Glenwood Elementary School leads district in post-pandemic performance swing

Achievement gap for English language learners remains a concern for area schools

John Stroud
Post Independent Correspondent
Third-grade students work with teacher Denise Abate during ALL Block on Thursday afternoon at Glenwood Springs Elementary School.
Katherine Tomanek/Post Independent

Efforts in the Roaring Fork School District to put student achievement back on track following a performance slide coming out of the pandemic years appear to be working, punctuated by a huge turnaround in just one year’s time at Glenwood Springs Elementary School.

Across the district from Glenwood Springs to Basalt, three schools improved in their performance rating with the Colorado Department of Education from 2022 to 2023 — GSES, Riverview School and Glenwood Springs Middle School.

Nine schools maintained their existing “Performance” rating, and no district schools decreased in their state rating.

The ratings are based on standardized tests administered in spring 2023. 

As a whole, the district moved from an accreditation rating of “Improvement” in 2022 to “Accredited” for 2023 — the second tier on the state’s five-tier accreditation scale; “Accredited with Distinction” being the top tier. 

The most-improved school, primarily based on student growth year over year, was GSES, which jumped two levels from being on a “Turnaround” plan with the state last year to an “Improvement” plan this year.

A combination of returning to some practices that had been loosened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and rethinking how to do student intervention was key to that rapid turnaround, GSES Principal Jessica Schwarz said.

“There was an element of coming out of the pandemic, and getting ourselves back to some best practices that we knew had worked before, and making the right instructional moves for our kids,” Schwarz said.

Students who were in the third grade when in-person classroom learning was disrupted for two years due to the pandemic were perhaps affected most, she said.

Third graders work on ALL Block assignments on Thursday afternoon at Glenwood Springs Elementary School in Denise Abate’s classroom.
Katherine Tomanek/Post Independent

Once state testing resumed in the spring of 2022, the result was a higher number of students in third, fourth and fifth grade who were not reading at grade level.

Third grade is when students transition from learning how to read to “reading to learn,” Schwarz said.

Schools weren’t able to be as effective in helping students through that transition during the pandemic. That, coupled with lags in performance that had already existed, meant a crucial period of instruction was severely impacted, she said.

“We restructured some things so that students are getting explicit instruction in those foundational reading skills, and as a result we saw a lot of gains with that,” she said.

Schwarz said schools across the country also learned some valuable lessons from the educational impacts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans schools in 2006. Following that disaster, which also caused huge disruptions in student learning, it was determined that intervention efforts were better targeted at maintaining grade-level content, but tailored to meet individual student needs, rather than trying to play catch-up through remediation, she said.

“What we found is that we’re going to see greater gains and students will learn more and accelerate their learning faster … if we keep them in grade-level content, than if we try to remediate our way out of it,” Schwarz said.

Teachers are also looking at individual student data more frequently and making adjustments along the way, while also maintaining important social-emotional learning through GSES’s Expeditionary Learning model, she said.

Districtwide focus

Preliminary performance frameworks for all Colorado school districts were released at the beginning of the current school year, and are to be finalized by the state Board of Education in December.

“Our entire school community has worked so hard together to make this growth,” Stacey Park, chief academic officer for the district, said in an earlier news release.

District accreditation and school plan types are based on overall and student subgroup performance related to academic achievement, academic growth as measured through the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests that are administered at the elementary and middle school levels.

In addition, postsecondary and workforce readiness are measured through the SAT suite of assessments that are given in high schools. 

Based on the latest round of testing, the district meets the state’s academic growth standards, which measure student growth year over year at the elementary and middle school levels, and is approaching those standards at the high school level.

As for academic achievement, the district is still approaching the state’s standards at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The district also surpassed the state average in terms of student growth from 2022 to 2023 in nearly every category, including both English language and math assessments, and in most every student subgroup. 

“Overall, we are moving in the right direction, and these preliminary results can also in part help us determine where we as a district need to further focus our efforts to support our students whose academic needs we are still not meeting,” Park said.

Achievement gap persists

While there have been gains across the board in student growth, large gaps still exist in achievement between two major subgroups in the district, native English speakers and native Spanish speakers, when it comes to performance on state standardized tests.

Growth rates for white students, as categorized by the state, also outpaced Hispanic students in both English and math testing. The same remains true for students whose first language is English, compared to those for whom English is a second language, which is categorized separately by the state.

“We still have significant differences in achievement to address for all groups, especially our emerging bilingual and Latinx students,” Interim Superintendent Anna Cole said at the beginning of the school year when the performance frameworks were released. “This data indicates that we are on the right track and can build on these successes as we develop our five-year strategic plan with our community over the coming months.”

That process is likely to include a greater voice from the Latino community, which is becoming better organized around education issues through a national NewSchools Venture Fund grant obtained recently by Voces Unidas de las Montañas. 

The grant is being used to help accelerate the organization’s efforts around parent organizing in rural school districts in the central mountain region, including RFSD, Voces Unidas CEO Alex Sánchez said.

Like many school districts in the central mountain region, RFSD is a “minority majority” district, with about 57% of its student enrollment being Hispanic. 

“Our goal is to improve outcomes for all students by mobilizing parents to serve as change agents of the school system,” Sánchez said in announcing the grant award last month. “We believe that by working together with parents, school districts, and community partners, we can create more equitable rural education systems that better reflect the needs and experiences of all students in our region.”

Closing that gap is a continued focus for GSES as it looks to continue its upward trends, Schwarz said.

“We have to adjust our programming to better meet the needs of all students, and that’s what we’re doing,” Schwarz said. “We’re being strategic, we’re looking at our data, and we’re thinking about how the instructional model and the programming that we’re offering at GSES meets the needs of all students, period.”

GSES is also working on a collaboration with the Bueno Center out of the University of Colorado at Boulder to evaluate the school’s biliteracy model and ensure that it’s aligned with evidence-based practices, she said.

The district’s state-required Unified Improvement Plan (UIP), which Park updated the RFSD Board of Education on last week, also addresses growth and performance of emerging bilingual and Hispanic students.

The plan states that students in those subgroups should progress at least one proficiency level by the end of the school year, with a 70% benchmark or higher, and that all students achieve adequate growth on the CMAS and SAT tests, “with no difference in growth between race, language status, and disability.” 

School attendance is another area that dropped off during and right after the pandemic, but is showing signs of improvement, Park said.

Average daily attendance dropped to around 90-92% during the 2021-22 and ’22-23 school years, but has improved since the beginning of this school year, she said. The district goal is 95% attendance or better, which in turn should also help improve student achievement, Park said.

“It’s a start, but I think it’s going to take some time to get back to that,” she said. “Any millimeter of growth that we have is a win.”

In its efforts to provide better support for teachers, the district has been working to provide more instructional coaching and dean of culture positions in schools. Several new positions have been added this year through the district’s ongoing Accelerated Learning Plan (ALP), including many focused on English language development.

The multi-year ALP is an extension of the Unified Improvement Plan, Park explained.

“It’s really thinking comprehensively about how we are supporting our schools and staff, and resourcing it,” she said.

John Stroud is a freelance writer based in Carbondale and a veteran journalist of 35 years in the Roaring Fork Valley.

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