‘What are we doing wrong?’: A closer look into Summit School District’s ‘unacceptable’ scores
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series looking into Summit School District’s 2021-22 test data. This story has been updated to correct the vote not to renew Marion Smith Jr.’s contract as superintendent.
A three-part series of stories taking a deeper look into the Summit School District’s 2021-22 test data.
Milena Quiros is a bilingual woman, co-chair of the Summit School District Accountability Committee and parent of four children, all of whom have attended Summit schools.
Test scores from the 2021-22 school year showed across the board that Summit students are performing below state average. Scores for English language learner students did not reach the “approached expectations” threshold.
School administrators and officials called the results “unacceptable,” “a gut punch,” and “terrible.”
Quiros is concerned.
“As a parent, I think it’s my first question — why?” Quiros said. “What are we doing wrong?”
Summit School District data and assessment coordinator Ross Morgan believes the slew of district-level turmoil that has unfolded in the past few years may answer Quiros’ question.
Morgan joined the district in 2020. In just two years, he saw the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the departure of four superintendents and a few human resources directors in just two years.
Though the pandemic began in 2020, Ross said Summit’s downward trajectory started in 2016. That was the year former Superintendent Kerry Buhler began her four-year run.
After Buhler, a new Superintendent, Marion Smith Jr., took over in July 2020. Just one year later, June 2021, the Board of Education voted 3-3 to not renew Smith’s three-year contract.
Following his separation, Smith was paid half his severance allowance — $50,000 — as a settlement for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life” and other losses, according to past reporting.
For a few weeks, Smith was temporarily replaced by Chief Academic Officer Mary Kay Doré until Interim Superintendent Roy Crawford took over mid-June 2021. However, Crawford only signed a one-year contract, which led to another superintendent search in the winter of 2021.
Morgan said this ever-changing environment made it hard to create stability for students.
“We’ve had a couple of other issues that have been distracting and not really lended themselves towards developing this unified process,” Morgan said.
One of those is the hyper-local and independent nature of each school, Morgan added.
“It limits the ability for a smaller district like ours to really have the capacity to support each building the way they need to,” Morgan said. “What we see is our resources are stretched too thin to really make any sort of meaningful progress.”
Rebeca Gallego, a sixth grader at Summit Middle School, said the transition from elementary to middle school was a stark contrast. Gallego attended Dillon Valley Elementary School, the first bilingual school in the district. Week by week, students at the elementary school would transition between being taught in English and Spanish. She said they also had specific days that were set aside just to celebrate Hispanic and Latino culture.
One of her peers, Ariana Jiminez, is an eighth grader at the middle school who also attended Dillon Valley. Ariana said those events had dancing, food, music and plenty of time to spend with friends. The two students both said they miss the celebrations, reporting there are much less in the middle school than there were at Dillon Valley.
Deborah Romero, a professor who specializes in teacher education at the University of Northern Colorado, said culturally and linguistically diverse students do best when their backgrounds are represented and celebrated in schools.
However, she added, that message has to come from and be encouraged by those at “the top.”
Morgan said that blame for low test scores should not go to students or teachers.
“It’s really a critique of the systems that leadership has put in place that’s ultimately failing the students,” Morgan said.
Kate Hudnut, president of the Summit School District Board of Education, said the CMAS scores of Hispanic and Latino students were not shocking to her.
“No, no massive surprise,” Hudnut said. “But really seeing the data divided by the groups is certainly eye opening.”
In the classroom
“Imagine that you are living in a place where the language spoken in the school was not your first language,” Summit School District Superintendent Tony Byrd said, “and now you’re trying to learn a new language while learning new content.”
That’s what student Urbey Diaz is experiencing.
Diaz moved with his family from Colombia and has been in the district for one month. Each day, Diaz said his class is taught by a teacher in English, he’s provided materials in English and is required to do homework in English.
Diaz is only fluent in Spanish. Though he understands some English, he requires an interpreter for conversation. When it comes to work in class, Diaz does his work to the best of his ability.
