Boulder’s Columbine Elementary and Lafayette’s Alicia Sanchez Elementary are putting in place strategies to improve achievement that were developed with an outside consultant.
The schools are starting with 90-day plans aimed at boosting performance, with a focus on consistency, more support for students and using student data to make decisions.
The principals at the two schools, along with district leaders, are working with the University of Virginia’s Partnership for Leaders in Education program. The work is being paid for through a $362,577, three-year school improvement grant from the Colorado Department of Education.
“Our principals have taken on a lot, and the teachers are there with them,” said Sam Messier, Boulder Valley’s assistant superintendent of instructional services and equity. “This is the stage where the schools are really starting to get to work.”
Both schools have lower scores on statewide tests than other district elementary schools, as well as growth scores that are lower than the state average. They also have the highest percentages of low-income students of the district’s elementary schools.
Robbyn Fernandez, a Boulder Valley assistant superintendent of school leadership, said the partnership with the university of Virginia has helped district leaders “hold up a mirror” to see if district practices are hindering improvement efforts and to replace them with targeted support.
District officials promised a “full-court press” when Sanchez was the only Boulder Valley school last year to receive a turnaround rating in the state’s accountability system.
The school’s low achievement on state tests led the state to label the school with turnaround status, the lowest of the four state ratings. As a turnaround school, Sanchez faces state sanctions if it doesn’t improve after five consecutive years.
The school improved enough to go up to a priority improvement rating this year. But, to make it off the state’s accountability clock, Sanchez needs to earn an improvement rating two years in a row.
Joel Rivera, who started as the principal at Sanchez in August, said the school was “so close to meeting expectations” for achievement in the last round of testing, adding he is confident scores will continue going up.
“Everybody has so much love for this school and is working so hard,” he said. “This school just deserves this success. I’m excited about it, for our kids and our teachers.”
After planning sessions and a week of workshops at the University of Virginia over the summer, the two schools are starting with a 90-day plan that includes three main strategies.
At Columbine, which teaches students literacy in both English and Spanish, those strategies included following shared values — such as staying student centered — while working as a staff. Another strategy is using a common template when planning monthly lessons as grade level teams.
“It’s a shared way of how we get our students to the next step,” said Columbine Principal Bianca Gallegos.
For Sanchez, the strategies include using student achievement data to design lessons.
“For lesson design, we’re thinking about what are the best strategies to engage students with different needs,” Rivera said. “We need to accelerate growth for students who are behind.”
Another strategy is making sure school systems are clear and consistent and support students and teachers. For example, the school last year set up set up a space where students make up work they miss when behavior issues get in the way of learning. In previous years, students who were upset and left the classroom to calm down would miss work.
Sanchez teachers also previously attended a three-day workshop on setting up classrooms that meet the needs of students who have experienced trauma, ensuring they feel safe and connected.
Rivera said one of the changes that’s made the most impact is creating a social and emotional team that includes him, the assistant principal, a full-time board-certified behavior analyst, a full-time behavioral interventionist, a full-time school psychologist and a full-time school counselor.
The team can respond to students’ needs during the school day, he said, freeing him to focus more on instruction and coaching.
“That’s been the biggest support,” he said.
Next steps with the University of Virginia program include a mid-year summit in January with teacher, school and district leaders, a spring site visit and a June summer institute with school and district leaders.
“We’re very hopeful that the work that we’re doing at Alicia Sanchez and Columbine is work that can be transferred to other schools,” Messier said.