Snowy Peaks High School labeled as turnaround school, applies three improvement strategies
In October, the students and staff of Snowy Peaks High School hiked Bald Mountain, the iconic ridge whose summit towers east of Breckenridge at about 13,680 feet.
Hannah Lewis, a quiet, reserved young woman who started at the back of the pack, walked the trail at her own pace accompanied by an encouraging teacher, said Jim Smith, the school’s principal and English teacher. “She did it her way.”
The rest of the group reached the top, and the students were about halfway down when they crossed paths with Lewis and the teacher still hiking up.
The teachers looked at each other. They needed to drive the other students back to Frisco immediately so they wouldn’t be late for their after-school commitments. But Lewis was determined to reach the mountain’s summit.
The teachers quickly found a way to make the vehicle logistics work. When Lewis reached the summit, she threw her arms up in the air and smiled wide for a photo.
That feeling of accomplishment is unique for students who haven’t experienced educational success often enough for it to feel normal, Smith explained at a school board meeting Jan. 13.
Lewis’ accomplishment on Bald Mountain and the way the teachers made it possible symbolize the whole school.
“Some kids just need to work at a different pace,” Smith said. “Whatever it takes to get these kids to the goals that they have.”
Smith spoke to the school board about why Snowy Peaks appeared to be doing poorly on paper and what changes he and the other teachers are making to ensure the school can continue to help students.
A MANDATE TO IMPROVE
In the middle of its fourth year, Snowy Peaks now has 42 students enrolled, Smith said.
The school is designed as an alternative for students in 10th, 11th and 12th grade who haven’t had their needs met in a traditional, large school setting and may have faced challenges — like bullying, mental illness, credit deficiencies, below grade-level skills, discipline issues and struggles at home — that have negatively impacted their academics.
Snowy Peaks aims to re-engage students at risk of dropping out and help more advanced students graduate faster.
“On a daily basis, the school helps heal students’ emotional and academic wounds and reinvigorates students’ interest in being lifelong learners,” Smith wrote on the school’s improvement plan.
He was required to create the plan by the state to show how the school would overcome its “turnaround” rating, the lowest of four designations given to schools in Colorado.
Most schools are large enough to be graded by the state on one year of data, but for Snowy Peaks the state uses three-year averages. For the first time, Snowy Peaks had enough students in 2013-14 for the state to give it a rating, and it was labeled as turnaround based on student test scores and the school’s graduation and drop out rates over the last three years.
Starting in July, the school was given five years to show enough academic improvement or it could be shut down or its structure drastically changed.
School board members expressed strong support for Snowy Peaks at the meeting, and superintendent Heidi Pace said the district is not considering closing the school.
Old data is dragging down the school’s overall rating, Smith said, and the state’s accountability system doesn’t accurately show the improvements Snowy Peaks and its students have made in the last couple years.
From 2012 to 2013, the school’s graduation rate rose from 39 percent to 65 percent, he said, and the drop-out rate declined from 23 percent to 3 percent.
The 2014 numbers are even better, said Smith, who joined the school in August. “I’m doing everything I can to continue that.”
Because of low enrollment, the state hasn’t factored in students’ academic growth, which Smith considered the most important measure.
“This is what I’m most proud of,” he said. “I want these growth numbers to count.”
Pace said other districts have redesigned schools like Snowy Peaks labeled as turnaround in ways that would limit the types of students who could attend, which could be a future possibility for the school though the district will strive to avoid that.
In a world of data, Smith said, the community must not overlook positive things happening at the school that can’t be quantified.
He described the devotion of math teacher Hank Buckingham, science teacher Tanya Kanning and English teacher and counselor Jen Wolinetz, who often fill other roles at the small school.
The school’s 10-to-one teacher-to-student ratio allows each teacher to get to know their students in ways larger schools don’t, Smith said. Though the school’s small size leads to inaccuracies in the state’s rating, it is one of the school’s biggest strengths.
The teachers make themselves available to their students 24/7, Smith said. They go out of their way to be supportive role models, on after-school bike rides for example, and they network within the community to provide the kids with job and volunteer experiences.
“For the most part, it’s just love and care and concern, and kids respond well,” he said.
Three parents praised Snowy Peaks to the school board and the life-changing effects its teachers had on their children.
Jeannine Brock started crying when she described how her daughter, Alanna, didn’t fit into Summit High School and refused to go back.
“Her self-confidence was completely shot,” said Brock, 42, of Summit Cove.
When Alanna switched to Snowy Peaks she loved the teachers, small classes and school community. Her mother said the teachers build up every student, support their passions and help them figure out how to use their strengths.
Alanna, now 17, graduated in May and is halfway through a year-long exchange program in Sweden, Brock said.
Her 15-year-old son, Andrew, who has seen academic success in more traditional settings, enrolled at Snowy Peaks this semester to finish high school as fast as possible.
Smith said Snowy Peaks is becoming more attractive to younger students as well as students performing at advanced academic levels, he said, which shows the school is not a last resort but a preferred option for those kids.
To no longer be labeled a turnaround school, Smith said Snowy Peaks will focus on three areas of improvement.
First it will fully implement standards-based grading, which gives teachers and students a better understanding of what knowledge they understand and skills they’ve mastered and what they need to work on.
The grading system also measures students on what they’ve shown they can achieve, Smith said, and doesn’t allow students to fail if they have one bad day.
At Snowy Peaks, students aren’t allowed to not complete assignments.
“It’s not about when you learn it. I care that you learn it,” Smith said he tells students.
He described making a student stay late to go over assignments when he didn’t put forth his best effort, and the redone assignment would be the grade that counted.
“That kid’s an A student whether he wants to be or not,” Smith said.
The next strategy is more integrated math instruction. Snowy Peaks students follow a nationwide trend with reading and writing test scores much higher than their math scores, and Smith said his students often come with problematic gaps in their math education.
This January, the school started something new with math.
Using test results to see which math skills most kids need more help with, Buckingham goes over a skill with the other three teachers at the beginning of the week.
Then on Wednesdays, every teacher dedicates the first 10 minutes of each class — even English — to working on that math skill with the students. The problems get more difficult and more in-depth throughout the day.
The final strategy is better engaging the students in their learning by creating high expectations for everyone and recognizing students for individual and group achievements.
Every day, every period, Smith said, teachers write students up for good behavior, using blue slips that spell PEAKS for positive experiences, excellence in action, accountability, kindness to all and service to others. Snowy Peaks has dealt with two major discipline issues this school year while students have received hundreds of blue slips.
The school celebrates high attendance and improved collective academic results. All students apply to Colorado Mountain College and receive extra support through the Pre-Collegiate program.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day last Monday, the entire school cleaned their common areas together. The next day, Smith presented the students with a surprise lunch to show their contributions didn’t go unnoticed.
Snowy Peaks is on the right path, said Connie Lewis, Hannah Lewis’ mother. The 62-year-old Keystone mother of four said she appreciated the school’s high standards and the way it provides the intimate educational setting Hannah needed.
Hannah, who was adopted at age 5 from an impoverished environment, told her mom for the first time that she liked school after starting at Snowy Peaks.
When the 18-year-old student comes home, her mother said, “she just is glowing and excited, and there’s been lots of years where I haven’t seen Hannah glowing and excited and successful.”
Connie Lewis said the community should be proud of Snowy Peaks for making her daughter feel proud of her academics.
“She’s done a lot to be proud of, there’s no doubt about that,” she said, “but for her to really own it and feel it and want to show it off meant something special.”
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