Monthly Archives: January 2014

A-School Profile: Altona Middle School

by Alisha Janes

Alisha JanesThe task of running a successful school, especially a successful middle school, is daunting. However, Joseph Mehsling, the principal of Altona Middle School, makes it sound easy. His leadership of Altona Middle School clearly prioritizes student achievement and rigorous instruction. The results are telling. Altona has earned an A+ for four consecutive years on Colorado School Grades.

Altona Middle School is located in Longmont and is a neighborhood school within the St. Vrain Valley School District. The school’s main focus is to ensure that students are prepared for high school, which it does by prioritizing literacy and numeracy. Mr. Mehsling notes that these priorities translate directly to the students’ schedules; students spend more than half of the school day in reading, writing, or math.

One thing that stands out about Mr. Mehsling’s leadership is that he has “high expectations in everything.” This motto is especially fitting when applied to the school’s pursuit of academic achievement. The front page of the school’s website iterates their commitment to standards-based education, noting that “Standards-based education is not a new fad, nor is it a reconstruction of past attempts at educational reform. Standards-based education is a system for teaching and learning that focuses on students becoming proficient in clear, measurable standards. For students and teachers in the day to day teaching-learning process, standards-based education means teaching and learning with the ‘end in mind’.” The parent/student handbook explains that even classroom tests are based on standards, ensuring that parents and students know exactly what skills a student has yet to master. The standards at Altona clearly reflect high expectations for what students will learn, as many 8th graders at Altona have already mastered Algebra I and are taking high-school level geometry.

Of course, the school’s success is not due to high standards alone. Mr. Mehsling accredits a great portion of the school’s success to the hard work of the school’s students and teachers. When asked his secret to finding and keeping great teachers, Mr. Mehsling says he simply looks for teachers who can do the job, will love doing the job, and fit within the schools culture of high expectations.

Besides its high level of academic performance, many parents and students are drawn to Altona’s musical offerings. More than 80% of the students at Altona participate in full-year band, orchestra, or choir. The school also offers a jazz band, pops orchestra, and show choir.

Altona Middle School was ranked 5th out of 503 middle schools in 2013 on Colorado School Grades, but you can bet Mr. Mehsling’s leadership and dedication has him gunning for a first place finish in 2014.

Alisha Janes is a fellow at Colorado Succeeds and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration at the University of Colorado at Denver. Alisha’s previous experience include: coaching new teachers, teaching intervention lessons, and three years of teaching a Bilingual 5th grade class in Houston, TX.

Guest Post: The pros and cons of choosing a diverse school for your child

By Michael Petrilli (@michaelpetrilli)

Executive Vice President at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In the middle of the last decade, in urban communities across America, middle- and upper-middle-class parents started sending their children to public schools again—schools that for decades had served overwhelmingly poor and minority populations. From the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to northwest Denver, to Brooklyn, and beyond, white families in particular have come back to local schools—not in dribs and drabs but in droves. In one D.C. high school, students sarcastically called it “the Caucasian invasion.”

My wife and I lived in one such urban community—an inner-ring suburb outside Washington—with our two small boys, and we loved it.  Still, we weren’t sure we wanted to stay for the long term. Mainly, we were concerned about its schools. They had a mixed reputation and lackluster test scores, largely due to their diverse population of students. (Research has long shown that poor and minority students tend to perform worse on standardized tests than affluent white children.) At our local elementary school, white students were a minority, and one-third of the kids were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch from the federal government.

We very much liked the idea of our sons becoming friends with kids from other races and backgrounds, and we didn’t think we could afford private school. But we expected that our boys would be entering Kindergarten with the basics—and more—under their belts, and we worried they wouldn’t get the attention and challenge they needed. What if their teachers were focused on helping recent immigrant children learn English or giving low-income kids remedial help? What if the schools were test-prep factories, obsessed only with getting students to basic proficiency in reading and math?

To answer these questions and more, I talked to parents, educators, and experts, dug into all of the relevant research—and wrote a book in the process: The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. So what did I find?

There were some “pros”:

  • Sending our sons to a diverse school would give them an opportunity to learn how to live in diverse twenty-first-century America.
  • It would provide exciting and enriching multicultural opportunities they wouldn’t experience in a homogeneous school.
  • It would reinforce our commitment to the “common school” ideal. We would be standing up to “separate but equal” and helping our sons’ poorer classmates learn more about the world than they would if segregated into schools with only other poor children.

