Sierra High School was placed on an improvement plan in 2010, but had improved performance by 2014.

On Jan. 27, Colorado Springs School District 11 notified all Mitchell High School staff members that they will be released from their current work assignments at the end of this school year. They will have to reapply if they wish to continue working at Mitchell for the 2021-22 academic year. The move comes after four years of Mitchell’s status as a priority improvement school, which mandates performance improvement on a five-year timeline. The decision to release staff was reached after conversations between the District 11 Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).

Mitchell’s students did not meet Colorado Measures of Academic Success or Pre-Scholastic Aptitude Test state achievement standards, the standardized tests used to measure student achievement, and scored in the lowest 5 percent, according to Mitchell’s 2019 school performance framework, which evaluates school performance based on factors such as academic achievement, academic growth and postsecondary and workforce readiness. The challenges facing Mitchell’s students and teachers — poverty, language and cultural barriers, the impact of COVID-19 — are not unique to Southeast Colorado Springs, but the decision to release the entire staff and take a “clean slate” approach is. If this move to improve performance is unsuccessful next year, Mitchell could face corrective actions from CDE. 

Of Mitchell’s student population, which is 68 percent minority students, 75 percent receive free or reduced-cost lunch, 19 percent are English language learners and 14 percent are students with disabilities, all of which are percentages above state and district averages, according to data from CDE.

“If you look at the challenges that a population like Mitchell might have, we’re not looking at an affluent school,” said Joe Schott, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association. “You’re looking at a significant amount of English language learners, and that’s a hurdle. You can test those people. You could test me in Chinese, I’m not going to do very well. There’s a certain kind of transient nature, people are moving in and out of that school boundary zone with a certain frequency. There are issues that underlie how people learn, not just this particular group of students. When you look at test scores alone, if all you’re doing is looking at test scores you’re not solving the problem.”

Devra Ashby, D11’s chief communications officer, notes that Mitchell’s personnel changes are just part of a comprehensive strategy the district is implementing.

“Augmentation of district support and resources are underway,” she said via email. “This personnel decision, for ALL staff to re-apply, will allow for district and school leadership to work towards a focused instructional plan. Much of this instructional plan is already in place through the Mitchell High School Innovation Plan and their scope and sequence. There are other supporting programs considered for implementation pending school site leadership and staff direction.”

Schott points out that focusing solely on test scores — the “student achievement” portion of CDE’s school performance framework — misses the mark.

“Test scores are the types of things you can ramp up, just like a college student crams for tests,” he said. “You can make test scores go up; does that mean you’re actually creating a lasting and valuable change? That’s a real question. The fact that this is all predicated on test scores is, in my estimation, a faulty approach anyway.”

Mitchell, with its high population of free and reduced-cost lunch recipients, English language learners and special education students, isn’t the only school to face pressure from CDE over student performance. Starting in 2010, Sierra High School, part of Harrison School District 2, was placed on an improvement plan, one step above Mitchell’s status as a priority improvement plan. Sierra and Mitchell have similar demographics. In 2012, Sierra reported to CDE that 80 percent of students were minorities, 70 percent of students received free and reduced-cost lunch, 7 percent were English language learners and 14.6 percent were special education students. By 2014, Sierra’s evaluation on the school performance framework was at the “performance” level, scoring 60 percent or better.

“As a district, we attacked the problem,” said Wendy Birhanzel, the D2 superintendent. “It wasn’t, ‘Sierra is out there on their own, figure it out.’ It was, ‘What is the district’s solution to this situation, and how do we provide help?’ So what that meant is additional staffing, so making class sizes smaller, putting interventionists in place, really providing additional staff to help address the problem. The other thing we did was support our teachers, making sure they had the materials they needed, the professional development they needed, any of the support they might need. Meeting with parents to let parents know what was going on, what we needed from parents. One thing I think that’s crucial in high school is that we looked at our schedule and made sure that we provided more content within the day. I think sometimes people say, ‘Well, they can go to tutoring,’ or ‘They can get that later.’ Well, our kids are either in sports or have to work, so the later doesn’t happen for them.”

