sixth sense

Can either of these candidates help swing the State Board of Education to the Democrats?

The vote is a ways off, but endorsements are rolling in (Denver Post file).

Of the Colorado State Board of Education races this fall, the fight for the 6th Congressional District will likely draw the most attention.

The district spans a diverse mix of suburban areas to the south, east and north of Denver — from Highlands Ranch to Aurora, Northglenn and Thornton — making it more a swing district and not under the thumb of any party.

The balance of power on the seven-member board — now tilting 4-3 toward Republicans — hangs in the balance.

Two Democratic candidates want a shot at Republican incumbent Deb Scheffel of Parker, a reliable conservative vote who frequently voices concerns about data privacy being breached.

Mail-in ballots for the Democratic primary are due Tuesday.

Rebecca McClellan is former mayor pro tem of Centennial, and served on the City Council there from 2006 to 2014. She served as liaison to local public schools, advocated for bringing safe bicycle routes to schools and has been a small business owner. McClellan has the support of establishment Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and more than a dozen state legislators.

Ilana Spiegel is an author, activist and formerly was a counselor for abused and neglected children as well as a classroom teacher. She has served on a variety of school committees and was appointed to the state’s testing task force in 2014.

Both McClellan and Spiegel are parents of public school students.

Here are the candidates’ responses to questions from Chalkbeat about the issues facing the board and Colorado:

REBECCA MCCLELLAN

Rebecca McClellan
Rebecca McClellan

What is the greatest issue facing Colorado schools today and how are you going to address it?

Underfunding is our greatest challenge. Early childhood education, teacher recruitment and retention, access to mental health services, services for English language learners, health and nutrition, and resources for persistently low performing schools, are all impacted by funding concerns. I would advocate for education funding, and also for a reduction in the time and financial resources required for standardized testing. Students deserve a comprehensive, well-rounded education, including subjects and programs not emphasized in high stakes tests, such as the arts and sports. We must also improve access to mental health services in our schools. Funding concerns impact all of these needs.

What role should a State Board of Education Member serve in shaping state education law and policy?

The State Board’s role should be to act as an effective and unified governing body that champions policies and laws to serve and support all Colorado public school students. Both in their direct decisions and in their advocacy with legislators, State Board Members should be seen as highly knowledgeable and credible resources on the impact of laws and statewide policies on local districts, schools and communities. That begins with frequent and accurate communications by each Board Member with all constituencies the Board Member represents. State Board of Education Members should not micro-manage teachers.

What sort of relationship should the Colorado Department of Education have with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups such as the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives?

One of the Department’s primary objectives is to serve and support local districts. Seeking frequent input from local school districts and statewide advocacy groups is essential in identifying the impact of policy decisions. Open communication with the full range of stakeholders allows the Board to learn of opportunities for improvement, as well as faster discovery of unintended consequences that require attention.

Colorado needs a new Education Commissioner. What qualifications would you want in the ideal candidate?

The ideal candidate should not bring their own agenda, but should take direction from the Board, respecting that their elections reflects the priorities of voters. The candidate should have experience running a large, complex organization, and a track record for successfully supporting public schools in times of lean budgets. Experience balancing the needs of a socioeconomically diverse district or state and experience working with a divided board would be desirable. The ideal candidate should be willing to work with department legal staff to ensure that all proper procedures are followed with respect to transparency in accordance with Colorado law.

New federal law is supposed to grant states flexibility over issues like school accountability and teacher quality. What do you hope to see changed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act?

I would like to see a reduction in standardized testing to reduce the time lost to testing, as well as the financial cost. I would like to see Colorado take a less punitive approach, in favor of identifying the need for resources to help schools most in need. I would like to see a reduction in the amount of bureaucratic assessment paper work required of teachers and administrators. We should remove the pressure to teach to the test by taking a less punitive approach.

Some school districts hope Colorado explores new alternatives to testing for accountability purposes. Should Colorado change its testing system, if so, how?

The State Board of Education should take seriously the input of stakeholders including students, teachers, parents, school district boards and administrators. I do not have a rigid agenda regarding a specific test or vendor, but would like to see us settle on a reasonable assessment system we can keep. Momentum is lost and expenses are incurred each time we have to re-gear to a new system. Listening carefully to the concerns and priorities of stakeholders is essential to good decision making for an elected official, and I take that duty very seriously.

Some 30 schools and eight school districts are expected to reach the end of the state’s accountability timeline for chronic low performance. The State Board must act. What role do you see the board playing? Would you move to close low performing schools or turn them over to charters?

Parent, teacher, student and community input is essential to understanding the unique challenges faced by our lowest performing schools. There is not a “one size fits all” answer. For example, Aurora Central High School serves many refugees who may be traumatized and facing the challenge of acclimating to a new country. In some cases, students may not have been able to attend school regularly in the country they left. Finding the right solution with the resources available involves working with those most familiar with each school’s unique challenges. Parents and community members must have empowerment in the process.