We’d get to stay in the urban community that we love.

There were also “cons”:

  • We would probably have to give up on finding a school that was progressive or artsy or unstructured. (Low-income and minority parents tend to shun such schools—and for good reason, as they tend to have a bad track record with low-income and minority children.)
  • We would be taking some (small) risks with our kids’ safety and would increase the odds that they’d have one or more disruptive students in class with them, which could slow them down academically.
  • If we chose a school that grouped students by performance—which might be best for our kids—the classrooms themselves would probably be largely segregated by class, if not by race.

For us, and for all parents, this is a tough call, a major life decision. It’s essential for parents to go and visit the schools they are considering.

Probably the most important thing to learn is whether the principal is a strong leader and open to tackling these vexing issues of race and class head-on. After all, it takes an extraordinary person to bring together students, teachers, and parents of diverse cultures and backgrounds and make the mix work effectively. It especially requires a ton of outreach and communication on the leader’s part. Is the principal up to this task? Does he or she even see it as part of the job? If not, that’s a big red flag. And if you are treated like a pushy parent for just trying to find out, go somewhere else, fast.

Second, you want to understand the school’s instructional strategies, particularly when it comes to serving kids who are achieving at vastly different levels. How does it group students, and how are students selected for those groups? Do the groups change much over time? If the school uses mixed grouping, how does it challenge all of its students, especially the highest-achieving ones? Likewise, what is it doing to boost the performance of its struggling students? If the school says it differentiates instruction, what evidence is there that this is for real and that teachers are up to the challenge? Ask to see the different kinds of assignments that teachers give to kids at different levels. If the school can’t provide such examples, that’s another red flag. At the middle- and high-school levels, does the school offer honors tracks or Advanced Placement courses?

Third, you want to learn how integrated the school truly is. Is there a lot of self-segregation at recess and lunch? Are people of color represented at PTA meetings? Are parents chatting with moms and dads of different races? What school-wide events are hosted to make people feel included? Is there an International Night? Are there school fairs?

Finally, trust your gut. But also be willing to admit that your gut can sometimes be wrong.


Here’s the good news: Regardless of which schools your children attend, they are very likely to do well. That’s because of what you are already doing as your children’s first teacher: showing an interest in their learning, reading to them, checking their homework, providing a safe and supportive environment at home, enriching their education with trips to museums and libraries and historical sites, and expecting them to go to college.

Keep doing all of that, and any school choice you make will be a good one.

Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He blogs at Flypaper.

Guest Post: Teachers Support Transparency and Accountability

Colorado School Grades is a coalition of 18 partner groups. Our guest posts feature these organizations and others, who will offer tips and advice for parents who want to choose or improve a school.

by Tim Farmer, Policy Director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators

tfarmer sm photoSince the launch of two years ago, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE) has been a proud partner in this effort to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public schools. In a state like Colorado, which has abundant school choice policies, PACE recognizes that parents and teachers are looking for an easy-to-understand source for making informed decisions.

By giving every school an easy-to-understand letter-grade ranking, this website has created the simplest and clearest representation of how schools truly are performing – both good and bad. This system allows parents and community members the ability to understand how their local schools are performing. An informed and engaged public will be instrumental in improving schools in the future.

Colorado’s teachers are also faced with the challenge of making decisions about school choice. Teachers can choose to teach at a traditional, public charter, virtual, alternative or many other public choice schools. Teachers must also decide if they want to teach in an urban, rural, turnaround, innovation, or in some other school setting. The information on can also be a benefit to teachers as they make important decisions about their career.

In the emerging age of accountability in public schools, teachers are embracing policies that promote transparency and results. According to a national survey conducted by PACE’s national partner the Association of American Educators, 89 percent of teachers surveyed support services such as, and other programs and organizations that allow stakeholders to search and compare schools in their area via letter grades.

Teachers do, in fact, support policies that easily identify schools based on performance. Although improving schools is a complex issue, we must embrace accountability and transparency in our public schools.


Guest Post: Three Observable Expert Teacher Behaviors

By Kaitlin Pennington, Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress

Over the past several years, the connection between teaching quality and student achievement has been a much-discussed topic among education policymakers and practitioners—and for good reason. Research conclusively shows that quality teaching matters to student learning. In fact, it has been identified as the most important school-based factor in student achievement.

