Amid budget cuts, school districts struggle to finance new reforms

School districts in Colorado, reeling from years of budget cuts, are trying to scrimp and save as the state launches a potentially expensive set of new reforms, including new teacher evaluations, online tests and more challenging standards.

In particular, as schools introduce higher expectations of students—spanning 10 subjects and all grade-levels—many districts are hoping to avoid costly expenditures on consultants, trainings and new textbooks. They’re turning instead to collaboration with other districts and nonprofits to help with the transition. And much of the responsibility for preparing schools for the new standards has fallen to teachers.

Many worked throughout the summer to create new curricula and train peers in preparation for the official statewide launch this school year.

“I would describe this as a very heavy lift,” said Sandra Smyser, former superintendent of the Eagle County Schools, who led the district during the first two years of work on the new standards. “It is a lot of brain work, a lot of time spent collaborating.”

In Eagle County, near Vail, teachers have spent three years piloting the standards, which include subjects like visual arts and dance. (The state’s math and English language arts standards are based on the Common Core, which 44 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted.)

Smyser says teachers in Eagle County have been creating new curricula, lesson plans and mid-year tests while also teaching the standards in their classrooms. “Our teachers are tired already,” she said.

Kristina Smith and Sabra Miller discuss the new state math standards during a June training at Fort Lewis College. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Kristina Smith and Sabra Miller discuss the new state math standards during a June training at Fort Lewis College. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

A 2012 survey by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development found that only 48 percent of educators surveyed in Colorado felt they had the necessary tools to teach the standards in their classrooms. What resources do exist for teachers have mostly been created by their peers. Last year, the state organized nearly 500 teacher volunteers to write more than 700 curriculum outlines that are aligned to the new standards for every grade in all 10 subjects.

“There are districts that are reaching out to curriculum-writing consultants and bringing people in,” said Brian Sevier, director of standards and instruction at the Colorado Department of Education. “And then there’s some larger-resourced districts that are fully doing this in-house. Our goal … was to meet those districts that don’t have the capacity to do either.”

Many of those districts are taking advantage of free resources. In the Elizabeth School District, about an hour southeast of Denver, superintendent Douglas Bissonette says budget cuts have left the district with fewer teachers, bigger classes and little money to pay for materials. This year, the district of about 2,700 students has a $30 million budget.

“The ability, at a district level, to help either organize or support a district-wide curriculum effort or standards effort doesn’t exist,” said Bissonette.

But in larger districts, like the Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 80,000 students with an annual budget of $811 million, several contractors have been hired to help with the adoption of state reforms. Contracts acquired through the Colorado Open Records Act show that since the spring of 2012, the Denver Public Schools have spent more than $80,000 on consultants to help develop math units, plan and lead professional development sessions, and design “toolkits” that provide teachers with sample test questions, examples of student work, and suggestions on how to modify the new standards for English language learners.

In southwestern Colorado, Durango superintendent Dan Snowberger said he is skeptical of companies selling materials that claim to be aligned to the Common Core. To save money, his district is looking at educational websites rather than textbooks, and collaborating with eight nearby districts to create new assessments. Snowberger said the coalition of districts is building an online platform that will allow teachers in the area to access ideas and curricular materials that will help them roll out the standards.

“We have a lot of tiny districts that don’t necessarily have the resources, like Durango,” he said.

Durango is among the Colorado districts that have received the most state help with transitioning. In 2011, the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF), a nonprofit focused on improving student achievement,chose 13 districts, including Durango, to act as laboratories and pilot the new standards. In exchange, the districts received support from the foundation in the form of grants, training and staff to manage the work.

Katy Anthes, executive director of educator effectiveness in the Colorado Department of Education, says the foundation’s work has helped the state identify successful strategies that can be spread statewide. “CLF has a little more flexibility and freedom to support and try new things,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for state departments to do that. We are in a state bureaucracy. It’s difficult to give grants out. It’s difficult to test things when they’re not fully vetted.”

Although superintendents say they’ve benefited from the foundation’s free trainings and free state resources, they say there’s a need for more. With the new standards, end-of-year tests will move online, which means many districts are scrambling to upgrade technology and Internet access, while also weighing the costs of additional teacher training and classroom materials.

This fall, Sevier says subject-area experts will work with teachers to break down the state curriculum overviews into individual units that teachers can then use in their classrooms. On its website, the state Department of Education acknowledges that continuing the project depends on “the participation of dedicated teachers.”

In Elizabeth, Bissonette says teachers also need more technology and better broadband Internet. He has little money to send teachers to trainings, and even less to spend on experts. Instead, he’s relying on local educators who are familiar with the standards to train his teachers. “We would probably spend more on it if we had the money to spend,” he said. “We’re barely able to keep up with the reforms.”


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