at least proficient in math. That dropped to 10.5 percent in 2014. Reading proficiency declined from 52 percent to 50 percent.
At Roncalli Middle School, which recently converted into a science-technology-math or STEM school, math proficiency scores dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2014 and reading slipped from 59 to 33 percent.
It’s up to the state school board to decide what to do with several Pueblo failing schools that have almost run out of time to turn around. District leaders are hoping the state will allow them to continue with plans to create an “innovation zone” — six collaborating schools, each with a different theme and with longer school days and longer school years.
One school has an art and music theme, another science and math. The point is to let parents and teachers figure out which will help kids learn best.
“We weren’t really seeing dramatic improvement results as expected after receiving millions of dollars in federal aid,” said Gina Gallegos, Pueblo’s executive director of continuous improvement and innovation. “If there really was a magic potion and an answer to this, we would have no turnaround schools in our nation. What’s funny is there isn’t anyone who seems to be able to tell us, ‘Follow this path, and you will be able to turn around.’ “
But a handful of schools seem to have found answers.
Denver’s Trevista Elementary, where 90 percent of kids are minorities and almost everyone is eligible for free or reduced lunch, posted a dramatic 24-point improvement in math proficiency. When LaDawn Baity took over as principal of the then-preschool-to-eighth-grade school four years ago, coming from Steck Elementary with nearly opposite demographics, she realized she would have to change the culture.
“There was definitely a culture of gangs, drugs, fighting,” Baity said. “It trickled down from the upper grades into the elementary school.”
Trevista spent its $1.4 million in grant funds in part on hiring two additional assistant principals. Each of Baity’s three assistants focused on three grade levels, learned students’ names, congratulating them on spelling tests and greeting them in the morning with fist-bumps and high-fives.
School became a place students enjoyed going, Baity said. Proficiency in reading grew from 27 percent to 35 percent, and in math from 31 to 55 percent — among the highest growth rates in northwest Denver.
“We celebrated everything,” Baity said. “You have to celebrate small wins.”
Now, Baity is Denver’s instructional superintendent, training a pipeline of spirited and aggressive principals who then take charge of failing schools. The new program was the result in part of a brainstorming session with local education reformers about turnaround and leadership.
“Leadership is very critical. It’s essential,” said Ivan Duran, Denver’s assistant superintendent for elementary education. “What the grant program has really allowed us to understand is what it really takes to turn around a school. You need a committed leader. You need a strong staff that comes in and remains.”
Money not the whole piece
Adams 50 school district in Westminster managed to turn around a handful of schools mainly because of energetic leadership and a rigorous teacher-training program in the summer and on weekends, plus after-school tutoring. The district also used some of its $4.3 million in federal grant money to buy online curriculum to ramp up classroom learning, said chief education officer Oliver Grenham.
“Money is not the whole piece,” he said. “Some money is necessary, but it’s not an inordinate amount that’s necessary.”
Grenham would have liked the entire district to add extra school days to its calendar, but that wasn’t affordable long term, he said.
The results of school turnaround efforts in Colorado mirror the nation. Critics say the money was spent too quickly without foresight that would bring lasting change.
But amid the lackluster results, Denver’s plan to create a training pipeline for turnaround principals has captured attention. “That’s the kind of investment we’ve seen way too little of,” said Bryan Hassel, co-director of the education think tank Public Impact in North Carolina. Most of the grant funds “were just spent, not invested, and the results are predictable.”
Schools should have spent the money on dynamic leaders to shake up culture and engage the community, or redesigning schools to use people, time and money differently, Hassel said.
Nationally, failing schools that received grant money improved, yet, after three years of funding, still were far below national averages. Schools that received grants beginning in 2010 increased math scores on average from 32 percent of students who were proficient to 40 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education report on the $7 billion program. That’s nearly 30 percentage points below the national average of 69 percent.
The federal aid program for failing schools is in limbo, with no new funds scheduled. Last year’s Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, does not include a plan for federal dollars to failing schools.
After years of trying to discover the “secret sauce” in school reform, it’s clear that turnaround efforts need change, said newly hired Colorado education commissioner Richard Crandall, who has been on the job about one month. The answer isn’t simply money, he said. The key is allowing districts the flexibility to determine their own solutions, with community buy-in, he said.
Crandall, a former Arizona state lawmaker and Wyoming schools chief, plans to create a training program for county school board members on school turnaround. “The school board needs to know they are responsible for the long term — they are the community,” he said. “We want to make sure school board members know they own this problem.”
And instead of focusing on turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools, school leaders should concentrate on the bottom 50 percent, Crandall said.
On the clock
As each school reaches the end of its accountability clock, it faces a recommendation from the state education commissioner and a review by an independent state panel that makes site visits. They can recommend to the state board that the school close, become a charter school or transform to an “innovation” school. Aurora Central High was the first school to receive a review, and the state board is expected to decide what becomes of the high school next year.
It’s unclear exactly what happens to schools still languishing after their time has run out, because these are the first to face the state review panel. The state education department consulted the attorney general regarding the consequences of removing a district’s accreditation if a district failed to follow the state board’s orders to convert or close schools, determining that losing accreditation would have little effect on funding or diploma validity.
It’s also unknown what role the state would have in monitoring failing schools in their sixth year and beyond.
“The end game of the accountability system may be murky and uncertain,” said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of district and school performance. But “the process has been valuable and, I think, has led to some really thoughtful and innovative ideas. We’ve seen some districts really grab the reins and think deeply on how they want to change their system.”
Education reform advocates are hopeful the clock’s buzzer will result in a state-level, deep dive on turnaround, a shake-up that could result, for example, in the state board letting proven, nonprofit charter-school companies take over the buildings of failing schools.
For years, districts have said it takes time to rescue failing schools.
“We are now at this point where the state has been doing this for a while,” said Van Schoales, chief executive of A+ Colorado. “We now know that there isn’t much evidence that it’s having an impact. Is there a role for the state to play in ensuring kids have a fair shake at a good public education?”
Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jbrowndpost