Future of Schools

Holyoke district hopes to modify state education reforms for rural schools

A rural Colorado school district hopes to become the second in the state to make use of a law that allows districts to request flexibility in state statutes.

Holyoke School District, a school district of roughly 600 students, is hoping to acquire innovation status under a 2008 law which allows schools and district to modify state laws in order to adopt pioneering practices.

The move is part of an effort to take state-level schools reforms that some rural leaders say are designed for urban schools and adapt them for rural districts. Holyoke district leaders hope to receive waivers to some aspects of two state laws that govern educator evaluations and early literacy practices.

The sole prior precedent for Holyoke’ actions comes from another small rural school district, Kit Carson, in southeastern Colorado. Kit Carson’s superintendent applied for waivers from the state’s 2010 educator evaluation law, including reducing the frequency of evaluations and extending teacher contracts beyond a year. At the time, the plan won approval from Sen. Mike Johnston, a reform advocate and a key player in passing the evaluation law.

“I don’t think it’s a scenario we’re very likely to see again,” Johnston told Chalkbeat Colorado at the time. The state board approved Kit Carson’s innovation status, four to one.

Holyoke is likely to face a more difficult battle, as it plans to do away with one of the law’s key provisions — the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluations. But district officials say they don’t intend to subvert the law, but to comply in a manner that works for their size.

“It’s not about fighting the man,” said Bret Miles, Holyoke’s superintendent. “Both [the early literacy law and the educator evaluation law] are good examples of good intentioned laws. They’re both examples of things that don’t apply to us as much.”

For example, the process of including student test scores in teacher evaluations requires a lot of work from a small administrative staff. And Miles said it doesn’t provide them any information they didn’t have already.

“We already had that kind of accountability in small schools,” said Miles. “When the test score comes out in the paper and 70 percent of sixth graders are proficient, everybody knows who that teacher is.”

He is aware there’s likely to be pushback, although he hopes critics will come around when they understand his plan.

“There’s no doubt some people are uneasy about what happens when a district tries to get out from under a law,” said Miles. But “we can increase the amount of time principals spend in classrooms by simplifying the process.”

Among the other modifications Miles hopes make is to eliminate the use of the only year-end early literacy test approved by the state, TS Gold. Instead, he plans to use a state-approved interim assessment already in place in the district.

On Tuesday, the Holyoke school board gave Miles the go-ahead to kick off the official process of applying for innovation status. In the next several months, Miles and his team will complete an innovation application, currently in the draft stage, and present it to the community. He expects a positive response from Holyoke teachers and parents, many of whom participated in the decision to move forward. If all goes as planned, Holyoke’s innovation plan will be submitted for approval from the state board this coming fall.

And contrary to Johnston’s predictions, Miles thinks his district won’t be the only one pursuing innovation status.

“I think it’s going to be something many rural school districts will consider,” said Miles. He’s already heard from two other interested districts.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”