Legislature

Bill aims to help `turnaround' schools

Replaces unfunded School Academy Leadership Program

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State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, is hoping to lend a hand in turning around struggling schools, through a bill that is making its way through the Legislature.

“We see this as an important issue that needs to be addressed right away,” Zenzinger said. “All of these schools and districts are on the clock.”

Schools are designated turnaround status for factors that include standardized testing scores and graduation rates that are not up to par. The schools are then given five years to greatly improve their performance or else face state intervention, which could lead to schools having to shut their doors.

Senate Bill 124 would set up a grant program that would assist in leadership training for school administrators and teachers at schools that are on turnaround status, in hopes of getting them on the right track.

Zenzinger said in a recent meeting with reporters that 16 school districts are on turnaround status, which impacts about 100,000 students across the state.

“It's a very disruptive process to communities and it's very important to do whatever we can before they hit the clock,” she said.

The bill sets up the “School Turnaround Leaders Development Program,” which will contract with experts who would award grants that provide training to underperforming schools and school districts.

The new program replaces the current School Leadership Academy Program. The Legislature created the existing program in 2008 and it was meant to provide professional development training to public school principals.

However, the board that was put in place to oversee the SLA program hasn't met in three years, nor has the program been funded.

The new program would operate through the Colorado Department of Education, with the Legislature appropriating grant funding on an annual basis. The Legislative Council estimates the state expenditures for the program to be $2 million for each of the next two fiscal years.

The bill does not require turnaround schools to seek assistance through the program, only those that see the program as a good fit.

Recognizing that each turnaround school deals with its own set of issues, Zenzinger said that part of the grant funding allows for customized training.

“A school that is in turnaround in rural Colorado is facing very different issues than a school in Aurora, for example,” she said.

The bill is receiving support from several stakeholders in the education community, including the Colorado Education Association and the League of Charter Schools.

However, not everyone is on board with the bill, as evidenced by a Feb. 27 party-line vote in the Democrat majority Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, is concerned that the bill would wrestle away local control from school boards that already have these kinds of programs available.

“I think we need to be judicious about not interfering with those relationships,” he said.

Sen Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said the bill is “frustrating” because of the new bureaucracy it puts in place.

“Where does the buck stop?” he said. “Who is going to be in charge of this program? Where's the accountability?”

The bill now heads to a separate committee before it receives a vote by the full Senate.