Underperforming Colorado Districts Face Accountability Clock

The clock is ticking for underperforming districts in Colorado as they face a deadline imposed by the state in 2009 to show improvement before this year is out. Failuer to meet expectations means losing funding, or even being closed and replaced by charters.

Currently, about half a dozen districts – classified as “turnaround” – are in their fourth year of the “accountability clock” according to Keith Owen, the deputy education commissioner for federal programs and accountability. That means once the year is out, if they have not climbed off of the bottom rung of the accountability ladder, they are subject to several state-imposed remedies up to and including a complete takeover.

Although the rankings for the 2011-2012 academic year won’t be available until they are finalized, the preliminary list of districts that are under special scrutiny has already leaked. It includes Adams 14, Westminster 50, and Vilas, three small districts that have been rated “turnaround,” the lowest possible grade, for the last two years. Joining them are two others – Karval, an online district centered in the town of Karval, and Pueblo City 60 – which have recently slipped to “turnaround” from a higher “priority improvement” rating.

Owen said that the state will not be allowing districts to stay in those two bottom categories for more than five years without intervening, although which remedy the state will resort to is still a question without an answer.

For the past three years, state guidance and counsel for schools and districts trying to pull themselves up has been spotty, districts charge, and Owen doesn’t disagree.

But, Owen said, securing a waiver that got it out from under some No Child Left Behind regulations has enabled the CDE this year to become more flexible and creative in helping individual districts.

“We’ve always had some support mechanisms for lower-performing schools, but they’ve been more scattered. Now they are more comprehensive,” he said.

Most underperforming districts in the state are currently implementing turnaround plans, thanks to the federal government program, approved in 2009, which allocated up to $3.5 billion towards helping lowest 5% of schools around the country improve their performance. Colorado qualified for $52 million of that money, which went to 25 of its lowest-performing schools.

One of the schools that benefited from the largesse was Fort Logan Elementary in the Sheridan School District. Both the school and the district had the lowest ranking possible between 2009 and 2010, but managed to pull themselves up last year.

Now, Fort Logan is in the year three of a three-year turnaround program made possible by the federal grant. While the improvement at the school is obvious, administrators are left wondering how they will continue to fund the program once the federal money goes away.

For the past three years, state guidance and counsel for schools and districts trying to pull themselves up has been spotty, districts charge, and Owen doesn’t disagree.

But, Owen said, securing a waiver that got it out from under some No Child Left Behind regulations has enabled the CDE this year to become more flexible and creative in helping individual districts.

“We’ve always had some support mechanisms for lower-performing schools, but they’ve been more scattered. Now they are more comprehensive,” he said.