Wendy Birhanzel

Wendy Birhanzel 

Birhanzel said D2 also took steps to ensure special populations, such as English language learners and special education students, were adequately supported.

“We increased our staffing, so we had more staff available to meet special populations, including SPED [special education] and CLDE [culturally and linguistically diverse education, another term for English language learners] students,” she said. “We also changed our instructional model, so we allowed a culture class for kids coming here to high school who are non-English speaking, they had a culture class on top of their English class, so one class was to just kind of learn about the United States and how we do things here. We really have seen a big growth for our kids with that, and it allows them to be with like peers, ask those questions, find out from the teacher what’s going on. We’ve really seen growth with that.”

Ashby says D11 is working to address those areas as well.

“Staffing for ELL and SPED are provided in accordance with current law and district ratios,” she said. “Mitchell High School and the district have put into place additional ELL and SPED supports and staff. SPED is more tightly governed; however, a ‘sheltered instructional observation model’ has been in place at MHS for ELL for some time now. These are areas of focus now and in the years ahead.”

Improving student performance in struggling schools was a challenge before the COVID-19 pandemic, but after so much time spent learning remotely, schools like Mitchell and Sierra face additional challenges. Due to COVID-19, there was no standardized testing during the 2019-20 school year, and testing this year is an ongoing question.

“Myself, a parent and a student will be testifying to the legislators in a couple weeks, asking them not to do CMAS testing,” said Birhanzel. “That’s really an equity issue. The equity of education that people have had this year is just a wide variety. The other issue is most school districts, almost all, have some kind of measurement. We can monitor how kids are growing or not growing and what the concerns are, so we don’t need another piece of data to tell us that. We really need more time and instruction. That’s the advocacy piece around that.”

Despite the absence of standardized testing data from last year, which led CDE to pause the accountability clock, once the clock starts, Mitchell will be on year four.

“The so-called ‘clock’ was put on hold,” said Schott. “I think there was also, from my understanding, the idea is that the time the clock has been running is long enough for the district to think, ‘We need to do something before this goes any further.’ I think it was as simple as that. A lot of the clock happened outside of COVID and the COVID situation has not been helpful to education in general, so when we come out of the COVID situation and the clock’s still running, does that mean the district’s in a better place because there’s an extra year? I think that was a part of what drove the decision, but that’s my interpretation.”

Should Mitchell fail to improve performance, consequences could be significant.

“As I understand it, how turnaround stuff works, the state will come in and take it over, as they’ve done with schools up in the Denver area,” said Schott. “When they do that they tend to sell the schools off to corporations to do turnaround, and that’s really not desirable in any way whatsoever. For D11 to do its own takeover is maybe not everybody’s favorite thing, but it’s an attempt to keep Mitchell High School a D11 public high school rather than some corporate extension to make money for some company.”

Ashby admitted that an outside manager could be a possibility.

“A management partner is one of the options available under the CDE accountability clock,” she said. “Ultimately, CDE could dictate what could happen at Mitchell if the District doesn’t take action now, which we are doing because students deserve this plan now.”

MGT Consulting is managing Adams County School District 14 after it failed to meet student achievement goals. In June 2019, the district signed an $8.3 million, four-year contract with MGT, which also received $387,500 in 2019 to manage Risley International Academy of Innovation in Pueblo’s District 60. The Colorado Education Association went to court to challenge MGT’s management of both Adams District 14 and Risley International, but the lawsuits were dismissed.

“From the teacher side of things, there’s a very clear issue in my mind, and that is the district has made a decision to deal with the school in this way,” said Schott. “There are plenty of teachers there who are dedicating their jobs, careers, even lives, to the Mitchell population and D11. So when the district comes in and says, ‘OK, here’s a pink slip for all of you,’ there’s an obligation — others may not feel this, I’m going to say it — there’s an obligation to take care of the people who have been effective teachers. If they’re rated ‘ineffective,’ that’s a different question.”

When asked about the ratings of Mitchell’s teachers, Ashby responded, “We are not divulging any personnel information.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.