Poudre School District’s annual monitoring report was recently presented to the Board of Education and prompted conversations among board members and leadership about how, and when, the data will lead to change.
The report gives district leadership an idea of how students are performing academically and socially. This year, the document highlighted a number of important trends, ranging from a decline in enrollment — which is now on the upswing — to persistent disparities in discipline and academic opportunities based on ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Out of 16 goals PSD outlined in the report, three were met: having better rates than similar state rates for postsecondary outcomes, more than half of the recent graduating seniors experienced dual enrollment and the district had a dropout rate of less than 1%. Six targets had progressed toward meeting the goal, but still fell short.
Over the course of the two meetings in February and March when the report was presented, board members asked staff how they plan to address some of these issues.
But the answer wasn’t simple, and the solution won’t be quick.
Superintendent Brian Kingsley told the board on Feb. 22 that he isn’t “asking for more time” but wants to be honest that changes to improve district practices will take more work.
He said he believes some of what needs to be done to address issues is happening, just not districtwide.
“There’s still work to be done around what we’ve named in the (unified improvement plan) and what is our system-level strategy to ensure that that’s taking place in every school, not just some schools,” Kingsley told the board. “… We have more of an individual, school-based strategy right now rather than a system strategy.”
District spokesperson Madeline Noblett echoed Kingsley’s comments to the Coloradoan, saying the district is “working really hard to figure out how it is that we can be more systemic in all of our approaches.”
She said they hope to address longer-term trends through the creation of a districtwide strategic plan, but, as of Tuesday, the creation of that plan had not started.
The Coloradoan pulled out a few takeaways and trends, some new and some continued, from the report and spoke to Noblett and Dwayne Schmitz, PSD’s chief institutional effectiveness officer who prepared the report, along with other district leadership, to better understand the issues and what is being — or can be — done to address them.
To see the district’s monitoring report in full, visit www.psdschools.org/your-district/board-of-education/monitoring-reports.
PSD has seen a ‘steady 5-year decline’ in early literacy
PSD set the goal for itself that at least 85% of kindergarten to third-grade students meet the end-of-year Acadience benchmarks. Acadience is an assessment used to monitor progress in students’ “basic literacy” until third grade, according to PSD.
But, similar to previous years, the goal was not met in 2020-21 as just 66.8% met or exceeded benchmarks.
Schmitz pointed out the decline has been occurring since 2015, when 80% of students met or exceeded the benchmarks, but numbers plummeted during COVID-19, and students across grade levels and socioeconomic statuses saw declines.
Traci Gile, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, told the Coloradoan the district had been pondering how to address the past years’ smaller declines in early literacy, but the steep drop-off presented by COVID-19 provided the impetus to start responding.
Gile said the district is working to implement high-dosage tutoring as an immediate response to the decline and it will again expand summer programming with the goal of targeting “kids who were most impacted by the disruption of learning last year.” Last summer, PSD drastically expanded its summer offerings to address learning loss from the pandemic and prevent “additional summer slide,” and the programs saw strong results.
An analysis of test scores in the fall compared with the previous year showed all programs resulted in student growth of at least 1%, though most were well above that and some students saw as much as 59% of the growth expected in a school year in just a matter of months.
PSD is also conducting a literacy review on its curriculum to find “programmatic components” that may have contributed to the smaller declines prior to the pandemic. The review will give PSD recommendations on how to address certain areas through things like curriculum changes or professional development, said Gile.
Teachers are also expected to complete professional development in the science of reading by August.
Schmitz said the focus on declining early literacy, which was seen nationally as well as statewide, was “pushed to the forefront” of PSD’s priorities because of its potential to disrupt years of learning.
“We know that if we don’t get on top of this, which we are and there’s been lots of good funding to help us do that … we’re gonna see ripple effects down the road for a decade, frankly,” he said.
A new trend: Consistent increase in students experiencing homelessness
While the decline in early literacy was something the district had recognized as a trend prior to this year, the increase in students experiencing homelessness in PSD was just determined to be a trend.
In 2017-18, just 1.8% of district students were experiencing homelessness. Since then, between 2% and 3.1% of students were experiencing homelessness, something Schmitz called “a dramatic increase.”
