After years of stagnation, Colorado’s innovation schools see breakthrough in improvement, data show

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By Nicholas GarciaChalkbeat

A year ago, as the State Board of Education began to consider fixes for Colorado’s lowest-performing schools, there was scant evidence that giving schools freedom from some state laws and local policies would significantly boost learning.

Since 2010, only three low-performing schools that had been awarded “innovation status” had succeeded in jumping off the state’s academic watch list for poor performance. Many more innovation schools continued to lag. Gaining innovation status gave the schools flexibility to develop their own calendars, curricula and budgets, and hire and train teachers outside union contracts.

A Chalkbeat analysis of a state report on innovation schools relying on more recent data shows a dramatic shift in a short time period: A dozen schools with innovation status improved enough between 2014 and 2016 to avoid state-ordered improvements.

The quadrupling of schools that improved — most of them run by Denver Public Schools — could bolster backers of giving schools greater decision-making authority, an experiment playing out at school districts across the nation.

Some Colorado schools with innovation status continue to struggle. Seven innovation schools continue to rank among the lowest-performing in the state after multiple years of increased autonomy. And four innovation schools that had one of the state’s highest ratings in 2014 dropped to one of the lowest in 2016.

The state report did not provide any possible reasons for the sudden spike in improvement at low-performing innovation schools.

Colorado began issuing quality ratings shortly after the state established innovation schools. The state rates schools each year based on standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rates. Schools that receive the lowest two ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention. That could include granting schools innovation status to try to turn things around — an option that was among those favored by state officials this year.

Any school — not just those with poor quality ratings — can apply for innovation status. Colorado has has 86 innovation schools in 13 school districts. Some schools, like those in the Falcon 49 school district near Colorado Springs, have used innovation to carve out niche programs.

The state has approved more than 30 new innovation schools during the last two years. Concerned about whether the state’s innovation law was working as intended, the state board asked state lawmakers this year to grant them additional oversight of innovation schools, including the possibility of revoking some waivers.

The legislature did not go that far, but did give the board more leeway to reject requests it considers to be poorly designed.

Marci Imes, principal of Roncalli STEM Academy, a Pueblo middle school that was one of the innovation schools that improved enough to get off the watch list, said time, focus and years of hard work were necessary to raise her school’s quality rating.

“We can’t change instruction without changing the climate and culture first,” she said last fall after learning her school’s fate. “We had get the kids to believe in themselves, staff who believed in the kids, and supports to make sure things were happening.”

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said innovation status grants teachers and school leaders the flexibility they need to meet student needs.

But “innovation is not a magic wand,” he said. “The reason our innovation schools have driven improvements and progress is because we have a very talented leader, a talented faculty and a strong culture of teamwork among all the educators in the building.”

Boasberg said it’s likely that innovation schools that have not improved are lacking one of those components.

Last year, the DPS school board approved the formation of a new innovation “zone” of four schools granting them even more freedoms, including much more control over how they spend the state funding attached to their students.

“The zone helped drive some important changes through real dialogue about how we unbundle and allocate funds,” Boasberg said.

Starting next year, DPS will extend the same flexibilities to all innovation schools.

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