Deputy superintendent Jeni Gotto led Westminster Public Schools as it blazed a national trail in switching to the Competency-Based System of education, a decision that’s transformed the once-struggling school district.
As the next superintendent, she plans to continue guiding the district and its students on its unique path — one that many districts across the country are now trying to follow.
“I firmly believe in the efficacy of this approach to educating children,” said Gotto, an internationally recognized competency-based education leader. “Contributing to the enhancement of our public education system is not just a responsibility, but a thrilling endeavor. I consider myself fortunate to play a role in it.”
Gotto will step in for retiring longtime WPS Superintendent Pam Swanson on July 1, 2024.
The district’s website describes competency-based education as a personal approach to education, one that recognizes different learning styles and tailors each student’s education to maximize their engagement.
The competency-based system requires students to show mastery of learning topics before moving on to the next level, an approach that means some students may progress quickly while others may take more time to learn.
The district says it is the largest competency-based school district in the country. It is so renowned for its innovative approach that the district hosts an annual conference, drawing educators from across the country and the world who want to learn more about it.
Earlier this month, voters elected three WPS board members — incumbent Christine Martinez, and newcomers Mary Beth Murphy and Audrey Yanos — who ran on the idea that the district is doing well and should continue on its current path.
“I think the election was a nod to this system,” she said. “The community wants to see the current direction of the district continue.”
While the district has made academic strides with competency-based learning, Gotto said it is a process with no endpoint, one that requires constant re-evaluation and changes.
“Teachers and principals will tell you we don’t leave things alone,” she said. “Every year, we look at our data. If the data is saying it isn’t working, we make adjustments.”
Accredited with improvement
The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) ranked WPS “accredited with improvement” in 2022. That means the district is meeting some — but not all — performance expectations. Its current ranking is a long way from where the district started, and Gotto has been instrumental in getting it there.
WPS has built-in challenges. Eighty percent of its 7,600 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Seventy-seven percent are Hispanic and almost one-third are not native English speakers.
“Not every kid is coming from a house where they had a parent that read to them every night,” Gotto said. “Each one of those kiddos is coming with a different life experience. We changed up our model to say here’s what they need, here’s what they’re ready for.
“Overwhelmingly, parents said ‘thank you’. As parents, you know where your children are strong. And for the first time, we created a model where we met kids where they are and acknowledged it.”
Gotto joined Westminster Schools in 2008 as director of assessment and instructional technology, with the specific purpose of helping the district make the move to a competency-based system. She came to Westminster from Brush Schools RE-2J district, then the only other Colorado district trying the new approach.
“Back in 2009 when we started this work, we were a turnaround district,” Gotto said.
Turnaround districts are considered among the lowest-performing in the state. They are not meeting or are only approaching expectations on most performance metrics. For districts ranked “turnaround” or “priority improvement,” the state steps in to provide support and oversight until they improve.
“We knew we could do better, and we needed to do better for our students,” she said. “It took a lot of time. We didn’t have a roadmap, so we had to figure a lot of this out.
“Slowly all our schools came off the clock. In 2018, we had all schools out of turnaround (red) and in yellow or green.”
A “yellow” or Improvement ranking means a school is meeting expectations on some performance metrics, but is not meeting or only approaching expectations on many. Those ranked “green,” also known as Performance, are meeting expectations on the majority of performance metrics.
The state’s current rankings, Gotto said, “are their metric for saying we are in safe harbor.”
WPS also maintains that its unique system doesn’t easily fit the state’s testing mold.
“High-stakes testing has always been a challenge for us as we have argued to the state that CBS is not compatible with rankings based on a once-a-year standardized test,” said district spokesperson Stephen Saunders. “Nonetheless we made progress — even under state rules.”
Background and goals
A Casper, Wyo. native, Gotto started her career in education as a business education teacher in Brush, then advanced to director of learning services. She later earned master’s and doctorate degrees in administrative and executive leadership from the University of Colorado.
While working in Brush, she attended a conference on competency-based learning. Several representatives from Westminster schools also attended, and both school boards decided to pursue the new model. Westminster eventually recruited Gotto to help with its Competency-Based System implementation.
Over the years, she’s also worked in a variety of positions at Westminster, which she said has given her a broad understanding of the district’s functions.
For Gotto, the competency-based philosophy extends beyond basic education to career readiness.
In early 2023, Westminster broke ground at Ranum Middle School on a project called Ranum Reimagined, which will redevelop the campus into a career technical education hub.
Ranum will provide students with the opportunity to pursue a career while earning their high school diploma. Career and technical education students will collaborate with industry experts and pick up professional certifications, college-level courses and job skills.
Like the Competency-Based System, Radum Reimagined is based on the idea that society is changing, and education must evolve with it.
“Kids’ pathways are changing,” Gotto said. “The university pathway is not where many of them are going. Our students want opportunities that don’t require a 4-year degree, or end up saddling them with significant debt. They’re looking to be ready for the workforce the day after graduation.”
The district is also designing career-focused programs that will allow students to find jobs within Westminster and the surrounding area. That means healthcare, manufacturing, public safety, aviation, and business ownership among others. The district is working with an economic not-for-profit to better determine the community’s career needs.
“Our hope is to keep them here in our community, and make sure we’re preparing kids for needed careers,” she said.
Eventually, Radum will serve more than just Westminster students.
“At night, our hope is to have offerings for individuals, community members that are looking to retool, and build skills for a next career,” she said. “This isn’t about our current students, but how do we lift the entire community.”