State education chief pays visit to Roaring Fork district

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox/Post IndependentState Education Commissioner Dwight Jones on Tuesday afternoon visited three school districts on the Western Slope, including Glenwood Springs Middle School.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Only one school year into a three-year pilot project aimed at closing the achievement gap between Anglo and Latino students, and Roaring Fork School District Re-1 efforts are already yielding results that others could model, says Colorado’s top education official.

“The indications are that we have learned a lot of good lessons this year,” Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones said during a Tuesday visit to Glenwood Springs to observe Re-1’s progress as part of the state’s Closing the Achievement Gap initiative.

Over the next two weeks, Jones is visiting the six school districts that were chosen last spring to take part in the project.

“What I’ve seen that’s very consistent so far is that we are bringing along all kids, and not just the lower-performing students,” he said. “The project has brought specialized focus on eliminating the gap by improving the performance of all students.”

Much of what the state initiative is intended to do has been in the works for a couple of years in different Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt schools.

What was lacking, though, was a way to tie it all together.

“The gap doesn’t just exist in these six districts,” Jones said. “It exists all across the state.”

But the gap is more pronounced in the pilot districts, including Re- 1, which has a Latino student population of around 49 percent. A large number of those students are still learning English, and many are from lower-income families, which contributes to the achievement gap.

The project’s primary focus is to close the gap between students scoring unsatisfactory or partially proficient ” as measured by the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests in reading, writing and math ” and those scoring proficient or advanced.

In Re-1, that “gap” is about 40 percent, Re-1 Superintendent Judy Haptonstall said.

“Our goal is to reduce the gap by 10 points, or better,” she said in a recent interview. “We may not see as big a change this first year, but we hope that over three years we will.”

The pilot was funded in 2008 by the Colorado State Legislature, which allocated $1.8 million for development of a three-year pilot program to assist school districts in closing the gap associated to race and income.

Other districts included in the pilot are Eagle County School District 50J, Greeley-Evans School District 6, St. Vrain Valley School District, Summit School District, and Yuma School District-1.

In the six districts, achievement gaps are larger than the state average.

Education officials at the state level, and locally, want to be careful that the gap isn’t “closed” by lowering the performance of students that are already scoring proficient or advanced.

One local approach that is being looked to as a model that can improve the performance of all students is Glenwood Springs Middle School’s “flexible grouping” system, which was implemented this year after Principal Brad Ray and his staff had been working to develop it for about two years.

As part of his visit Tuesday, Commissioner Jones met with GSMS teachers and administrators to learn more about their efforts.

“We are seeing tremendous results at every level,” said sixth-grade teacher Ann Deyarmond. “I don’t know that I could go back to our old system of teaching, because I see now how many kids I was leaving behind before.”

At the beginning of the school year, all GSMS students were pre-tested in the various CSAP benchmark areas to determine their level of need, explained GSMS Assistant Principal Sandy DeCrow. The students were then grouped based on their proficiency level, and placed accordingly.

Throughout the year, all of the teachers at each grade level have worked together to make sure each student’s individual needs were being met.

“They’re still studying the same concepts, but it’s a way of challenging them to get to the next level,” DeCrow said. “Hopefully by doing that we’re bringing the lower kids up, and also challenging the advanced kids more than we ever have before.”

Haptonstall also noted that, previously, Re-1 didn’t have a consistent ELL program for K-12, and not all teachers were approaching instruction the same way. The initiative provided the resources to do that.

The district also formed “Results” teams to study what works, and share that information between schools within the district.

“The Results teams have led the change in instruction across the district,” Haptonstall said.

Some of the districts in the pilot program chose a single school in which to implement the initiative. But Re-1 chose to implement it across the district.

“It makes sense for a school district our size to do it that way,” Haptonstall said.

She added that the state program has brought an understanding of what it takes to close the achievement gap.

“We kept looking at the CSAP scores every year and wondering why they weren’t getting better,” Haptonstall said. “Then we realized that, until we have this focused effort, it’s not going to improve. It really has made us take that next step.”