Colorado wants to help these 230 schools improve learning. Here’s the state’s first step

The state education department earlier this month notified school districts of their eligibility to apply for the money and other state services.

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 Nic GarciaChalkbeat

More than 200 Colorado schools, most with vast and stubborn achievement gaps, could be eligible under new federal guidelines for a slice of $11 million in state and federal school improvement grants and aid.

The state education department earlier this month notified school districts — from the suburban Cherry Creek to the rural Burlington — of their eligibility to apply for the money and other state services.

This list of schools, which Chalkbeat obtained in a request, and a companion grant application that has yet to be released are part of Colorado’s yet-to-be approved plan to comply with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

The new law requires states like Colorado, which under a waiver from the previous federal law focused most of its time and resources on schools failing most students, to also focus attention on schools that are leaving some historically disadvantaged students behind.

The state used results from its preliminary school quality ratings — which help the state spot schools that need help improving learning — and new federal guidelines to identify which schools should make the list.

Sixty-seven schools on the list are also on the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance. Another 163 schools are eligible for the funding, bringing the total to 230. That number could change because the state hasn’t finalized the school quality ratings.

Schools that appear on the new list will be eligible to apply for a variety of grants and services from the department through a single application, a first for Colorado. In previous years, schools were required to apply to each grant on a case-by-case basis.

Department officials hope the move will cut back on unnecessary paperwork and “match money and resources with the needs in the districts,” said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of school performance.

“Off our radar”
The new federal rules are shining a fresh light on a number of schools in traditionally high performing school districts such as Thompson and Poudre, both in northern Colorado.

“ESSA is having schools identify in different ways,” said Lisa Medler, the education department’s executive director of improvement planning. “We have districts that are getting identified that are not on the state’s accountability radar.”

The law requires the state to place schools into two categories.

Schools in need of the most help are identified for what ESSA calls “comprehensive support.” These schools must check a couple of boxes. They must get Title I money — supplemental funding from the federal government for schools with a large number of low-income students. They also must rank in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s school quality ratings. High schools also can get the designation if they graduate fewer than 67 percent of their students.

The second category of schools, which need help but not as much, are identified for “targeted support.” As the name suggests, achievement for specific groups of students — but not all — is lagging. These include students of color, students eligible for subsidized lunch prices, students with disabilities or students learning English as a second language. To determine which schools fit the definition, the state looks at how different groups perform on state math and English tests over three years.

Most of the schools on the list — 150 out of 231 — fall into the second category. Of those 150 schools, 118 were identified because of how poorly their students with special needs performed on state tests.

That so many schools would be identified for failing special needs students didn’t surprise state officials.

“If you look at the performance of students with disabilities it’s where we have the largest achievement gap in the state,” said Alyssa Pearson, the department’s associate commissioner for accountability, performance and support.

Tracy Doran, the Adams 12 Five Star School District’s chief academic officer, said the suburban school district will take a “more passionate look” at how students with special needs are being served at three schools identified by the education department.

Doran and the Adams County school district are familiar with school improvement work. Last year, Thornton Elementary School made enough progress to jump off the state’s academic watch list after several years of hard work.

While the school still has a high enough quality rating not to be flagged for more radical reforms, it was named on the new list for low-performing groups of students.

Doran said there could be some confusion in the state having two lists of schools that are struggling, using different measures.

But “if what comes out of this is a difference for students on IEPs, then that’s a positive outcome,” Doran said, referring to the individualized education plans students with special needs are required to have. “We’d be happy to be pushed to be thinking really critically about this.”

New grant process
Doran and other school leaders in a similar situation will be able to apply for help from the state using a single application process beginning this year.

There are more than a dozen different grants and free services from the state schools may apply for. The lists of options includes a $50,000 diagnostic review, $70,000 for principal training, or free community engagement training.

State officials say the new application — which they believe to be the first of its kind in the nation — is meant to help both struggling schools and the state think critically about schools’ needs.

Put another way, state officials hope to play a larger role in connecting troubled schools with the help they need, not the help schools think they want.

“It’s not about throwing a lot of money at these schools,” Sherman said. “But it’s about investing in the right actions at the right time.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group, applauded the state education department’s work on school improvement. But Ragland, who sat on the state’s ESSA committee, said he hoped the state would make the application process even more competitive and send larger chunks of money to fewer schools.

“My main problem is that I worry that we’re spreading the money out in a formula model and that it becomes such a small amount at each school that it’s hard to make an impact,” he said. “I just worry about spreading the money too thin.”

Wendy Wyman, the superintendent of the Lake County School District who has helped the state department design the application, said “making something easier to navigate makes it less rigorous for schools to participate in.”

Still, state officials are aware of criticisms such as Ragland’s and cognizant that some school districts that value their constitutionally protected local control don’t want the state’s help. State officials say they view the new process as part of an ongoing attempt to better understand how to improve schools.

“We’re trying to create a product to support districts in what they want,” Medler said. “We’re getting feedback from districts all the time and we’re going to continue to fine tune the process.”

The state plans to release the application in mid-October.

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