Denver, Aurora high schools face potential state action under 2019 preliminary ratings

A Manual High School student, deep in thought.
A Manual High School student, deep in thought. (Photo by Marc Piscotty)

A new set of Colorado schools faces possible state intervention after failing to improve student achievement for five or more years in a row.

Among them: Aurora Central High School, Manual and Abraham Lincoln high schools in Denver, Central High School in Pueblo, and the elementary school run by HOPE Online, an online school chartered out of Douglas County that serves students in multiple districts.

The Colorado Department of Education on Monday released preliminary school and district ratings that are largely based on state tests that students took last spring. Of the state’s 1,843 schools, almost 65% earned the highest rating, called “performance,” and another 19% earned the next highest, called “improvement.”

But 131 schools ranked in one of the bottom two tiers, called “priority improvement” and “turnaround,” a status that places them on a performance watchlist. Schools have the option of appealing their rating. While Colorado does not allow for state takeover of low-performing schools and districts, those that don’t improve after five years on the watchlist can face a range of interventions, starting with having to get state approval for an improvement plan and ranging up to closure or conversion to a charter school.

Aurora Central was already under a state-ordered improvement plan. The school earned fewer points in the state rating system than last year and remained in the second lowest tier, called priority improvement. The school had some decreases in state tests, but district officials say they are hopeful despite missing the state’s two-year deadline to improve.

“We’re on timeline with the implementation of the plan,” said Jeff Park, executive director for Aurora’s office of autonomous schools. “We see a lot of hope.”

Park said Central’s graduation rate has continued to improve, attendance rates are up, and the number of students having to take credit recovery is down. The school was also able to start the school year earlier this month with 100% of its jobs filled — a first, at least in recent times.

Now, Park said, the district is conducting an internal review, digging deeper into the data to see if district officials would propose any changes to the school’s state-ordered plan. The district will also consider a report from an external auditor, and a report from the consultant who has been working with the school for several years.

Two Denver high schools, Manual and Abraham Lincoln, have also run out of time on the state’s clock. These would be the first Denver schools to face state board action because the district has traditionally managed its own school improvement process, shutting down or restarting those that didn’t improve test scores fast enough. Both schools have new principals who have already begun work on improvement plans.

Joe Amundsen, Denver director of school improvement, said the district is looking at partnering with the University of Virginia, which has worked with other schools in the district.

“They don’t come in with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Amundsen said. “In some ways, this is a check on our system to make sure we’re focusing on the right work, and the school is getting deep support in professional development and coaching.”

Central High School in Pueblo also faces potential outside intervention after failing to reach the next tier by less than one point. Dalton Sprouse, a spokesman for the district, said officials there are analyzing data to see if an appeal is warranted. Regardless, he pointed out that SAT scores were up at Central when they declined this year at more than half the state’s high schools. Just one school in the district has turnaround status, the lowest, this year, though fewer schools earned the top rating as well.

“We have a lot of things to celebrate, and we’re encouraged,” he said.

The elementary grades for HOPE Online Learning Academy, an online charter school based in Douglas County that runs “learning centers” across multiple districts, faced a deadline to improve after the state board approved an improvement plan two years ago. Its middle school got off the state’s watchlist last year. HOPE’s elementary students earned slightly more points this year on the state’s rating scale, but not enough to escape the state’s watchlist

In an email, school administrators said they were “disappointed” and looking at next steps.

“Our team has been working hard on improving student achievement, but know we need to look at further ways to innovate and raise the bar even higher,” the school said.

Districts get their own ratings on a five-tier scale, with the highest being distinction. The Denver district achieved performance status, the second highest ranking for districts, for the first time.

Colorado Department of Education

The State Board of Education will hold hearings this year to determine what should happen to the schools that have run out of time. This will be the third round of hearings under this accountability system. In 2017, the state board largely approved plans that districts brought forth themselves, plans that in some cases were successful.

In 2018, when the Adams 14 district still did not improve, the state ordered that control of most day-to-day operations be turned over to an external manager. A Pueblo middle school, Risley International Academy of Innovation, received a similar order.

The schools coming before the state board this year include several that have already tried to change their own trajectory with innovation status, a designation that exempts schools from many regulations in the hopes that experimentation will yield better results. Those include Aurora Central and Manual High School in Denver.

Aurora Central’s innovation plan was presented to the state board in 2017 as the school’s improvement plan after it had already failed to improve for more than five years. The State Board approved the plan and allowed two years to show improvement.

Colorado’s school accountability system rates districts and schools based on achievement on state literacy, math, and science tests; on annual academic growth; and, for high schools, on postsecondary readiness as measured by graduation rates, dropout rates, scores on college entrance exams, and enrollment in college.

The ratings released Monday are considered preliminary. Districts can request that the state reconsider districtwide or school ratings based on, for example, progress in literacy and math in the early grades or measures of high school achievement that don’t show up on state tests.

State education officials celebrated the efforts of the tiny Aguilar district in southern Colorado, which improved after eight years on what’s known as the accountability clock.

Lindsey Jaeckel, executive director of school and district transformation for the Colorado Department of Education, said the district, which serves a little more than 100 students, invested in new curriculum and training for administrators and teachers and increased expectations for students. Administrators spent time with their counterparts at Soaring Eagles Elementary in the Harrison district in Colorado Springs through the Connect for Success program, which pairs struggling schools with those that are doing a good job serving similar populations.

Across the state, schools that improved focused on training for principals and teachers and on improving school culture, Jaeckel said.

“There are some bright spots in that data,” she said. “We want to celebrate when schools and districts are making progress. And it helps us know where to direct resources if schools don’t get off the clock.”

Download complete school and district ratings and compare past years here.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer and Yesenia Robles on August 21, 2019. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this story.

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