For Colorado’s lowest performing schools, 2016 was make-or-break

Improving chronically low-performing schools is one of the hardest jobs in education.

Scott Carpenter principal Chadwick Anderson reads an inspirational quote during the morning announcements. (Nicholas Garcia/Denverite)
Scott Carpenter principal Chadwick Anderson reads an inspirational quote during the morning announcements. (Nicholas Garcia/Denverite)
Scott Carpenter principal Chadwick Anderson reads an inspirational quote during the morning announcements. (Nicholas Garcia/Denverite)

By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

Improving chronically low-performing schools is one of the hardest jobs in education.

And for dozens of Colorado districts and schools, 2016 amounted to a make-or-break moment. That’s because after a one-year pause, the state’s “accountability clock” began ticking again.

Districts and schools that didn’t show enough improvement on this year’s English and math state exams faced possible sanctions from the State Board of Education.

Schools could be shut down, converted to a charter or redesigned as an innovation school. Schools awarded innovation status receive waivers from local policies and state law similar to charter schools. But they’re still governed by their district’s school board.

Districts could be asked to reorganize or hand over some of their operations to a third party.

The 18,000-student Pueblo City Schools was expected to be the biggest challenge facing the state. The district, as well as 12 schools, were considered chronically failing prior to preliminary quality ratings released in October. But nine schools boosted learning enough to be spared sanctions. The district was also taken off the state’s watch list.

Sheridan and Ignacio are among the districts that had languished on the state’s accountability watch list but bounced off at the last minute.

Thanks to an overhaul of the reading curriculum and other changes, Thornton Elementary School in the Adams 12 Five Star District also showed enough improvement to be spared sanctions.  

Two Westminster schools that were facing sanctions, including M. Scott Carpenter Middle School, moved off the list. However, eight new schools were put on the list, keeping the district’s accreditation in jeopardy. (Districts that fail to adhere to the state’s sanctions risk losing their seal of approval, potentially putting federal funding at risk.)

Five districts and as many as a dozen schools could end up facing some form of sanction from the state board. The state is expected to release school quality ratings in January.

There were numerous other efforts in 2016 to boost student learning at schools that were either not on the state’s accountability watch list or were not facing immediate sanctions. And early signs showed progress.

At Boston K-8 in Aurora, the school adopted a new writing curriculum and carved out new joint planning time for teachers. Those efforts led to some of the state’s best academic growth scores. Academic growth measures how much a student learns year-to-year compared to their academic peers.  

At one Jefferson County elementary school that serves a large population of English language learners, most students participating in an after-school reading club saw their literacy skills improve dramatically.

In Denver, officials in the state’s largest school district have found giving principals more time to plan school improvement efforts pays off. This year, the district gave principals tasked with turning around low-performing schools a “Year Zero” hoping it makes the work more doable and sustainable.

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