GREELEY – Administrators at a charter school many repeatedly said would fail are basking in the glory of proving them wrong, thanks to a staff who worked overtime and the addition of a woman who brought with her a track record of success.
Salida del Sol – a dual language charter school in Greeley – leapfrogged over a performance framework ranking and out of trouble this year after just two summers of intense professional development that aligned state standards to a unique curriculum delivery method used by the school.
Kathleen Horning, who initially retired from education a few years ago came to Salida in January 2015 as an assessment facilitator focused on raising the test scores of hundreds of hard-to-teach students.
“It’s exciting to have had the growth we’ve had” Horning said about the school’s successful leap from Turnaround status to Improvement after just one year of rankings. “Looking at the School Performance Framework, it is our growth that pushed us into Improvement.”
Horning’s success also helped her jump into a new role. Horning is in her first year as principal at Salida del Sol Academy.
“I feel really fortunate to come to work here with this staff and expand my knowledge with them,” Horning said. “We have room to grow. Our growth was fabulous, but our achievement is still low so we’re going to continue on this path of being focused.”
Each year, the state rates schools and districts based on a 100-point scale that takes into consideration academic achievement and academic growth as well as growth among at-risk students (English language learners, students living in poverty and special education students). High schools are also scored on postsecondary readiness.
Rankings for schools include Turnaround (schools that fall below 34 percent on the 100-point scale), Priority Improvement (schools that fall between 34 and 42 percent), Improvement (schools that fall between 42 and 53 percent) and Performance (schools that are above 53 percent).
All schools must report to the state how they intend to keep their students at grade level or how they plan to get their students to grade level. Based on the designation, some schools get more oversight from the district in writing those plans. Schools in Priority Improvement or Turnaround have five years to move into Improvement or Performance or have the state determine their fate either with new administration, getting public or private groups to take over, or converting the school to a charter school.
Charter schools do not have to accept help from the district.
From the beginning, the school’s founders said it would take a few years for Salida’s successes to show because the delivery model they chose works best when students start in kindergarten, but to fill the school, many students came already in fourth to eighth grade and already struggling.
“The demographics of the kids who initially came to our school were already in (low performing) schools,” said Rebecca Koppes Conway, one of the founders and a member of the school’s board of directors. “So we tracked their scores from the beginning, and we knew we were dealing with kids who already had some struggles.”
That didn’t sit well with many in the education world.
THE EARLY DAYS
The district’s former superintendent Ranelle Lang as well as some board of education members and teachers in the district were against the dual language method, pointing to past failed attempts by the district to implement bilingual programs.
Others questioned the ability of the school to hire enough bilingual teachers.
Still others didn’t like that already struggling students would leave their current schools for an unknown technique, made successful in Texas, New Mexico and California but not used anywhere in Colorado.
“Then the challenge is implementing the model across the board K-8,” Koppes-Conway said. “So we knew we were going to get kids who were going to walk in here in the middle of the model, and we would have to adapt the model for the older kids, so I think we’ve ended up pretty much as planned.”
A similar model used in Grand Junction has had tremendous success over the years.
For the 2014-15 school year, test results were not available for Salida because the state underwent testing changes and used that year as a baseline state wide, so it wasn’t until the 2015-16 school year that the public got a look at the first set of testing, and the results weren’t good.
Less than 30 percentage points were earned out of 100.
Horning came out of retirement in January 2015 to become an assessment coordinator for Salida. She has spent nearly her entire career in bilingual education.
That summer she lead professional development classes with teachers to align the state standards to the English curriculum the school was using.
Despite that, the school earned just 29.6 percent, nearly 5 percentage points below the lowest acceptable score and entered its first year of Turnaround status. Although officials said there was success with students who were in kindergarten-second grade when they started at Salida.
Schools or districts that remain in Priority, Improvement or Turnaround status for five years can be converted to charter schools or taken over by the state among other things.
Salida is in its fourth year in the Greeley-Evans School District 6 charter school system, which includes three K-12 charters and two K-8 charters. The five charters educate approximately 25 percent (5,286) of the district’s students (21,950).
Salida, however, is the district’s only dual-language charter and the only dual-language charter to use the Gomez and Gomez teaching model, which features a specific delivery method.
It was started after one of the original founders, former University of Northern Colorado President and Colorado State Legislator Dick Bond, challenged the Greeley community to find a better way to educate the district’s most at-risk students.
Bond, who also supported the University Schools Charter Foundation in Greeley, was frustrated that district officials continually accused charter operators of catering to only the whitest, best and brightest students in the district on a particular side of the city.
When no one stepped up, Bond formed a group led by folks that included some of those who helped form the University Schools Charter, and within a couple years the school opened its doors to more than 600 students.
