District has plan to raise performance

Schools target reading, hope to engage parents

The Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School District is struggling, but efforts are underway to help turn things around, according to Superintendent Alex Carter.

“Our reading levels are most alarming,” he said. “We have to have students reading at grade level.”

For the fourth straight year, Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 schools did not meet state performance expectations during the 2012-2013 academic year. The school district received a total accreditation score of 43.7 percent, again requiring school officials to adopt a priority improvement plan. In 2010, the district received a score of 50 percent, and the scores have steadily declined to last year’s low.

If the district underperforms for a fifth consecutive year, the state could place area schools in turnaround status, meaning district schools could be forced to restructure or closed entirely. A University of Colorado 2013 report reveals that 67,000 Colorado students attend schools that have been rated as priority improvement, the second lowest category of performance. A total of 19 school districts across the state, were placed in the category last year.

“Overall, the district’s reading scores remain flat,” Carter said. “It’s essential to increase reading levels, because the subject area impacts all other areas, from math to science.”

Lori Haukeness, the district’s chief academic officer, agreed, saying the persistent underperformance is directly related to reading. She said a majority of kindergartners are entering schools at a much lower benchmark than where they should be academically.

“We have to have them reading at grade level, so we don’t have the achievement gaps,” she said.

The district’s improvement plan was sent to state officials for approval last week. It contains targeted solutions that Carter believes will work, including aims to focus on standardized, research-based instruction models; building a climate and culture for student success and utilizing effective data-driven instruction techniques.

“We’re establishing short-term goals and accountability,” said Carter. “We’re streamlining.”

Carter said that in the past, the district gave insufficient attention to data that confirmed underperformance. The district is now focused on using that data to better determine why students underperform and what can be done to improve scores, he said.

“We’re good at setting long-term goals, but we aren’t too good at meeting long-term goals,” he said.

Only 3.5 points from obtaining improvement status, Carter said the district is on the clock to turn things around, and he’s confident the goals can be met by making schools more interesting and relative.

“Our focus right now is on student achievement and student growth,” he said. “I believe we can, but that’s on us. That’s our job.”

Accredited with a priority improvement plan for the fourth consecutive year, the school district received less than 40 percentage points for academic achievement in the state’s annual preliminary performance report. For overall academic growth, the district received 52 percentage points. Test participation, safety and finance scores, all of which met state requirements, helped keep the district above a 41 percent turnaround status.

Carter said the greatest hurdle to improving student achievement is becoming experts in the Success for All literacy program, a whole-school improvement model launched across the district during the 2012-13 school year.

Success for All includes five major components – leadership; intervention tools, powerful instruction, professional development and coaching and research. The federally funded program has been used across the country for more than two decades.

In Success for All schools, all teachers teach reading for 90 minutes at the same time each day. During the time, students move to reading classes in which every student is reading at one instructional level. Most students move to new reading levels every quarter.

To help ensure the program is successful, Carter said Mesa Elementary, Manuagh Elementary and Kemper Elementary schools are part of a pilot program introduced this year to offer a parent literacy plan. He said the district faces a big challenge in educating parents on how they can properly support their children at home.

“I’m a well-educated educator, and it’s still not easy to sit down with your kid and know how to support their reading instruction,” Carter said. “I struggle with it.”

Carter said the parent literacy program offers parents techniques to support their child’s home reading. While students and teachers have vital roles, Carter believes support at home is the third piece of the puzzle to greater student achievement.

“It’s a basic platform to success,” Carter said. “Unless you have all three, we’ll never get those high outcomes.”

Carter said the district is at a critical stage. In the past, he admitted the district hadn’t done enough to provide parents with the needed tools to support their children’s academic pursuits. He was quick, however, not to blame parents.

“I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t want their child to succeed in school,” he said. “But I have met parents who don’t know how to support their kids for success.”

Through parent-teacher academic teams, Carter explained the elementary schools are working to engage parents by providing individual student assessments to parents. Those assessments include showing parents where their child stacks up among their classroom peers as well as across the state, nation and world.

Last year, the three in-town elementary schools had the lowest accreditation rating in the district. Carter believes targeting the elementary schools first will ultimately provide the highest yield.

“These schools are in the most desperate need of attention,” he said.

Starting in March, the district’s in-town elementary schools will enter into a 22-month turnaround program with the University of Virginia. Carter said the program implements proven research-based educational practices through a business lens to support the learning process.

In describing the program, Carter said it could help the district tailor specific directives and lesson plans to individual students.

“We need to think of our students more like customers,” Carter said. “Then the schools’ profit margin, or learning, could increase.”

tbaker@cortezjournal.com