by Jenna Schmidt
Seeing the forest through the trees is often a difficult task especially when it comes to the education of our children. In Colorado, the legislature has designed a system of oversight to guarantee our students are learning as part of their constitutional responsibility to provide a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools.”
At the top of the pyramid is the State Board of Education, which is responsible for the “general supervision of the public schools of the state,” and is responsible for setting the academic standards for each grade. Schools and districts are measured annually by the state board on their progress toward providing all students with a year or more of learning based on the standards.
Local school boards are responsible for a district’s budget, hiring, and firing of staff and for the selection of curriculum. Different school districts delegate different levels of control to the school level as it relates to prioritizing spending and selecting curriculum and programming, but all schools are required to have a School Accountability Committee (SAC) made up of parents and teachers measuring outcomes.
The Education Accountability Act, adopted by the Colorado legislature in 2009, updated the state’s K-12 accountability system. Released annually, district and school performance ratings incorporate standard measures of achievement, academic growth, and (in some cases) preparedness for college and career to create individual accreditation ratings.
A state review panel appointed by the Commissioner assists the State Board of Education in reviewing performance, assigning ratings, and determining the appropriate “corrective actions” that need to be taken for specific cases. Panel members are required to have “demonstrated expertise in the education field.”
Eight Colorado districts and nearly 30 schools were on the brink of facing unprecedented consequences this spring, until the legislature approved a one-year hiatus as part of House Bill 1323’s testing reform package deal. Enacted to assuage concerns about the transition to the controversial new PARCC math and language arts assessments, the timeout freezes all ratings through the 2015-16 school year.
In March 2015 the Jefferson County school board approved a community plan to reconfigure schools in the Jefferson articulation area. The unanimous vote effectively ended the unsuccessful experiment of combining fifth through eighth grades on the campus just east of 38th and Wadsworth. Before closing down, Wheat Ridge 5-8 had acquired the lowest designation in the state’s accountability system: “Accredited with Turnaround Plan.”
Stevens Elementary, which moved into the old Wheat Ridge 5-8 site, rebounded from the same low rating in 2013 to receive a better “improvement plan” designation this past year. The upward move reset the state’s “accountability clock,” preventing any sort of imminent threat of sanctions to Stevens.
Any district or school with five consecutive years of one of the poorest two ratings, barring a successful appeal, will be subject to follow a state-prescribed plan that may include conversion to charter or innovation status, takeover by an outside management organization, or closure. Due to the legislature’s one-year delay, the State Board is not scheduled to reach the critical decision-making juncture for low-performing schools and districts until 2017.
Three metro-area districts—Adams 14, Westminster, and Sheridan—are the closest to facing major sanctions. Jeffco as a district maintains a solid accredited rating and with the closing of Wheat Ridge 5–8 has no schools close to requiring State action.
With the closing of Wheat Ridge 5–8, the district’s only school to have passed Year 3 on the accountability clock is the New America School. The Lakewood campus is chartered by Jeffco and designated as an “alternative education campus” (AEC) to provide dropout recovery and extended school days to immigrants, English language learners, and at-risk youth . Under state law, AECs like New America are judged according to a modified framework that takes into account their “unique challenges” and circumstances.
Despite the fact that the clock stopped ticking for a year, the Jefferson and Alameda Plans in Jeffco are an example of how local leaders are able to intervene early to take steps to address student needs without waiting for sanctions. The local Jeffco school board agreed and invested resources to improve educational opportunities for students in these high-poverty communities where achievement has for a long time failed to live up to expectations.
The accountability clock will restart for all Colorado schools and districts in 2016. As the heat turns up, Jeffco will entirely escape the limelight of facing drastic measures, thanks to community leaders and educators who took a stand for something better and to a school board that listened.
Districts are rated in one of five categories based on how well their students learned:
- Accredited with Distinction—(earned 80% or more of framework points) the district meets or exceeds state expectations for attainment on the Performance Indicators and is required to adopt and implement a Performance plan;
- Accredited—(earned 64%–80% of framework points) meaning the district meets state expectations for attainment on the Performance Indicators and is required to adopt and implement a Performance plan;
- Accredited with Improvement Plan—(earned 52%–63% of framework points) the district has not met state expectations for attainment on the Performance Indicators and is required to adopt and implement an Improvement plan;
- Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan—(earned 42%–51% of framework points) the district has not met state expectations for attainment on the Performance Indicators and is required to adopt and implement a Priority Improvement plan;
- Accredited with Turnaround Plan—(earned below 42% of framework points) the district has not met state expectations for attainment on the Performance Indicators and is required to adopt, with the commissioner’s approval, and implement a Turnaround plan.
Schools within the district are given one of four plan types:
- Performance Plan: (earned 59% of more framework points) the school meets or exceeds statewide attainment on the performance indicators and is required to adopt and implement a Performance Plan.
- Improvement Plan: (earned 47%–58% of framework points) the school is required to adopt and implement an Improvement Plan.
- Priority Improvement Plan: (earned 37%–46% of framework points) the school is require to adopt and implement a Priority Improvement Plan.
- Turnaround Plan: (earned below 37% of framework points) the school is required to adopt and implement a Turnaround Plan.