For the 2016-17 school year, Salida del Sol had 86 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunches, 61 percent were English language learners and 96 percent were Hispanic. Statistics for 2017-18 are not available yet, but are expected to be similar.
A NEW FRONTIER
Students in kindergarten through first grade learn language arts in their native language with their non-native language introduced. In second- through eighth-grade, language arts is taught to all students for 60 minutes a day in English and also 60 minutes a day in Spanish. Math is taught in English at all grade levels, while social studies and science are taught in Spanish at all grade levels. Other classes such as physical education and music, utilize “language of the day,” to determine what language to speak in.
All material in the school is posted in both English and Spanish, and all teachers as well as most all support staff are bilingual.
The idea is what attracted parent Tara White to enroll her 8- and 6-year-olds, in the school.
White, who is Mexican, but who married into an Anglo family and whose children are growing up in a English-speaking home, said wants her children to be able to do something both her generation and her parents’ generation lost.
“We had the language in our family, but we were forced to assimilate, so we lost it,” White said. “We understand bits and pieces because my grandparents would speak it – you always knew you were in deep trouble when they went into Spanish. So this was a chance for my children to regain that lost part of their heritage. Also we live in a global society. We have so many Hispanic people here that a lot of places want you to be bilingual. This is an advantage. They will have better opportunities.”
White said it is also exciting because her children get to experience the Mexican culture and heritage at a much higher level than traditional schools. And they bring it home to the entire family, even giving White a reason to learn the language.
“They get to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos here,” she said. “They get to experience these holidays with others outside our home that know what they are. And it’s made a good connection with my grandparents because as they’ve gotten older they speak more Spanish than they do English, and so it’s nice to see that.”
A few other highlights of Gomez & Gomez:
- Language of the day, where English and Spanish rotate daily for such things as WOW time (a time where students and teachers offer praise and gratitude to others to reinforce good behavior), hallway discussions, cafeteria conversations, calendar work and special time such as library and computers.
- Bilingual pairs and groups, which pairs English and Spanish native speakers in lesson cycles to help with comprehension of skills and concepts.
- Bilingual learning centers where students engage in listening, speaking, reading and writing across subjects and in both languages.
Additionally, the school uses what they call Personal Learning Communities, which puts teachers and support staff into grade-level teams to work together to improve student success.
PATIENCE PAYS OFF
Those close to the school weren’t distracted by either the initial scores or the naysayers expressing their concerns.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” White, who is also a member of the Salida del Sol Board of Directors. “The way I looked at it test scores just measure certain things. We are a dual-language school. We are trying to teach two languages. These kids are coming in having to learn both languages, so they are going to look like they are behind because the tests are not designed for dual language. They are designed for traditional schools. So in my mind when they came out, I wasn’t surprised. But I’ve noticed huge leaps and bounds already.”
Horning spent the summer of 2016, again, in intense professional development training with teachers, this time aligning the state standards to the Spanish language arts curriculum.
She said there are some complexities to aligning the two, but they want students to be able to do both fluently, so they have to find a way to align the two.
“We are a dual language school,” Horning said. “We really looked at, if that’s what we do in English language arts, what is it we have to do in Spanish language arts. They are different. They’re related, but they are not exactly the same.”
This time it paid off.
The 2016-17 preliminary performance ratings came out last week, and Salida jumped over Priority Improvement, and out of trouble, straight to Improvement, earning 43.9 percent, a 14 percentage-point climb.
The increase was of no surprise to leaders.
“The people who founded this school really looked hard at Gomez & Gomez,” Koppes-Conway said. “This model is not just some random anecdotal piece of information.
Horning said she is proud of all the hard work her staff has put into the process. They have focused on getting kids to grade level by the end of the year, and what that looked like all year long.
“Their plans were built around that,” Horning said. “I think that really contributed to the growth. It really focused teachers efforts on – instead of scattering and everybody doing their own thing based on what they thought their kids needed, we became clear on what the standards expects of the kids and how we can map out our work.”
Horning already has plans for more curriculum alignment summer of 2018 – this time in math.
Horning’s hire as principal was deliberate, Koppes-Conway said because of her experience in dual-language and assessments.
Koppes-Conway said Horning along with the school’s new director, Paul Kirkpatrick, who came from University Schools where he served as its middle school principal for more than a decade, will bring great leadership and direction to the school. She expects the school to continue to advance and become the school founders knew it would be.
“Paul brings management expertise and works well with parents,” Conway said. “And the more we get parents involved and parents to work with their kids’ education the better its going to be for the kids. His teachers loved him over at University, and the staff has to believe in the leadership. If they believe in leadership, they are going to work even harder to make this a successful school.”