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Lagging Colorado Springs D-11 schools launch improvement plans, look to others' success

February 10, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018 at 1:36 pm
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First-grader Mia Sanchez works on her laptop while teacher Theresa Stutts helps two other students in the background Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, at Patrick Henry Elementary School. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Ten of the 58 schools in Colorado Springs School District 11 have the state's lowest academic rankings this year.

Their students performed poorly on last spring's standardized state tests, and they didn't show adequate growth from one year to the next.

Only 4.5 percent of Monroe Elementary third-graders met or exceeded expectations on English language arts assessments, for example.

At North Middle School, a mere 5.9 percent of seventh-graders scored as meeting or exceeding expectations in math.

The numbers were surprising, said Brien Hodges, executive director of the district's K-12 schools.

"Whenever drops happen like they did this past year, it's somewhat of a phenomenon," he said.

Scores ebb and flow in many schools, he said, particularly those with more students from low-income families.

But some schools have reversed low scores, such as Patrick Henry Elementary.

In 2013, Brian Casebeer's first year as principal, Henry was in its fourth year of failing performance, with students in the 28.6 percentile for median growth.

"We were on pins and needles - it's a scary place to be," Casebeer said.

Henry Elementary's percentage of possible growth points went from 28.6 percent in 2013 to 88.5 percent in 2016 and 98.9 percent in 2017. Henry Elementary won state recognition as a "center of excellence."

"Our staff has gotten really good at identifying what kids need," Casebeer said. "We visited other schools, beefed up collaboration, started intervening early, identified data well to fill the holes and adopted a new attitude to do what works.

"A bunch of new things impacted teaching, which impacted learning."

State tests changed in format and content in recent years, Hodges said, leading to more anxiety and confusion over how to take the new online versions.

"The way the tests are designed is that there may be a two-part answer, and students click on the first part but miss the second part," he said. "We're working really hard to not only prepare kids to understand the content, but also actually take the tests."

Low participation also contributed to some substandard scores, Hodges said.

In January, D-11's board approved intense strategies for each school to reverse the predicament.

Adams, Monroe and Rogers elementary schools, Mann Middle School, Mitchell High School and Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy are on "priority improvement" plans, and West Elementary and North and Sabin middle schools are on the lowest rung: "turn around" status.

Each school's accountability committee, and the district's accountability committee, worked on big adjustments to academic systems, building a culture of performance and nurturing talent, Hodges said.

Instructional changes, new ways to chart progress and individual coaching for teachers and students are among the tactics.

Some schools are getting help from outside the district.

Professional coaches from the Colorado Department of Education are visiting West Elementary regularly to tweak learning. Also, a national group is working with West teachers to ensure that students understand the material and can apply the knowledge.

"We're digging deeper," Hodges said, "and putting extra resources to those schools, such as additional funding for more teachers or to enhance programs or try new things."

Extra money from a property tax increase voters approved in November will help boost academic achievement, too, he said.

Working together for change

To move from underperforming to overachieving, Casebeer's 320 students read for 50 minutes a day after lunch. That started improvements rolling, he said.

"It's not my kids or your kids but all of our kids," said Henry first-grade teacher Amanda Madrid.

The school also schedules 50 minutes of daily team planning and 100 minutes one day a week.

"It takes a lot of planning to deliver good instruction," Casebeer said.

After comparing assessment data with other schools of similar demographics but better performance, Henry implemented Personal Learning Communities.

The school recently was recognized as a Model Professional Learning Community by Solution Tree, which provides programs to increase achievement.

In Henry's "data room," index cards with each student's photo and reading progress hang on the walls. Students are grouped according to skill. When they reach certain criteria, they move to the next level.

"Initially, almost all were needing the fundamental skills of reading," Casebeer said. "Now half are full readers and focused on comprehension. It's an exciting picture."

The Personal Learning Communities approach is one of the biggest contributors to the turn around, Madrid said.

"It encompasses a lot of grade-level team collaboration on our academic standards," she said. "We look deeply into what each standard is asking for, come up with priority standards, make sure everyone has mastered them before moving on."

Children are assessed every two to three weeks on reading, writing and math.

"When our students don't get the concept, we stop instruction and do intervention right away," fifth-grade teacher Adita Karges said. "We look at the data, the errors the kids made, what skills they may need, and give it to them. I have parents who come back to thank me because their children are better prepared for middle school."

Said Madrid: "It's made me a better teacher. It made me believe every single student can achieve and learn. And it's up to us to get them there."

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