But until recently, what quality teaching looks like wasn’t at the forefront of the debate in education. Now, however, many state departments of education and local school districts across the U.S. are developing and restructuring teacher evaluation systems, with the goal of cracking the code of teacher instructional practices that lead to student achievement, and then holding teachers accountable for performing those practices. This is a difficult task that often prompts debate, but one worth pursing for the sake of student learning and the integrity of the teaching profession.

Colorado was at the forefront of teacher evaluation reform with the passage of SB 10-191, the Educator Effectiveness bill. As part of SB 10-191, through a collaborative effort involving diverse stakeholders across the state, leaders developed a State Framework for Teacher Evaluation unique to Colorado. Through this framework, education leaders in Colorado created a tangible idea of what quality teaching looks like regardless of where a teacher works in the state.

According to the Colorado framework, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is determined by professional practice and the other 50 percent by student growth. If the Colorado framework for teacher evaluation lives up to its design, a teacher’s daily practices rating on the evaluation observation rubric will align with student learning data. So, if a teacher’s daily practice rates high on the rubric, that teacher’s students will show increases in learning and vice versa. Therefore, the contents of the observation rubric are important to educators, and have the added bonus of being a useful guide for families when talking with students’ principals and teachers.


However, like most teacher evaluation observation rubrics, Colorado’s is long and quite detailed. I scanned it and summarized traits that I noticed across all of the standards into the three key teacher behaviors that I discuss below. This is by no means a complete list of effective teacher behaviors, but it can serve as a starting point for observing and talking with teachers:

Analyze Student Learning

Expert teachers have a clear understanding of their students’ strengths and weaknesses. They can speak at length about their students’ abilities and can support their claims with student work and data. These teachers are intentional about how they assess student learning and then use student assessment results to inform their instruction. Analyzing student learning is a part of high-quality instructional practice, which allows teachers to know what each of their students understand or misunderstand after each lesson. To have a conversation about student learning with a teacher, a parent or family member may ask the teacher to discuss a topic or concept the student understands particularly well or poorly. Ask the teacher to show student work or assessment results that connect to that topic. If it is something the student is struggling with, ask the teacher how she or he is working with the student to clarify misconceptions and how that instructional practice can continue at home.

Differentiate Instruction

Differentiating instruction is an extension of analyzing student data. After effective teachers analyze student data at the end of each lesson or unit, they then use the data to differentiate their instruction in order to ensure that all students are learning. A clear sign (though not the only sign) that a teacher is differentiating instruction is the use of student grouping. Teachers may put a group of students together who are not understanding a specific topic so that she can work with them one-on-one while another group of students who understood the topic move onto a project that applies it to real-life scenarios. When implemented correctly, this method allows for student misconceptions to be addressed while not boring other students who have already mastered the topic. Student grouping should not be used to teach some students less, but rather to give more time and attention to students who are struggling with a particular topic before moving onto the next lesson.

Clearly Communicate Academic Goals to Students and Families

Effective teachers create a roadmap for the academic year. They then break that roadmap up into weekly or monthly units and then, lastly, into daily lesson objectives. In addition to creating the plans, teachers relay those plans to their students and their students’ families so that they can be key players in their education, not simply compliant observers. If a teacher is proficient in communicating academic goals, students should have a clear understanding of their individual goals and a plan on how to achieve those goals. This communication allows students to take control of their learning and ask for help if/when they are not meeting their goals.

The shifts in teacher instructional practices expected due to new evaluation systems—and other concurrent reforms such as the Common Core State Standards—are just beginning and will take some time to fully implement. As the adjustment in the system takes place, asking teachers questions about their practice can help family members better understand students’ academic goals.

Kaitlin Pennington is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Previously, Kaitlin worked at Colorado Succeeds and in the office of Senator Mike Johnston. As a Teach for America corps member, Kaitlin taught middle school English and language arts in Washington, D.C.




A-School Profile: Bradley International School

by Alisha Janes

Alisha JanesDenver’s Bradley International School is a neighborhood elementary school that ranked 86 out of 1009 elementary schools on Colorado School Grades this year. I had the opportunity to join a tour for prospective parents at Bradley International School on December 19th. The tour was guided by Melissa Capozza, the school’s International Baccalaureate Coordinator, with Eric Demaria, a parent of two students at the school.