“I read that homework in English, and I make myself understand in my mind and translate it in my mind,” Diaz said through an interpreter. “I do my homework. I don’t ask anybody for help. I don’t seek anywhere. If my work is good, it’s good. And if it’s bad, the teacher knows I didn’t understand. But, most of the time, I do well.”
The difficulty of that learning challenge is not to be underestimated, Byrd said, and it doesn’t end with students.
Byrd explained that Summit teachers are tasked to teach both language development and content at the same time.
Romero said language and content are never exclusive.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re teaching,” Romero said. “If you’re teaching history, you’re teaching language. If you’re teaching math, you’re teaching language. If you’re teaching music, you are still teaching language.”
For those lessons to be effective for English language learners, Romero said the cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds of the students should be harnessed throughout lessons.
Students’ bilingual backgrounds shouldn’t be seen “As elements that are detractors or interferers,” Romero said. “No. These are assets that students have that are part of their identities, that as educators, we need to figure out: how can we make this work for student success?”
October is Hispanic Heritage Month. Gallego said her teacher showed a short video about Hispanic heritage to acknowledge the occasion. She reported that after the video was shown, no more discussion was prompted, and students went about their day.
After the video, Gallego said, “I didn’t really feel anything.”
Jiminez particularly loves to learn about history. But Hispanic history is very rarely included, she said, and details about “immigrants, Columbus,” for example, are not talked about.
Gallego chimed in.
“Schools try to bring attention to them because they don’t want to seem like … praising white people, but they do it like once in a while,” Gallego said. “It’s like they’re trying to do damage control, but they’re really not.”
There is training that can teach educators how to integrate aspects of bilingual and migrant students’ backgrounds, Romero added. Some teachers within the Summit School District have taken courses on these topics, according to Byrd.
However, Summit County has an almost 17% teacher turnover rate. Byrd said there are 50 new teachers entering the district for the 2022-23 school year, and that’s out of 292 total teachers, according to data from the school district.
Byrd added teacher retention in Summit County has been difficult. The cost of living is so high, many teachers only stay one to four years in the district, Byrd reported.
“You’ve got new teachers coming in, and that takes some time — to train teachers and prepare teachers to be able to work with students who are English language learners,” he added.
Romero also pointed out that there is currently a teacher shortage across the United States.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of employees in educational services dropped by 500,000 from the beginning to the middle of 2020, and numbers have still not fully recovered.
“Sure, (teachers) are probably doing the best they can to support their students,” Romero said. “But without professional training and development skills, and a sort of a bigger understanding of what we know from research about how to support culturally and linguistically diverse students, then they might, at no fault of their own, not be doing everything that could be done.”
When pencils are put down
The divide between students doesn’t stop with test scores.
It can be seen in lunch rooms at school, said Summit Middle School eighth grader, Isabella Sanchez. In the cafeteria, she said white students sit with white students and Hispanic students sit with Hispanic students.
Sanchez has been within the Summit school system since preschool. She learned English through exposure in the classroom and is now a cheerleader and viola player who loves literature.
But she described the divide she witnesses everyday between white students and Hispanic or Latino students as a “barrier.” She said white students and Hispanic students are rarely seen as close friends and she has, at times, heard racist remarks from other students.
The two said the divide can make class especially hard if none of their friends are already present. If group work is mandatory, Gallego said she is oftentimes the last student to be picked for a group. Jiminez said it’s especially noticeable if there are many white students in a class.
A few weeks ago, Byrd sat down with high school juniors and seniors to ask what could have made their experience at the district better.
Students reportedly said they needed more diversity in their teachers, more people that understood their culture and they wanted to feel more welcome and accepted.
“It was very powerful,” Byrd said. “Some of them were quite emotional about that.”
Even with the district’s low test scores and improvement plan status, when asked if he was concerned about state intervention, Morgan said no.
“I don’t need the state to come in and say, ‘You’re not doing a good job.’ I see that,” Morgan said. “That’s what concerns me.”
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