Here are the Colorado schools and districts most likely to face state intervention for poor performance

As many as five Colorado school districts and a dozen schools could face state intervention next year for persistent low performance on state tests.

Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students at Aurora Central High School work on an assignment during class during the spring of 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat 

As many as five Colorado school districts and a dozen schools could face state intervention next year for persistent low performance on state tests.

That’s according to preliminary school quality ratings issued by the Colorado Department of Education this month and obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request.

Schools and districts can appeal the ratings, and some have already said they plan to do so.

When the ratings are finalized this winter, it will mark a significant milestone. For the first time since Colorado’s current school accountability system was created in 2009, the State Board of Education will force districts and schools that have failed to improve for five consecutive years to take action to boost student learning.

The state board has a list of directives it may issue to local school boards. Some are more drastic than others. Among the possibilities: close schools or turn them over to new management, apply for waivers from local and state policies, merge with a nearby high-performing school district, or turn over all or some operations to a third party.

The schools and districts facing sanctions are large and small, urban and rural, district-run and charters. The largest school is Aurora Central High with 2,172 students, most of whom are black or Latino. The smallest school district is Aguilar in southeastern Colorado with 124 students.


Still on the clock 
These districts and schools received a preliminary rating that if unchanged would mean the State Board of Education must take action:
• Westminster Public Schools
• Adams 14 School District
• Aguilar Reorganized
• Montezuma-Cortez
• Julesburg RE-1
• Adams City High
• Aurora Central High
• HOPE Online Learning Academy, elementary and middle schools
• Peakview School
• Aguilar Junior-Senior High
• Bessemer Elementary
• Heroes Middle School
• Risley International Academy of Innovation
• Destinations Career Academy of Innovation
• Franklin Middle School
• Prairie Heights Middle School

The largest school district to face intervention next year will likely be Westminster Public Schools, which serves about 10,000 students northwest of Denver in Adams County. The district has pledged to appeal its preliminary rating. Leaders there plan to point to multiple years of sustained academic growth, especially at schools that were among the first to be flagged by the state for poor test scores.

“This is not a district that has been sitting still for five years,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “If we get pushed back down the hill, we’ll just have to start climbing up again.”

The state’s accountability system rates schools and districts annually based on scores from English and math tests, and other factors such as graduation rates.

Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two ratings — turnaround or priority improvement — must improve within five years or face interventions.

The state’s current accountability system was created in 2010 but was put on pause last year due to a change in standardized tests. Now that the state has two years of test data, the state has turned the system, sometimes called the “accountability clock,” back on.

Another school district that plans to press the state for a higher rating is Adams 14 in Commerce City.

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading.
Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The district believes results from its own standardized tests will demonstrate enough progress to bump Adams City High, one of the schools that could face sanctions next year, off the academic watch list.

“We own our performance and are accountable for our data,” new Superintendent Javier Abrego said in a statement. “That’s why it’s important to consider the preliminary nature of these data. This is a prime example of why the state has built into its process, the opportunity for local schools to illustrate student performance using local viable and credible test measures.”

Not every school is sure it will ask the state for a higher rating.

“We just received the results late last week and are in the process of evaluating them,” Heather O’Mara, CEO of the HOPE Online Learning Academy charter school, said in a statement. “At this time we have not decided if we will make a request to reconsider.”

Leaders of the charter school will meet with officials from its authorizer, the Douglas County School District, next week to discuss the school’s results.

Schools and districts have until Nov. 7 to ask the state for a higher rating.

Prior to the one-year timeout caused by the change in state tests, eight districts and 30 schools had been on the state’s watch list for five consecutive years.

School districts that jumped off the list in time to avoid meeting with the state board next year include Pueblo City Schools, Sheridan Public Schools and the Ignacio School District. Schools that jumped off the list include four in Denver Public Schools and five rural schools.

One of those rural schools was Kemper Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez RE 1 school district in southwestern Colorado. While the school showed enough progress to exit the watch list, the district’s preliminary rating indicates the district as a whole might face sanctions.

The 2,782-student rural district also believes that local data will show greater improvement than results from the PARCC exams, especially given the large number of students who skipped the tests in 2016.

“We believe results from the PARCC test are not a fair representation of our student population,” said Superintendent Lori Haukeness, adding that 75 percent of ninth grade students and more than 35 percent of middle school students opted out.

In case the state rejects the district’s request for a higher rating, the district is beginning work on a plan to present to the state board next year.

“Hopefully we’re successful with our appeal,” Haukeness said, “and won’t need to identify a pathway.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.