IGNACIO – Wednesday was a good day to be a Bobcat as Ignacio School District staff members celebrated a hard-won removal from the state’s priority-improvement list.
The list, which contained eight districts and 30 schools at the beginning of this school year, gives low-performing schools five years to improve academics or face consequences including school closures, takeover by charter organizations or turning over all or part of operations to an outside third party. Success is evaluated by test scores, graduation rates and other indicators that a school or district is experiencing growth in student performance.
The Ignacio School District’s achievement came with a concerted effort since 2010 – last year the accountability clock was on hold as the Colorado Department of Education waited to see a second year of results from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers before coming to a decision.
“This was a community effort,” said Kathy Pokorney, curriculum and assessment director. “There was involvement from all the stakeholders, businesses, the chamber (Ignacio Chamber of Commerce), the town and SUCAP (Southern Ute Community Action Programs). Parents are key. We also have a very good collaborative relationship with the (Southern Ute Indian) tribe.”
Wednesday afternoons, which are early-release, were a sacred time for curriculum development, Ignacio Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said.
“There were days when people walked out of meetings in tears,” he said. “And we built three schools in the middle of this, so we were playing dominoes with our students, moving them in and out of buildings.”
Ignacio received $500,000 for the turnaround, money which it used to pay teachers for the extra time they were putting in on curriculum and to hire a consultant, Jay Thompson.
“We were really frugal with that money,” Fuschetto said. “They said it would last two or three years, but we stretched it to four. When Jay would come from Indiana, he had a room at my house so we wouldn’t have to rent a room at the (Sky Ute) Casino.”
Thompson took the time to speak with every teacher and administrator individually, said Norma Conley, who retired as a teacher from the district 10 years ago but is back directing federal programs. He listened carefully to what everyone had to say, she said.
In the end, though, it was up to the district.
“We didn’t let someone tell us what to do,” Pokorney said. “We made decisions based on what our needs were. We made the rules.”
Some staff members have been part of the process but are no longer working for the Ignacio district, and they were included in the celebration.
“I credit this to the incredible professionalism of the staff,” said Karl Herr, who served as principal of Ignacio Elementary School for eight years before retiring. “Their positive attitude, their willingness to just stay with it and keep going. I’ve never seen this level of dedication, commitment and enthusiasm in my career. And they had great teacher leadership.”
The Sheridan School District, which has 1,300 students, was also taken off the list, information made available because both Ignacio and Sheridan released the information themselves. The Colorado Department of Education will not announce the status of the other schools and districts on the list until those who did not move off have a chance to appeal the decision.
Pueblo, the largest school district on the list with 17,000 students, created its first innovation zone in mid-September, another option for struggling districts. It will unite six schools serving the district’s most at risk students, giving them more freedom to work together and requiring less adherence to some state and district policies.
Ignacio’s work is not done, Fuschetto said.
“We raised the bar and expected higher achievement,” he said. “When we started, we weren’t teaching any advanced math or physics at the high school, and this year we have Advanced Placement classes. We have never lost focus on what the goal is, and we’re not going to let up.”