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Colorado schools that got federal improvement grants aren’t improving

By   /   March 4, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Three schools in the Pueblo City Schools district could face closure or conversion to charter schools if they don’t soon improve student achievement.

Those schools have reached the end of the five-year period the state gave them to move out of the accountability system, which has four descending tiers: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.

Two of the schools, Heroes Middle and Risley International Academy, remained in turnaround status this past year, while Roncalli STEM Academy dropped from priority improvement to turnaround.

Roncalli, a middle school, recently converted into a school focused on science, technology and math, but math proficiency scores dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2014, while reading declined from 50 percent proficiency to 33 percent.

Photo from pueblocentral.org.

CENTRAL HIGH: One of several Pueblo public schools that got federal improvement grants that hasn’t seen much improvement.

Officials at Pueblo City Schools hope the state will allow them to create an innovation zone, consisting of six schools with different educational themes collaborating together. These schools would have longer school days and students would have shorter summer vacations.

Pueblo now has five charter schools.

The problems in Pueblo are indicative of other public schools in the state that have received loads of federal money in an effort to improve performance, yet have stagnated academically.

Aurora, a Denver suburb about 100 miles north of Pueblo, has more schools in trouble than Pueblo, with 18 on the accountability clock, second only to Denver.

The If Not Now coalition released a report last year showing Aurora’s overall proficiency rates in math, reading and writing were about 20 percentage points below the state average, and almost half of Aurora students don’t graduate on time.

In all, 39 Colorado schools in academic turmoil received Student Improvement Grant funds of more than $50 million. A Denver Post examination recently found there was little correlation between these funds and academic gains.

The same is true nationally, where a U.S. Department of Education report shows that while schools that receive those grants usually improve, they are still far below the national average.

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, told the Post that “what’s mystifying to me is that people thought the School Improvement Grant program was going to get dramatically different results than the dozens of other similar efforts at school turnaround in the past.”

The School Improvement Grant program could soon be cut off. The new elementary and secondary education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind — doesn’t including the grant money for failing schools.

Leonard Sax, co-founder of the National Association for Choice in Education, told Watchdog.org the grants tend to require a change in administration at the schools.

“The assumption seems to be that the school is failing primarily due to poor leadership, and installing new leadership is supposed to fix things,” he said. “In most, though not all, cases, that assumption is not correct. Firing the old leadership and hiring new leadership often creates confusion and turbulence at a school which typically already is facing many challenges.”

Sax said the idea that turning those failing public schools into charter schools will consistently benefit students is an assumption that lacks strong empirical support. “That assumption is based more in an anti-public school ideology than it is based in any body of data,” he said.

Smarick told Watchdog.org via email that the trouble in turning around these failing schools demonstrates why more charters are needed.

“It’s better to start new schools that operate outside of the persistently low-performing district that runs the persistently low-performing schools,” he wrote.

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Johnny Kampis is a content editor and staff writer at Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, Kampis is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. You can follow him on Twitter @TuscaloosaJohn or reach him via email at [email protected]