School district’s ranking stirs contention

Incumbent, challenger differ on drop from top tier

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School district leaders say there’s confusion surrounding a change in the Douglas County School District’s state rating — one that’s become a hot-button issue in the current school board campaign.

DCSD lost its spot in the top tier of state school rankings during the 2009-10 academic year, dropping from “accredited with distinction” to its current “accredited.” Most Colorado school districts fall into the second-tier “accredited” category.

Incumbent board member Meghann Silverthorn and other district leaders say DCSD is moving toward regaining the higher ranking, but cites a valuable service it’s providing disadvantaged students as a key factor in not yet doing so.

Silverthorn’s opponent, Ronda Scholting, says the district’s excuses fall flat and that a plan to elevate the rating is needed.

The district’s ranking fell in the wake of a state law changing the way accreditation is determined, making it tougher to obtain the highest rating.

Rankings are based on student test scores, academic growth of students, graduation rates, ACT scores, and some financial factors.

Littleton, Lewis-Palmer and Academy are among the 19 Colorado districts ranked accredited with distinction.

District leaders say its effort to regain the “distinction” ranking is affected by the comparatively lower test scores of the 3,000 students enrolled in the district’s Hope Online Learning Academy.

The Hope Online students’ test scores were not tied to the accreditation process until 2010-11, a year after DCSD dropped from the state’s top tier.

Hope Online offers K-12 virtual learning to students statewide, most of whom have limited educational options and do not live in Douglas County. Started in 2005 in the tiny eastern Colorado town of Vilas, it rapidly outgrew its small founding district and began operating as a DCSD charter school with the 2008-2009 school year.

Initially, the students’ test scores were not calculated as part of DCSD’s state results. That changed in 2010-11, when Colorado Department of Education officials said state law required the district to include Hope Online’s test results in its accreditation assessment.

Less than half the Hope Online students were ranked “proficient” or “advanced” on the 2013 Transitional Colorado Assessment Program. But school officials say Hope Online students’ performance steadily has improved since joining DCSD.

“If we wanted to, we could throw the online and alternative schools under the bus and say we’d rather concentrate on our accreditation,” said Silverthorn, who believes DCSD eventually will regain the “distinction” status. “But are we focusing on test scores or on helping kids? The district is providing a valuable service and we’re doing right by these kids, and I think we should keep doing that.

“I’m proud of the way Hope Online has grown in the last few years.”

Scholting doesn’t think Hope Online is an adequate reason for the lost rating, which she said may deter families from choosing DCSD.

“My concern has been that the board seems to be more into talking about who’s to blame rather than worrying about getting it back,” she said. “They have never talked about solutions. Quit pointing fingers. If it is important to you as a district — which I think it should be — then figure out how to get it back.”

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