After six years, Colorado is set to begin reviewing its education standards. What do you hope the outcome is? Would you support whatever the panel recommended even if it went against your personal opinion of the Common Core Standards?

Colorado must have strong standards that benefit students and prepare them to make sound life choices after graduation. I do not have a rigid agenda regarding a specific set of standards. Standards that allow for consistency from state to state would help families who relocate to know that a child exiting one grade will be prepared to start the next grade in their new state. Feedback from educators, students and parents should be taken seriously during the upcoming review process as the Board strives to refine our standards to reflect the high expectations that will benefit all of our students.

ILANA SPIEGEL

Ilana in classroom-204-3
Ilana Spiegel

What are the greatest issues facing Colorado schools today and how do you hope to address it as a member of the state board?

The greatest issues facing Colorado schools today are:

  • Safety, health and wellness of our students
  • Inadequate funding
  • Recruiting and retaining teachers
  • An over-the-top approach to assessment and accountability

I will address these issues by advocating and supporting policies that:

  • Balance the desire and need for research and data to understand strengths and struggles of our students and schools with protection of individual information of students and families, including full transparency of access vendors or the state have to individual student or family information.
  • Ensure the maximum amount of resources dedicated to an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn, mentor and support new teachers, encourage “learning centered schools,”and facilitate collaboration between the state, district leadership and higher education.
  • Move away from a “testing and punishing” format and build a collaborative effort toward assessing and informing where teaching and learning are the main goals.

What role should the State Board of Education serve in shaping state education law and policy?

The State Board of Education’s role in shaping state education law and policy must focus on what actually improves teaching and learning. These decisions need to stay at the “policy level” and the “state level”. The State Board must stop directing local school boards and superintendents to carry out Board and CDE created services and programs. The State Board of Education can avoid one size fits all, unfunded mandates, and adopt more reasonable and holistic policies for assessment and accountability.

What sort of relationship should the Colorado Department of Education have with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups such as the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives?

The Colorado Department of Education should have a collaborative relationship with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups that have democratically elected leaders who represent their members. That said, the CDE must be a critical friend when any organization is not acting in the best interest of students or what is needed to improve teaching and learning.

Colorado needs a new education commissioner. What qualifications would you want in the ideal candidate?

A new education commissioner must have experience as an educator, teaching and leading diverse K-12 public school students and schools. The new commissioner must be skilled in working collaboratively and is driven to do what is best for students, and improving teaching and learning.

New federal law is supposed to grant states flexibility over issues like school accountability and teacher quality. What do you hope to see changed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act?

  • Testing will not be the only measure for accountability nor the sole basis for high stakes decisions of any kind.
  • State assessments will be used as part of a larger body of evidence to determine school and district effectiveness, achievement, growth, and to monitor achievement and growth gaps.
  • Focus on opportunity gaps.
  • Frameworks that promote equity and access for all students.
  • Assessments will be used to support students and schools, not to punish them.
  • Student test scores will be decoupled from teacher evaluations.
  • Local districts will hold teachers accountable to high standards of professional practice.

Some school districts hope Colorado explores new alternatives to testing for accountability purposes. Should Colorado change its testing system, if so, how?

I believe we are doing way too much testing. There is too much emphasis on testing and too much money being spent. Furthermore, a decade and a half of testing has not improved teaching or learning, and we have seen a widening of the achievement gap, as many students have been denied opportunities based on test scores. I support assessment as long as it is teacher driven, to improve professional practice and student learning and not associated with high stakes.
The State Assessment Proposal that I helped create while on the Colorado Standards and Assessment Task Force is one example of how Colorado could change its testing system.

Some 30 schools and eight school districts are expected to reach the end of the state’s accountability timeline for chronic low performance. The State Board must act. What role do you see the board playing? Would you move to close low performing schools or turn them over to charters?

It is important now, more than ever, to have a State Board member who has first hand experience working in struggling schools and has a track record of engaging in communities that seek to understand root causes of low performance, one who will listen to feedback from those impacted by any decision. The State Board’s role must be one that creates stability, not instability, for children and communities. Closing schools or turning them over to charters neither addresses the cause of low performance nor engages those who work and live with the children or communities.

After six years, Colorado is set to begin reviewing its education standards. What do you hope the outcome is? Would you support whatever the panel recommended even if it went against your personal opinion of the Common Core State Standards?

I hope the outcome of a review of standards is to acknowledge that standards do not teach children. Standards are scaffolding or guardrails, not a bar that needs to be cleared. No set of standards negates the necessity for teachers to be treated like professionals who have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, how to teach, how children learn, and to develop curriculum. I would support panel recommendations if the panel is comprised of those who work and live with children every day, and that the standards are not synonymous with data tags.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: