Thursday, August 11, 2016

AV#151 - One person’s listening tour – from that “other” Colorado: rural school districts

                                                                                                                                 August 11, 2016

One person’s listening tour – from that “other” Colorado: rural school districts
Can you hear me now?

See page 5 for comments from rural districts during the Listening Tour.
This spring the Colorado Department of Education conducted its Listening Tour “to solicit feedback from the community regarding key provisions of the new law,” Every Student Succeeds Act. CDE has compiled well over 100 pages of comments from those of us who attended one of the 14 meetings around the state[1].  It created a committee of 20 “to develop a first draft of the state plan”; they held their first meeting this week.  The goal: to submit a Colorado ESSA plan “to the State Board of Education and governor for approval before being delivered to the U.S. Department of Education,” a plan “that is clearly understood and can be supported by all.” (

Are we hearing from the MAJORITY of Colorado school districts – i.e., the rural voice?

It is hard to listen to all the voices in Colorado, not so much because of our population size, 22nd in the country, but because of our geography.  We are a big state: 8th largest in the country.  No small task, to hear what those far-away voices—in rural Colorado—want to tell those setting policy in Denver.

Any educator who spent most of his life in New England—I lived or worked in five of the six states—is still amazed at the size of Colorado.  Those six New England states cover a total of 71,992 square miles.  The Centennial state alone—103,718 square miles—makes my “home region” look mighty small.

As a student or teacher in over 10 New England schools, I gave little thought to rural versus urban schools.  I never lived more than 2 ½ hours from the state capital any of those states.  The notion of “a rural perspective” on schools, as distinct from the pressing concerns in urban districts, well—let’s just say Vermonters would find that idea laughable.

But it is real here. MOST Colorado school districts are rural; MOST enroll under 1,000 students.  Of late I have listened to several leaders from rural districts share their insights. I summarize what I have heard—their views, not mine.  And of course, not meant to be representative of communities as diverse as Cortez, Holly, and Wray.  Still, perspectives that I hope are given their due as we develop our new state plan.[2]

To begin, a few “Rural Facts” from the Rural Education Council Fact Sheet:[3]
·         178 school districts (total)
·         109 of the 178 are small rural
·         38 of the 178 are rural districts
·         Approximately 130,500 rural students
·         14 districts with less than 100 students
·         53 districts with less than 250 students
·         85 districts with less than 500 students
·         Approx. 60 districts are at one K-12 site and/or one K-12 building

What I heard

Recruiting and retaining teachers

     The Colorado Department of Higher Education reported a recent drop, from 3,700 to 2,500 (a 25% decline in just 4-5 years), of those completing teacher education programs.  But location matters. 
   1)  If Denver hires 1,300 teachers each year, that’s going to be large percentage of the new teachers being trained from Colorado universities. 
   2)  If Cherry Creek sees a 30% drop in would-be teachers, it will still get over 100 people applying for a position, so it won’t have a huge impact there. But in our small rural districts we are often lucky to have a handful of applicants for certain jobs.  When we see fewer teachers going into teaching in our state–and expect a large number of older teachers will soon retire, we wonder—in five years, where are we going to find high quality teachers for our rural schools? Especially (see below) when the pay is $26,000 and you qualify for food stamps? 
(See Colorado Public Radio’s powerful story, “A Colorado Teacher Shortage Puts Rural Schools On The Brink Of Crisis.” Excerpts, Addendum B.)

Rural Colorado
Overall Cost of Living: 9% above national average
Average Overall Cost of Living in CO: 7% above national average
Category w/ Highest Index: Healthcare (26% above national average)
Annual Cost for a Single Adult with No Children: $31,576
Annual Cost for a Married Couple with One Child: $61,713
Annual Cost for a Married Couple with Four Children: $89,916
Cost of living in rural Colorado
   Do policymakers in Denver believe that it is easy to live on less in the small towns around the state?  Consider the evidence—see box—that it is not cheaper to live far from the big city. 

Teacher salaries

   Last winter the Colorado Legislative Council produced an analysis of the Cost of Living (COL), for each school district (Feb. 2016 - In July, at the CASE Rural Pre-Conference, Elizabeth Superintendent Douglas Bissonette presented a study comparing the average teacher salary in 2015-16 with the COL—in each district.  In 14 rural districts the average teacher salary (less than $32,000) was $15,000 less than the cost of living (say $47,000 or above) in that community. In 60 rural districts the gap between the average salary and the Cost of Living is over $10,000.

5 examples from “lowest 100” – from lowest average salaries in the state, on up
School district
Total FTE
Average Salary
2015 COL
Amount -/+ COL
Percent -/+ COL
Kit Carson

   That a teacher’s salary falls short of the Cost of Living in his or her community is not a shock.  When the average salary and the COL are both between $47,000 and $50,000, as we see in districts like Academy 20, Brighton, Greeley 6, Mapleton, and Platte Valley most will say: this is not a crisis.  But when the gap puts teachers $15,000 below the cost of living?  Or, far worse—puts many below the poverty level?  
   On a more hopeful note: One district told me of teacher turnover, up to nearly 30% a couple of years ago, is now down to 17%.  Increasing pay – offering a pay scale now ranges as high as $48,000 – gives younger teachers a sense that their salary can grow well above the previous maximum.

   Colorado has good reason to assume education funding will remain below the national average for years to come.  Those of us in rural districts feel these gaps; it makes us eager to focus our limited dollars on what is most important. If attracting quality teachers into our classrooms–and keeping them—is near the top of that list, is the chief “reform” in our state, SB 191, helping – or not?

Teacher Evaluation and Education Effectiveness

   Dissenting voices sometimes pose the most fundamental questions, as when a rural leader asks: Is SB 191 achieving its goal of improving teaching?  Has the new law increased student success?  (Let’s recall, those were among the bill’s stated goals: feedback for educators “aimed at continuously improving their performance and student results”; “opportunities for … professional development and growth”; to “ensure effective teachers in every classroom…” (
   Yes, today we now have more well-articulated steps for evaluation, which can play a meaningful role in rehiring, etc. –but at its heart, do the many hours on the part of evaluators and teachers (compiling all they do to show the district that they are fulfilling new requirements) improve classroom instruction?  Is checking off the 70 (count’em![4]) boxes to show proficiency efficient? Is it meaningful?   

Local control, freedom from regulations – Rural Agility Project

    Educators in rural districts note how the state has responded positively to the charter school movement – 12% of Colorado students attend charter schools; in Denver, it’s over 18%.  They see how charters have used their waivers from state and district regulations to gain greater control over the budget, curriculum, hiring—and much more.  Some suggest, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the freedom and local control of charters actually has its roots in the way small towns have “owned” and advocated for their schools since Abraham Lincoln entered the White House!  In a comparison of rural and charter schools, the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance stated: “The school choice design imitates the culture and characteristics of Colorado’s small, rural community schools.”[5] 
    Two years ago the Colorado Association of School Boards initiated the Rural Agility Project—“Recovering Rural Colorado’s Freedom to Govern Locally.”[6] Rural communities continue to explore elements in waiver statutes, the Innovation Schools Act, and the Charter Schools Act that might serve them well. As the metro population grows and the number of folks representing rural Colorado at the legislature declines, the perception persists that bills are introduced and passed to tackle the issues faced, above all, by the bigger districts.  Without seeking to skirt requirements to be accountable, rural schools boards seek to “recover the freedom to exert meaningful local control” (Rural Agility Project).

Data collection (For examples of too much paperwork see Mark Hillman’s opinion piece, next page,)
    Leaders in rural districts examine and use data, but are not afraid to ask:
·         Will collecting all this data be the avenue for change?  To what extent can we act on what the data tells us? What can we do about it?  Will it make for better school boards, principals, teachers? 
·         Do legislators and state department folks acknowledge the amount of time and resources needed to carry out the new policies that were put in place this past decade (e.g. SB 163–Accountability Act; SB 191–Effective Educator Act; HB 1238–The READ Act), especially for small districts staffed by only three or four people? 

Too much paperwork: from Mark Hillman, former Colorado Senate majority leader and state treasurer
“Data collection strangling schools, especially small ones,” (The Denver Post), March 17, 2016
   One small school tabulated a list of 57 mandatory reports that must be submitted regularly to state or federal agencies and another 63 reports that are required to obtain funding for certain programs….
    “Elementary schools are also grappling with Teaching Strategies Gold, a data-collection behemoth intended to track the progress of students. TS Gold demands that teachers instantaneously document the progress of every student in 38 different categories using pictures or specific examples.  
   “It’s common for our elementary teachers to work late into the nights and on weekends just to keep up with required reporting. In our local preschool, a staff of four teachers and aides reports spending roughly 15 hours a week to document just 32 students.”

School Performance Frameworks, ESSA, and adding other factors – a vote for simplicity

   Everyone agrees Colorado’s School Performance Framework (SPF) fails to tell the full story of a school, and many are pleased the new federal law “requires that states ... add at least one new indicator of school quality or student success.”  And yet rural leaders remind us: there is no end to what else we could add.  Consider the dashboard in your car: you get a few key indicators. Not the full story, but it gives us the essentials.  Policymakers may be trying to produce a school report that gives the whole picture—as if that were possible! Let’s accept that no SPF can be fully comprehensive. Less is more.


  Part 1: resources, buildings, BEST – Do legislators understand how unlikely it is for our districts to come up with a mill levy override? (See the high percentage of rural districts where recent requests for a mill levy override failed - Without such overrides, do policymakers appreciate how hard it is to make rural teacher salaries competitive with the metro area?
   The Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) funds for school construction are great for small districts, and it was good to see the legislature raise its commitment last spring.  But BEST cannot begin to address the size of the problem; in rural communities throughout the state, far too many students attend inadequate facilities. It would shock you to see the conditions in some of these buildings, over 100 years old, where there is no way these communities can raise the dollars needed to rebuild….

  Part 2: poverty, equity - Too many equate equity issues with urban schools—only.  There is another kind of poverty in rural communities that might be invisible to policymakers in Denver.  Low-income communities in the metro area have access to resources unavailable in small towns. Hospitals, mental health centers, museums, a host of nonprofits—so many opportunities for kids to play and learn and find support ….  Do policymakers realize how the setting alone, in an impoverished rural community, can lead to risk factors not accounted for by traditional measures?   If the kids in our rural schools are to have an equal shot at achieving their potential, we need more resources.   

The media and “happy news” for rural schools

   On May 11 Colorado Chalkbeat produced an article, “Legislative session ends on hopeful note for rural schools.”  One rural leader dismissed the headline with a shrug, mocking it as “happy news.” A bill to support 40 prospective teachers in rural districts? A drop in the bucket.  Another leader cheered the $2,800 stipend for these student teachers, but was convinced the teaching shortage will only get worse.  That same day, another headline, from The Colorado Independent, more accurately captured the mood of rural districts at the close of the session: “Rural school funding axed in School Finance Act deal.”

Another View is a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper Jr.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 -

Listening Tour: comments from rural districts (from meetings in Durango, Limon, and Pueblo)

What supports and services can CDE provide that would be helpful to districts with schools on improvement?

Come visit – spend time in rural districts – come to understand our problems.
Other comments about quality instruction & leadership and supports for student success:  

It’s my understanding that there are tribal consultations that are required.  What is the plan for that?  Will these consultations actually take place on the Reservations or through (Mr. X) in Denver?  Keeping in mind that the two federally recognized tribes in Colorado are in this room and not Denver. So while we certainly want to include (him), it should be here, not there.
Other comments about standards, assessments, and accountability: 

Title III – how are we to implement change when small districts can’t afford to even join a [consortium] since the funds we get far outweigh the cost to manage?                       from Durango meeting, May 12, 2016)

What supports and services can CDE provide that would be helpful to districts with schools on improvement?
From the conversation today, it sounded as if there may be a need for a rural school improvement network. With approximately 150 rural districts serving about 15% of the student population, there are many unique needs of these districts opposed to the front-range serving approximately 30 districts and 85% of the student population.                                                  

What measures of school quality or student success should be included in the school accountability system?
·         Going to college isn’t always the most appropriate measure, especially for our rural communities.
·         If you’re going to compare, you’ve got to level the playing field. Matching demographics matters. It should be left up to the community. Nobody knows these communities better than we do. You don’t know the problems we are dealing with, so leave it up to local control. Extra-curricular activities (not athletics) participation would be a good alternative measure to take into account. Our participation in our district is at like 92%.
How should the state consider the 95% assessment participation requirement?
·         Rural districts have challenges – just several students may throw off percentage. Now that parents and students have opted out – will be difficult to get them to “buy in” to state assessment again….
·         Issue of metro vs. rural schools. 95% unfair for rural schools. Can be too few students.
                                                                                                                                (from Limon meeting, May 20, 2016)
What additional opportunities should we create for stakeholders to provide input?

If teams from rural school districts could be in on the planning and allow them to construct what is best for them.  
Should school improvement funds be awarded as formula or competitive grants?

From a small, rural district, my concern is that we don’t have time to put a grant together that has “bling” and so how can we be competitive with Cherry Creek or Denver? Are these grants going to be allocated regionally and geographically?                                         (from Pueblo meeting, May 4, 2016)

Addendum A – Recommendations for “Collaborative Stakeholder Engagement”

To help states as they develop a new ESSA plan, the Education Commission of the States recently published a special report, “Collaborative Stakeholder Engagement,” a 5-pager with recommendations on how to make the process most effective. These two bullets suggest—Be sure to hear the rural voice!
  • ·          Through meaningful collaboration among a diverse group of stakeholders–including the “unusual voices” that aren’t always actively engaged–states are more likely to achieve long-lasting positive effects in student achievement, educator satisfaction and cooperation from special interest groups.
  • ·         Whose work is it? - Look for stakeholders who share responsibility for the current situation, are affected by the issues and must be part of the solution…. Engaging all stakeholders early and often, including those who bring critical and differing views, is important to creating an open process.

Addendum B – “Colorado teacher shortage puts rural schools on brink of crisis,” by Jenny Brundin

“About 1,000 freshly minted teachers graduated in Colorado last year with credentials in elementary education.
“Genoa-Hugo Elementary school, an hour east of Denver, only needed one of them. But, ‘they had zero applications last year,’ said Robert Mitchell, Academic Policy Officer for Educator Preparation with the Colorado Department of Higher Education. ‘That is somewhat telling.’ He says Colorado’s rural school districts are on the brink of crisis when it comes to finding enough teachers to lead classrooms….

Rural Colorado Struggles The Most

“Urban Colorado has its struggles – but elsewhere, it’s worse.
“‘I don't use the word crisis very often but we are on the brink of crisis in the rural school districts,’ Mitchell said.
“Rural Colorado already had some big hurdles. First, there’s the isolation. When the East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services' Don Anderson was a principal in Burlington, he’d often travel to career fairs with a prop. ‘I took a map so they could see, you are 2.5 hours from Denver and 3.5 from the mountains so you need to know where you are going!’” he laughs.
“Low salaries in rural Colorado ‘kill us out here,’ Anderson said. Starting pay in many rural districts is around $30,000, or even less than $25,000 in a few. They can’t compete with Front Range districts, he says. And some northern Colorado districts can’t compete with Wyoming, which pays up to $20,000 more.
“Anderson planned a career fair in Limon last April. Twenty-five rural districts wanted to be there.

“‘We had three teaching applicants,’ he said.

“So it was canceled.

“Perennial shortages used to just be in math, science and special education, ‘but today, it’s the entire gamut, its history, PE, elementary,’ he laments.”

[1] - Examples: Denver-78 pages; Durango-19 pages; Pueblo-17 pages; Limon-15 pages; and more!
[2] See – Recommendations for “Collaborative Stakeholder Engagement,” Addendum A.
[3] - This Rural Fact sheet is slightly dated. In 2015-16 there were 100 “small rural districts” (enrolling fewer than 1,000 students each - but together, over 37,000 students).
[4] 2015-16 Rubric for Evaluating Colorado Teachers (18 pages)
[5] Talking Points, 2015, Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.
[6] See also - “CASB ...launched a collaborative effort to achieve more flexibility for small and rural districts by supporting them through the waiver process. After decades of mounting legislation designed to solve big problems in big school districts, small and rural school districts are struggling to operate under a legislative scheme that simply doesn’t fit….” 

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