Bradley participates in the Primary Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate program (IB). It frames all the learning activities of the school community, encouraging international-mindedness and real-life learning with in-depth inquiries that go beyond traditional subject areas. Whereas the high school level of the International Baccalaureate Organization, the Diploma Program, provides a challenging curriculum and qualification that is recognized by leading universities around the world, Bradley incorporates the IB framework throughout its curriculum and school activities and frequently references the IB learner profile and mission statement.

The students’ memorable projects and their inquiry-based learning are striking parts of the IB program. For example, the third grade classes made green-screen videos with skylines from world cities, and a fourth grade class was putting a character from a book they had recently finished on trial, complete with a judge and a jury. Demaria, the parent assisting with the tour, mentioned that his two kids had been doing similarly creative research projects since kindergarten.

Another stand out characteristic of Bradley is a high level of parent involvement. Demaria described many ways that Bradley parents support the community including assisting the school with playground monitoring, helping out in the community garden, running after-school programs, and volunteering in classrooms.

From Young Authors to Garden Club and parent-led programs like Girls On the Run, it is clear that students at Bradley also keep busy with enrichment activities. There are few offerings that you will find at other area elementary schools that Bradley is lacking.

After visiting Bradley, it is easy to see how the school achieves such high student outcomes. The International Baccalaureate programs helps Bradley students push the limits of student achievement. This high standard along with the support of the Bradley community helps make Bradley International School another one of the great schools you can find on Colorado School Grades.

Alisha Janes is a fellow at Colorado Succeeds and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration at the University of Colorado at Denver. Alisha’s previous experience include: coaching new teachers, teaching intervention lessons, and three years of teaching a Bilingual 5th grade class in Houston, TX.

Guest Post from The Fordham Institute: What Parents Want, in Colorado and Beyond

by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Adam Emerson (@adamjemerson), former Director of School Choice Programs, & Michael Brickman (@BrickM), National Policy Director

This year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a groundbreaking study, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Tradeoffs, that examined the educational goals and school attributes that are most important to parents. Fordham teamed with market-research firm Harris Interactive to segment parents into distinguishable groups, something that the private sector does all the time in order to find ways to customize their products.

But can public education be so customized? Fordham’s findings suggest that, yes, school systems and charter schools can better attend to parent preferences. Fordham and Harris Interactive couldn’t easily segment parents into distinctive groups, but we did identify parents who prioritized individual school attributes or student goals that most other parents viewed as less important. From this six market “niches” surfaced:

  • Pragmatists (36 percent of K-12 parents) who value schools that offer vocational classes or job-related programs
  • Jeffersonians (24 percent) who value instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership
  • Test-Score Hawks (23 percent) who look for schools with high test scores
  • Multiculturalists (22 percent) who want their kids to learn to work with others of diverse backgrounds
  • Expressionists (15 percent) who want schools that emphasize art and music instruction
  • Strivers (12 percent) who want a pathway to a top-tier college

But something surprising also rose to the surface: Must-haves didn’t vary greatly. Everyone wanted a high-quality instruction in core subjects and STEM fields; they wanted their kids to learn to think critically and to communicate strongly; and they wanted their schools to instill good study habits.

So what does this mean for Colorado? For starters, Fordham’s findings imply that districts such as Denver and Douglas County have done well to maximize their educational “portfolios” so that more families have school choice. But, overall, Colorado still has far to go to maximize choice.

Prospective charters still don’t have many authorizers who care about choice and charter quality. Mostly, school districts are the primary charter sponsor. An independent chartering board isn’t all that independent from the state education department, according to the Center for Education Reform, and can only authorize charters in certain location. Denver has gotten a lot of attention for its portfolio approach, which positions the district mostly as a manager of high-quality options, but that still places other Colorado districts in the status quo.

And if the Fordham Institute study has shown anything, it’s that many parents won’t find what they’re looking for in the status quo.  Once their non-negotiables are met—a good core education and strong learning skills—many parents want something special. Some want a school with high test scores. Others want diversity. Still others value art and music. It would be hard, outside a system of school choice, for all of these parents to get what they want.

Many industries in the private sector have figured out not only that they need to customize their offerings, but they have learned, through a better understanding of their customers, how to customize. The education industry—even in choice-friendly Colorado—still has a lot to learn.

