School put to test

June 26, 2005
It was a haven for students who struggled in traditional public schools. The focus of the Tesla Alternative Middle School program was on helping kids wherever they needed it most, not necessarily on improving their low academic test scores.
Teachers, although not on duty, hung around during breakfast, knowing students might want to talk. Students used a ropes course to build trust between staff members and each other. Then last year, Tesla became its own school instead of a program, gaining a degree of independence, but also responsibility for those test scores. With the low scores came an “unsatisfactory” label on the School Accountability Report. If that rating doesn’t improve, the state could order changes. Alternative schools typically have lower test scores than mainstream schools. Eight of the nine area alternative schools earned “low” ratings on the last round of School Accountability Reports. Twenty-seven area schools earned the “low” rating. Two earned “unsatisfactory” labels — Shivers Academy of Art, Science and Technology, a charter school in Harrison District 2, and Tesla Alternative Middle School. With Tesla’s rating came the mission of changing the school into one that can deliver adequate test scores without sacrificing the personal touch many of its students thrive on. SCHOOL RULES At the end of the school year, Tesla Middle School director Judy Hawkins ordered 18 pepperoni and cheese pizzas from Little Caesar’s as a reward for improved test scores in every subject at every grade level. The scores were from Terra Nova tests that measure ability in reading, language and math. Eighth-graders take additional tests in science and social studies. At the time, the students seemed more excited about the pizza than the scores. But they are well-aware test scores have an effect on whether their school stays open. Gregory Green, who just finished seventh grade at Tesla, said he paid more at- tention during testing. “They told us that the school might close down and I didn’t want that to happen,” he said. The adults at Tesla were the ones most excited about the test scores, but they celebrated tentatively; the scores that really count, from the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, will be released this summer. CSAP scores play a key role in each of Colorado’s three school accountability systems — adequate yearly progress, accreditation and School Accountability Reports. The Terra Nova test scores are indicators of what CSAP scores will look like, Colorado Springs School District 11 officials said. Hawkins and her staff hope so. Until Tesla became a school, its students’ CSAP scores went to the school they would have attended normally. Being classified as a school helps ensure money is allocated to the place students are attending classes and using resources, and it gives the school some independence, said Beverly Johnson, D-11’s executive director of assessment, research and curriculum alignment. It also means Tesla students’ test scores reflect on Tesla, not other schools. “Tesla has never had to bear the impact of their test scores,” Johnson said. The unsatisfactory rating that Tesla received on its state School Accountability Report in December was based mostly on scores from CSAP tests taken in spring of 2004. The school could be converted to a charter school by the State Board of Education if it can’t shake the unsatisfactory rating within three years. It is possible the school will apply for an exemption from the School Accountability Report rating. Schools can be exempted if 95 percent of their students meet one of 10 criteria, ranging from a history of abuse, gang involvement or drug use. But test scores would still be used in determining whether the school makes adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law and keeps its accreditation. THEN AND NOW the unsatisfactory rating came in December, so did a “technical assistance” team from the district. The team of district and school employees will determine where improvements are needed. Tesla staff members spent long hours on a school improvement plan — a docu- ment required by the district and state outlining changes the school will make to improve achievement. The biggest change, Hawkins said, was emphasizing writing across the curriculum. Every teacher in every class every week assigned writing projects. The papers were scored by the same standards, so although the topics were different in each class the expectations were the same. The harder part, Hawkins said, is changing the focus of the school more toward academics when there are social and emotional needs that must be met, too. “It’s been a hard sell for the teachers there,” Johnson said. With fewer than 75 middle school students, Tesla is a small school where staff members make connections with students, Hawkins said. They tend to know about the students’ lives outside school. Tesla students have all struggled at traditional schools, but they are still a varied lot. There are gifted students and special education students. Some don’t live with parents. Some have been ordered by court to be in school. Some are in or just out of drug treatment. Survival, not academic achievement, is the priority for some. Now Hawkins and her team must find a way to keep the personal touch while raising test scores. It’s something every school faces to some degree, because CSAP scores affect schools more than students. The scores are not part of their grades and they don’t have to pass CSAP to move to the next grade or graduate. The possibility that Tesla might close is what hit most students, Hawkins said. Terence Cooley, who just finished seventh grade at Tesla, came from Jenkins Middle School but liked Tesla better because of the teachers. They insist students get things done, he said, but “they don’t pressure you.” Teachers were important to Abby Bech, who also just finished eighth grade. “Tesla is such a great school. Teachers care about you,” she said. Those teachers are on summer vacation now, waiting to see if the next round of CSAP scores will help their school escape the unsatisfactory rating or move it one step closer to mandatory changes. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0394 or INSIDE TESLA Tesla Alternative Middle School is not your typical junior high: - Students take five core classes — language arts, reading, math, science and social studies — and one enrichment class — art. - There is a “no failure” policy — students get a 75 percent or better on an assignment or do it again. - There are no lockers. - There is no school counselor, and only a part-time special education teacher. - Students interested in attending are interviewed, so students and administrators can see how well a student will fit. The interview includes discussing grades, attendance, behavior, suspensions, medications, drug and alcohol use, whether the judicial system is involved and if special education is needed. PROOF OF IMPROVEMENT Tesla recently celebrated scores from Terra Nova tests, which many Colorado Springs School District 11 students take twice a year. District officials say it’s a good indicator of whether students have made progress during the year. Terra Nova scores are measured in percentiles, said Tesla director Judy Hawkins. If a student makes one school year’s growth in one school year, he or she should show up in the same percentile at the end of the year as at the beginning. In Tesla’s case, students are in a higher percentile across the board. Scores of tests students took this spring for the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, will be released this summer. SIXTH-GRADERS’ scores increased by 15.3 percentile points in reading, 10.5 in math and 5 in language. SEVENTH-GRADERS’ scores increased by 13 percentile points in reading, 7.1 in language, and 3.3 in math. EIGHTH-GRADERS’ scores increased by 10.2 percentile points in reading, 5.4 in language, 6.2 in math, 11.7 in science and 17.7 in social studies.
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