Neither the state, nor neighboring districts, have faced a similar sustained increase like this.
“The substantial increase in the percentage of homeless students associated with PSD relative to our past and relative to our comparison districts represents a real change in student living conditions as opposed to a data anomaly or a change in data tracking processes,” read the report.
The majority of students last school year who identified as homeless, about 1,150, were “doubled up due to economic hardship,” according to the report. This data is not yet available for 2021-22.
Students in a number of different living situations are designated as homeless in the eyes of the district and state. In its report, PSD categorized students experiencing homelessness into four categories: those living in shelters or transitional living, those doubled up due to economic hardship, unsheltered students who could be staying in cars, parks or campgrounds, and students staying in hotels or motels.
Attendance, truancy continue to be a problem
Despite having a higher rate than the state, PSD has not hit its attendance goal — 95% — in more than a decade.
In 2020-21, the district had an overall rate of 92.7%, which is lower than districts used for comparison, including Boulder Valley School District, St. Vrain Valley School District and Cherry Creek School District. It is, however, the same rate as PSD had in the 2018-19 school year.
High schools had the lowest attendance by level at 89%.
Unexcused absence, or truancy, rates nearly doubled last year, going from 2.1% the prior year to 4%.
These issues, like many presented in the report, are not unique to PSD. Attendance has been declining, and truancy rates increasing, statewide for a number of years.
When asked what was being done to address the trend of worsening attendance and truancy over recent years, Noblett told the Coloradoan that’s something they hope to address in their upcoming strategic plan.
“We really see (the strategic plan as) an opportunity to be able to address some of those longer persisting challenges,” she said.
High school students perform well but don’t graduate at the same rate
PSD’s testing data, when put side-by-side with graduation data, show an interesting trend for the district’s high schoolers: they are outperforming students in peer districts on exams like the SAT but graduating at a lower rate.
“PSD students consistently demonstrate high levels of learning, yet they are not graduating at the same rates as comparison districts,” Schmitz wrote in the report.
A number of factors could be contributing to that — from the number of required credits to the actual classes required to graduate — and the district is committed to addressing them and finding the root of the problem, leadership says.
“The whole reason we’re here is to get students across the finish line and out into the community as functioning members of our society,” said Scott Nielsen, assistant superintendent of secondary schools.
“So that is a big focus this year, of trying to create systems that help us monitor, pay attention to and provide some accountability to our system around how we’re providing the opportunity for (students) to graduate in four years.”
The district has begun discussing ways to potentially adjust credit requirements, along with other changes, to make graduation more accessible without lowering standards.
Schmitz and others in the district have also recognized that high school graduation rates trace back to early learning and they’re hopeful that making changes at all levels, such as prioritizing early literacy, will lead to improved rates long-term.
Despite COVID, social and emotional skills improve
Despite all the concern and negative impacts that COVID-19 and remote learning had on children, teachers and schools, PSD’s data indicates it wasn’t all bad.
In recent years, the district has monitored social and emotional learning through the Student Connections Survey, and the last two years have seen the highest social-emotional scores among students since the district began tracking in 2017.
The survey measures competency in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship and decision making. Students consistently rank themselves best in terms of social awareness.
Gile said the district was initially surprised that social and emotional learning improved during the pandemic, but it made more sense when thinking of the efforts put in during remote learning and all the shifts of the previous years.
“There was this really intense, concerted effort by all of our adults to pay attention,” Gile said.
“We were very, very committed to not losing the relationship part of the educational experience. And so there was some very intentional planning that went into last year so that we wouldn’t lose that relationship part and we were paying attention to the SEL components.”
In 2020-21, the composite score for social and emotional learning was 82.2%, and this year it was 81.3%, which Schmitz called “a definite increase” from prior years, which hovered around 74%.
“I know we hear a lot about the stressors of the pandemic and all that, I think there was also some real positive that came out, as well,” Schmitz told the board when presenting student connection data and highlighting a new rise in the connection between students and their interests or passions, which had previously seen a large dip.
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Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at email@example.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.