‘What are we doing wrong?’: A closer look at Summit School District’s ‘unacceptable’ scores
Milena Quiros is a bilingual woman, co-chair of the Summit School District Accountability Committee and mother of four children, all of whom attended Summit schools.
Test results for the 2021-2022 school year showed in all areas that Summit students perform below the state average. The scores of students learning English did not reach the “approximate expectation” threshold.
Administrators and school officials called the results “unacceptable”, “punchy”, and “terrible”.
Quiros is concerned.
“As a parent, I think that’s my first question – why?” Quiros said. “What are we doing wrong?”
Summit School District data and assessment coordinator Ross Morgan thinks the myriad of district-level unrest that has unfolded over the past few years could answer Quiros’s question.
Morgan joined the district in 2020. In just two years, he has seen the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the departure of four superintendents and a few human resources directors in just two years.
Although the pandemic began in 2020, Ross said Summit’s downward trajectory began 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 a year later, in June 2021, the Board of Education voted 7-0 to terminate Smith’s three-year contract.
After her separation, Smith was awarded half of her severance package — $50,000 — in settlement for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life” and other losses, according to earlier reports. .
For a few weeks, Smith was temporarily replaced by Director of Studies Mary Kay Doré until Acting Superintendent Roy Crawford took over in mid-June 2021. However, Crawford only signed a contract for a year, which led to another superintendent search in the winter of 2021. .
Morgan said this ever-changing environment made it difficult to create stability for students.
“We had a few other issues that were bothersome and didn’t really lend themselves to developing this unified process,” Morgan said.
One is the hyper-local and independent nature of each school, Morgan added.
“It limits the ability of a smaller district like ours to really have the ability to support each building as they want,” Morgan said. “What we’re seeing is that our resources are stretched too thin to really make meaningful progress.”
Rebeca Gallego, a sixth-grade student at Summit Middle School, said the transition from elementary to middle school was a stark contrast. Gallego attended Dillon Valley Elementary School, the district’s first bilingual school. Week after week, elementary school students transitioned between teaching in English and Spanish. She said they also have specific days set aside just to celebrate Hispanic and Latino culture.
One of his peers, Ariana Jiminez, is an eighth-grader in middle school who also attended Dillon Valley. Ariana said these events feature dancing, food, music and lots of time to hang out with friends. The two students both said they miss the celebrations, reporting that there are far fewer of them at the college than at Dillon Valley.
Deborah Romero, a professor specializing 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, this message must come from and be encouraged by those “at the top”.
Morgan said the blame for low test scores should not be placed on students or teachers.
“It’s really a critique of the systems that leadership has put in place that ultimately fails students,” Morgan said.
Kate Hudnut, chair of the Summit School District Board of Education, said the CMAS scores of Hispanic and Latino students didn’t shock her.
“No, no big surprises,” Hudnut said. “But really seeing the data broken down by groups is certainly eye-opening.”
In the classroom
“Imagine living in a place where the language spoken at school wasn’t your first language,” said Summit School District Superintendent Tony Byrd, “and now you’re trying to learn a new language while learning new content.”
This is what student Urbey Diaz is experiencing.
Diaz moved with his family from Columbia and has been in the district for a month. Every day, Diaz said his class was taught by an English teacher, he provided English materials, and he had to do his English homework.
Diaz is only fluent in Spanish. Although he understands a little English, he needs an interpreter for the conversation. When it comes to working in class, Diaz does his job to the best of his abilities.
“I read this assignment in English, and I’m making myself understood in my mind and translating it in my mind,” Diaz said through an interpreter. “I do my homework. I don’t ask anyone for help. I don’t look 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’m fine.”
The difficulty of this learning challenge should not be underestimated, Byrd said, and it doesn’t stop with the students.
Byrd explained that Summit teachers are responsible for teaching both language development and content.
Romero said language and content are never exclusive.
“It doesn’t matter what you teach,” Romero said. “If you teach history, you teach language. If you teach math, you teach language. If you teach music, you always teach language.
For these lessons to be effective for English language learners, Romero said students’ diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds should be leveraged throughout the lessons.
Students’ bilingual backgrounds should not be viewed “as detractors or interfering,” Romero said. “No. These are assets that students have that are part of their identity, that as educators we need to understand: how can we make this work for student success?”
October is Hispanic Heritage Month. Gallego said his teacher showed a short video about Hispanic heritage to mark the occasion. She reported that after the video was released, no more discussion was sparked and the students went on with their day.
After the video, Gallego said, “I really didn’t feel anything.”
Jiminez especially enjoys learning about history. But Hispanic history is very rarely included, she said, and details about “immigrants, Columbus,” for example, aren’t discussed.
“Schools try to draw attention to them because they don’t want to look like they’re … praising white people, but they kinda do like that once in a while,” Gallego said. “It’s like they’re trying to do damage control, but they really aren’t.”
There is training that can teach educators how to incorporate aspects of bilingual and migrant student backgrounds, Romero added. Some teachers in the Summit School District have taken courses on these subjects, according to Byrd.
However, Summit County has a teacher turnover rate of almost 17%. Byrd said there are 50 new teachers entering the district for the 2022-23 school year, and that’s out of a total of 292 teachers, according to school district data.
Byrd added that teacher retention in Summit County has been difficult. The cost of living is so high that many teachers only stay one to four years in the district, Byrd reported.
“You have new teachers coming in, and it takes time – to train teachers and prepare teachers to be able to work with students who are learning English,” he added.
Romero also pointed out that there is currently a teacher shortage in the United States.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of employees in educational services fell by 500,000 in early to mid-2020, and the numbers still haven’t fully recovered.
“Of course (teachers) are probably doing their best to support their students,” Romero said. “But without professional training and skills development, and some kind of better understanding of what we know from research on how to support culturally and linguistically diverse students, then they might, through no fault of their own, not do everything which could be over.”
When the pencils are laid
The divide between students doesn’t stop at test scores.
You can see it in school dining halls, said Summit Middle School eighth-grade student Isabella Sanchez. In the cafeteria, she said white students sat with white students and Hispanic students sat with Hispanic students.
Sanchez has been part of the Summit School System since kindergarten. She learned English through classroom exposure and is now a cheerleader and violist who loves literature.
But she described the divide she witnesses every day between white students and Hispanic or Latino students as a “barrier.” She said that white students and Hispanic students are rarely seen as close friends and that she has occasionally heard racist remarks from other students.
The two said the division can make class especially difficult if none of their friends are already in attendance. While group work is required, Gallego said she’s often the last student to be chosen for a group. Jiminez said it was especially noticeable if there were a lot of white students in a class.
A few weeks ago, Byrd sat down with high school and college kids to ask what could have made their experience in the district better.
Students reportedly said they needed more diversity among their teachers, more people who understood their culture, and wanted to feel more welcome and accepted.
“It was very powerful,” Byrd said. “Some of them were very emotional about it.”
Even with the district’s low test scores and the status of the improvement plan, when asked if he was concerned about state intervention, Morgan said no.
“I don’t need the state to step in and say, ‘You’re not doing a good job.’ I see that,” Morgan said. “That’s what worries me.”