Guest Post: School Choice in Rural Colorado

Colorado School Grades is a coalition of 18 partner groups. Our guest posts feature these organizations and others, who will offer tips and advice for parents who want to choose or improve a school.

By Shelby Edwards, Senior FellowShelby Edwards, Colorado Children’s Campaign

No matter if you are a parent in Durango or Denver, Dolores County or Douglas County, you want the same thing: for your child to grow up healthy and smart. You want to know that your child is in a safe school that will help her develop and learn. Measuring whether all that is happening can be tricky, however.

Colorado School Grades is a valuable resource for parents across Colorado. For parents in the metro area who have many school choices, School Grades offers a place to make comparisons and get clear information when it’s time to decide where to send children to school. However, when it comes to rural Colorado where school choice often isn’t an option, School Grades still provides a valuable tool: transparency.

Getting a clear picture of improvements over time and how well students are doing at your local school can help you be a stronger advocate for your child’s education. This knowledge can help you ask the right questions and drive stronger outcomes for your children and for all kids in your community. With school grades, you can see where your local schools are doing well and where they are struggling.

Let’s look at one example, Roaring Fork High School in Roaring Fork RE1 School District. The snapshot provided by Colorado School Grades shows us:

  • Roaring Fork High is ranked 180 out of the 333 high schools in Colorado for overall performance.
  • Academic growth and proficiency hasn’t changed much during the past 3 years.
  • 93.8 percent of students graduated within four years.
  • 86.4 percent of English language learners graduated within four years.
  • 43 percent of students who went on to college in Colorado needed to re-take high school level courses known as remediation courses.

With school performance data in hand, we can ask deeper questions of our school leaders. How can we better prepare our graduates for college and careers? Why do our students need to take remediation courses? How is the school working to increase academic growth? How much growth is “good enough”? What can be done to help support our English language learners?

Similar questions prompted teachers, administrators, parents, policy makers and communities to work together to find solutions and pass groundbreaking reforms to the public education system. New assessments, evaluations, professional development programs, instruction and standards are being implemented in a combined effort to improve student outcomes across the state. New standards, for example, have been implemented across 10 content areas that make clear what is being expected of your child each year. You can read through the Colorado Academic Standards to better understand how Colorado is increasing emphasis on problem solving and creative thinking over rote memorization of facts.

Prepared with information about your school and the expectations of your child, it will be easier to talk with the teacher and school leaders about what is needed for success throughout school and after high school. With Colorado School Grades, you’ll have the information at your fingertips to track performance improvements or slow-downs at your child’s school from year to year.

Great schools don’t just happen. They are intentionally built by people who believe we have a responsibility to ensure that all Colorado children – no matter who they are or where they live – graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and 21st Century careers. Focusing on every student, every year is the smartest path to building healthier communities and a stronger economy for today and tomorrow.


Guest Post: Open Enrollment Season Is Upon Us

Colorado School Grades is a coalition of 18 partner groups. Our guest posts feature these organizations and others, who will offer tips and advice for parents who want to choose or improve a school.

by Marya DeGrow, Research Associate – Education Policy Center, The Independence Institute

Colorado law allows students to open enroll in a public school other than their assigned neighborhood school, as long as certain criteria are met. Most schools that do not have room for more students have a waiting list. When there is room for more students, schools will either accept students on a first-come-first-served basis or hold a lottery to determine which students may enroll in the school. Priority is usually given to in-district students and siblings of students already enrolled at the school.

Each school district has its own timeline for open enrollment applications (and some charter schools have different deadlines than the districts in which they are located). Some schools accept these applications before the beginning of the year, such as Denver, where the first round of school choice begins December 16, 2013 and runs through January 31, 2014. Others have a short window of time at the beginning of the year, such as Jefferson County, whose first round is from Jan. 8, 2014 through Jan 24, 2014. Some districts have a second time period for choice applications as well.

Resources for Finding the Right School for Your Family:

Click here for a list of the open enrollment web pages for most of Colorado’s largest school districts.

This Open Enrollment Checklist will help guide you if you plan to enroll your child in a public school other than your neighborhood school.

There are various philosophies and teaching methods in different schools. For help in choosing the right school for your family, read our blog post, Which School Is Right for My Child?

Find questions to ask when visiting a school in the 10 Questions to Ask During a School Visit series and in this School Evaluation Tool Kit.