Can Roaring Fork schools close the achievement gap? |

Can Roaring Fork schools close the achievement gap?

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Can the Roaring Fork School District figure out the best way to grow the proficiency of its Spanish-speaking students while also improving the performance of its generally more high-achieving Anglo population?

The state of Colorado is willing to gamble it can, and it’s given the district ” and five others in Colorado ” three years and nearly $1 million for the experiment. It hopes the pilot districts will be able to lead the way for other districts struggling with achievement gaps between students of different races or incomes.

The Roaring Fork district includes schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.

Superintendent Judy Haptonstall, speaking enthusiastically and with determination about the program, said everyone in the district had started to get a little frustrated by the district’s persistent gap between Anglo and Latino students. Staff were convinced they were doing the right things, she said, but nothing seemed to be working.

So when the Colorado Department of Education ” pointing to a higher-than-average achievement gap and a history of innovation ” invited the district to participate in this project, the district readily accepted. Last spring, it began by inviting a team of outside observers to determine why it wasn’t successfully closing that gap right now.

“It was like somebody holding up a mirror,” said Haptonstall. “It was pretty eye-opening.”

In a nutshell, said Haptonstall, the report confirmed that the district had, for the most part, identified the best techniques to close the gap. But while there were “islands of excellence” in which teachers were using best practices, in general, those techniques weren’t being implemented consistently across the district. Nor were district assessments that might have helped teachers better identify learning gaps.

In some cases, Haptonstall said teachers didn’t have enough training. In other cases, they might not have had enough support. And some teachers, she acknowledged, simply may not have warmed to the new teaching techniques.

And the report itself noted that the district’s administrators needed to more clearly establish the importance of using these practices ” and assess to make sure teachers were using them.

So starting this year, the district is working single-mindedly to implement a few “best practices” consistently among all the district’s teachers, said Basalt Middle School teacher Angela Buffo ” a districtwide effort she called “powerful.”

“It’s kind of an exciting time,” agreed fellow BMS fifth-grade teacher Carrey Sims.

Last May, a team of 10 education experts spent a week examining the district in detail. The experts conducted 353 interviews with principals, teachers, students and parents and others; walked through 301 district classrooms and examined nearly 100 district documents.

The result is a frank and comprehensive ” the executive summary alone is 72 pages ” assessment of the district, called a Comprehensive Assessment of District Improvement (CADI).

It includes honest criticism like “fidelity to the curriculum is not a standard practice,” or “for students who are ELL [English Language Learners] or Hispanic, there is no program evaluation, monitoring of program fidelity, nor accountability (no consequences) for use of time, language, materials, strategies.”

But it is equally full of praise for the district, noting, for example, that district teachers speak with “great enthusiasm and excitement about ‘their programs’ and ‘their kids,'” and that “there is evidence that families who left the district at some point in time are beginning to return to Roaring Fork School District.”

The report’s strongest suggestions include increasing teacher collaboration time so teachers can share their own best practices with each other (and releasing students early one day a week to create more collaboration time), moving to an approach in which schools work together toward a common district goal (rather than toward an individual school goal), ensuring all teachers are learning a set of best teaching practices the district wants them to know (rather than simply attending professional development programs.

After receiving a preliminary copy of the report last summer, the district administration and a few teachers selected from each school met to closely examine the preliminary report and create a plan for going forward.

Inviting teachers to be a part of that process made many teachers trust it more, and may well have increased the program’s chance for success, said Buffo and Sims.

Buffo described teachers as falling into three categories when it comes to new teaching ideas: early adopters, blockers and skeptics. When she returned to Basalt Middle School to help explain the program last fall, she said, she told people “you can’t be blockers.” And while she acknowledged there was some initial resistance to the new plan, she thinks the teachers at Basalt Middle School are generally on board with the plan.

And in truth, say teachers, there haven’t been huge changes ” just a stronger focus on the best practices already being used by the district’s teachers, and a commitment to keep focusing on these practices rather than continually adopting a “Flavor of the Week” approach to improvement.

All teachers, for example, were re-trained this fall in what the district calls “Results Teams,” in the hopes of making them more consistent across the district, according to Haptonstall.

The teams allow teachers to meet with others in their discipline and grade level to examine data about what their students know and don’t know about a subject.

Working together, the teachers then decide best teaching practices for the subject. After the subject is taught and assessed, teachers convene again to consider how well the subject was taught ” and what to do about the students who still don’t understand it.

“It really is,” said Haptonstall, “an evaluation of ‘how effective is my teaching?'”

The CADI report had noted that while the district had implemented the teams, there was little consistency among the teams or any system of accountability requiring teachers to accomplish particular goals with the teams.

Another change apparent to teachers this year are the principal walk-throughs. The CADI report suggested principals needed to walk through classrooms more often, and with a clearer idea of what they were looking for.

Already this year, Haptonstall estimates 1,900 walk-throughs have been held in the district. Each month all the principals in the district walk through every classroom in their school and two other schools. The goal, said Haptonstall, is to create a list of best practices already present in the district, so the district can plan training around the less-common practices.

Each year, the district hopes the achievement gap between Latinoand Anglos, as measured by the Colorado Student Assessment Program ” the CSAP tests ” will close by at least 10 percent. It also wants to see its Anglo students,

On average, improve scores by 3 percent each year. Currently there is a 47-point gap between Anglo and Latino students in reading and a 36-point gap in math.

Going forward, the district expects to start training “teacher trainers” soon in the best practices the district wants to spread ” these teachers will then begin training the other teachers in their building, likely by early next year.

As for creating more time for collaboration, the district is currently engaged in serious discussions about either a late-start or early-release day once a week.

And soon, Colorado Department of Education will begin monitoring the district’s interim progress, to begin to measure whether the district is on track to meet their goal.

“The Commissioner [of Education] has a lot riding on this,” said Haptonstall. “We do as well.”

“I think we have a plan that’s doable and the leadership to follow through,” said Buffo. But later, she acknowledged that a lot depends on making sure the district’s teachers are on board with the plan.

Anita Foxworth, Director of Achievement Gap and Academic Support at the Department of Education, commended the district on their willingness to look hard in the mirror.

“In a lot of places there’s denial,” she said. “[The district] stepped up to the plate, basically, and said, okay, we’re going to do what it takes and focus our initiatives and focus the resources we’ve got to make a difference.”

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