Compact for Change

Through a community-based project, the schools in Pueblo, Colo., are embracing high standards for all students.

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For years, folks driving on Interstate 25 through Pueblo, Colo., would hold their breath and keep going. The huge smelter at the Colorado Fuel & Iron steelworks filled the air with such an acrid smell that tourists had little incentive to stop.

To locals, however, the pervasive odor smelled like bread and butter. After all, CF&I was the city's largest employer. As long as the smokestacks kept spewing soot, the residents of Pueblo could count on a reasonably good life. In the 1960s, it wasn't unusual for more than half of the city's high school seniors to go to work at the steel mill as soon as they graduated. "And once you got a job with CF&I, your future was secure," says Abel Tapia, who recently stepped down as president of the board of education at Pueblo School District 60 to become head of the city's chamber of commerce.

That all changed in 1982, when the mill laid off 4,000 workers, sending the city of Pueblo into an economic tailspin. The unemployment rate surged to double digits. Indeed, between 1980 and 1990, more than 3,000 residents packed up and left; there simply weren't enough jobs to go around.

Yet something of a miracle has taken place in Pueblo, a city of about 102,000 roughly 100 miles south of Denver. Thanks in part to an aggressive marketing campaign, city leaders have attracted new, cleaner industries to the area. Pueblo's unemployment rate now hovers at a low 5%, and the city's once-shabby downtown is looking prosperous again.

But the schools are hardly a bright spot: 40% of all high school freshmen do not graduate four years later. And until recently, few of the district's students bothered to take pre-algebra or algebra, "even though successfully passing these two classes is key to going on to college," notes Superintendent Henry Roman.

Of particular concern is the overall low achievement rate of Pueblo's Hispanic students. "Traditionally, they have done poorly," activist Ray Aguilera, the president of the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, says of the Hispanic students who make up 51% of the student population.

Those students who do graduate have discovered that it takes more than just a high school diploma to get ahead in Pueblo's changing economy. Even CF&I, which now employs 1,450 people, requires that prospective employees be able to read at the college freshman level. And that is "just to get an interview," says Stephen Bronn, the vice president for finance and planning at the University of Southern Colorado here. "That tells those of us in education a big story about what we need to be doing. We can no longer have students who just, in a sense, pass their way through and call ourselves successful. They’re not going to be contributing members of society if we don’t prepare them for the good jobs that are out there.”

Five years ago, Mr. Bronn and other civic leaders began looking at ways to improve Pueblo's public schools. One of the things that caught their attention was a reform project sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Philadelphia-based philanthropy. The foundation was looking for U.S. cities to take part in a project called the Community Compact for Student Success. The goal of the initiative-which brings together local businesses, public schools, and postsecondary institutions-is to increase the overall level of achievement, particularly among poor and minority students. Once that happens, compact organizers say, more students will graduate and go on to college.

Pew eventually selected Pueblo to participate in the project, which is now in its third year. The compact is made up of six "partners": Pueblo School District 60, which serves the city's urban core; Pueblo School District 70, which serves the outlying areas; Pueblo Community College; the University of Southern Colorado; the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce; and the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Pueblo. The idea is to create a community-wide support system for all students, from preschool through college.

To boost student achievement, the compact calls for high academic standards-not just for some students, but for all. To that end, both Pueblo school districts have changed their way of thinking about what it means to "pass" and "fail." But it is District 60 that has done the most to revamp its method of assessing student performance. The details, particularly at the high school level, are still being worked out, but eventually all students will be required to meet certain rigorous academic standards before they can graduate. The standards themselves are based on those set by the state board of education for all Colorado schools, but they were written by Pueblo teachers and community members to reflect local concerns.

Every teacher now has a thick handbook titled "Academic Content Standards," which spells out in detail what is expected of the students. For example, one of the language arts standards says: “Students write and speak using conventional grammar, usage, sentence structure, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.” Specific benchmarks are then listed for students in kindergarten through grade 4, grades 5 through 8, and 9 through 12. The youngest students, for instance, must know how to use correct subject-verb agreement, modifiers, punctuation, abbreviation, capitalization, and spelling, and they must know how to use technology to proofread their work for usage, spelling, and punctuation errors. How they achieve these goals is still, of course, up to the teachers.

It's 9 o'clock on a gusty October morning, and about 45 1st and 2nd graders are gathered in the media center of Clarence Haaff Elementary School. Set in a quiet suburban neighborhood, the pre-K-5 school serves about 400 students--about 40% of whom receive free lunches. Three teachers--JoAnn White, MaryLou Scott, and Wendy Thornton--are leading the students in a final assessment of a science project on ants. The students, working in groups of four, have created large, colorful posters of anthills, done in cross section. The drawings have been placed on two bulletin boards.

Next to one of the posters is a piece of paper that says, "Science Standard 3.1. I know and understand the features of living things, the difference of their live, and how they work and live with each other and their environment." Beside that is another paper that says, "Benchmarks. I can describe the basic needs of an organism. I can tell about an insect's food and shelter. I can show and tell how insects work and live with each other and their environment."

In the back of the room, Ms. Thornton and two student judges, both in the 3rd grade, listen carefully as the younger students take turn explaining their work. Each judge has a sheet of paper with three categories: "Did-Ant Do The Job," "OK Job," and "Excell-Ant Job." (The 1st and 2nd graders, who helped write the scoring guide with their teachers, are responsible for the puns.)

The student judges take their jobs seriously. "Do you have a food chamber?" one of them ask a group of students. "Yes," a boy replies. "Is it labeled?" "Yes." Satisfied that the student have met all the requirement for the top level, the judge deems the poster "Excell-Ant." Had it fallen into the lowest category, the students would have had to do the project over again.

When the assessment ends, the students return to their classrooms while a handful of teachers and their principal stay behind to talk about the changes that have taken place at their school.

Adopting the new standards-based system, they concede, wasn't easy. "I think we're always resistant to new things," says 4th grade teacher Diane Stewart. "Change is hard. I think we had to see that this was going to work for us. But once we started doing the scoring guides and seeing how kids could buy into it and strive to be the best that they can be, then we found out that it could work. And now we're definitely advocates of standards and scoring guides."

In fact, Haaff Elementary has become District 60's showcase school for visitors who want to see the new approach in action, and the school's teachers now give workshops to educators in other Colorado districts.

"I think things were good before," says JoAnn White, "but now we have a direction to go in, and we're all heading toward the same goal. We know where we need to be. We don't have some teachers going here and some going there."

Add Ms. Thornton: "The kids are more accountable. They know what the expectation are."

"I'm seeing a lot more proficiency in all areas," says 4th grade teacher Michelle Meier. "Reading. Writing. It's all overlapping."

"It's exciting to see the kids doing meaningful projects," adds Principal Marcie Bartley. "But it's also exciting to see teachers who have changed their teaching because of this." Other Pueblo schools, she says, have been less enthusiastic about the new emphasis on standards. "But that's OK. They'll come along."

How the new focus on standards will play out in the district's four high schools remains to be seen. At Central High School, a team of six teachers, along with a professor from Pueblo Community College, met for three hours every Wednesday night last year to discuss how the school's curriculum could be adapted to meet the new standards. This year, teachers at the other high schools are doing the same thing, while at Central, the team members are trying to bring the other faculty members up to speed.

It's a slow process, admits Jim Manzanares, Central's principal. "Some teachers have the attitude that 'This, too, will pass,' " he says. "But the standards are here to stay. We're determined to make our courses work within a standards-based system." He hopes to see some positive results in about three years.

Meanwhile, starting this year, all high school students in District 60 are required to take two years of math, including algebra, and two years of science. In District 70, the course requirements are even tougher.

Not everyone in Pueblo is thrilled about the compact. To some conservatives, the standards component is simply the much-reviled outcomes-based education under a new name. "It's the same thing," says District 60 board member Mary Lou Jackson, who supported the compact initially but has since had a change of heart. She accuses the Pew Charitable Trusts of promoting a "liberal agenda" through its school-reform efforts, and she objects to some of the goals outlined in the district's Academic Content Standards.

As an example, he cites one of the health standards, which calls for students to be able "to demonstrate the ability to access valid health information and health-promoting products and services." "We're telling kindergarten and 1st graders that they no longer should turn to their parents to find out how to access health services," Ms. Jackson says. "Well, I have a problem with that."

Many of the district's teachers, she adds, feel that the compact is being forced on them. "I think the teachers feel that they have no choice," she says. "I've talked to some who say, 'I can no longer teach the way I've always taught.' And they've been successful. Some teachers have said they're just going to close the door and keep doing what they've always done. But they won't be able to because they have to comply with the standards."

Proponents of the Pueblo Community Compact, however, are convinced that the new emphasis on standards will transform a mediocre school system into a great one. Just give us a few more years, they say.

"I would be overstating our success if I were to tell you today that achievement has improved at the upper grades and at the college and the university because of this project," says Mr. Bronn of the University of Southern Colorado "I don't think that's the case. But I do think that we have set the attitude and the expectations for our staffs, and we will expect nothing less than total commitment toward improved results.

"We don't have them yet," he adds. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that our ACT score are higher than they were four years ago, but we would hope to be able to say that in five years. We had better be able to show you that there were some demonstrative changes in student performance."

Stay tuned.

Vol. 16, Issue 17S, Page 36-37

Published in Print: January 22, 1997, as Compact for Change
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