The Stars Aligned: A Study of System Change in Colorado’s Mapleton Public Schools

By 2007, Skyview High School, which educates nearly all secondary students in Mapleton Public Schools, a 5,700 student district serving several communities on the northern urban fringe of Denver, Colorado, will no longer exist. And by 2007, the district will offer its students the choice of seven distinctly different small high schools. But this is not, despite what it may seem, a high school conversion effort. It’s one aspect of district-wide reinvention that also includes eliminating middle schools, extending the grade range of several current elementary schools through 8th grade, starting some secondary schools at 6th grade, and transforming a middle school to a K-12 school. Across grade ranges and neighborhoods, the district will divide large schools to create smaller schools, increasing from eight schools in 2002 to sixteen in 2006.

Charlotte Ciancio, the district’s superintendent since 2001 – born, raised, and a longtime teacher and administrator in the Mapleton district – says that the urgent need for high school improvement sparked this wholesale restructuring. But, Ciancio notes, “You can’t do high school reform without reforming a school district. The kids won’t be ready if you don’t adjust what’s happening at middle, elementary, and preschool levels. When we asked, ‘What’s the effect on the rest of the system,’ we created a district reinvention roadmap that has changed everyone’s work throughout the district.”

Impetus for Change

In large part, the district decided to create an “enticing menu of learning opportunities,” as Ciancio says, in order make the district’s schools more compelling in the face of competing alternatives, including other school districts, to which Colorado students are entitled to transfer. In 2001, such was the case; the district suffered from long-term declining enrollment – it had already closed one of its high schools in 1988 – and faced disappointing test scores and other academic indicators, among them the fact that Skyview High School enrolled 400 9th graders and graduated fewer than 200 seniors annually. “The situation was frightening,” remembers Mapleton School Board member Norma Frank – herself a graduate of Mapleton, along with her grandfather, parents, husband, and children. “It was pretty overwhelming.”

“We’d dry up as a school district if this continued,” says Ciancio, who credits the first steps toward assessing the district’s challenges and identifying solutions to her predecessors, Dr. Mike Severino and Tom Maes, together with the exhaustive strategic planning sessions led by nationally known planning guru, Dr. Bill Cook. Ciancio continued the district’s work toward improvement by instituting a listening campaign shortly after her arrival in 2001, surveying 800 district voters and parents to find out what the community thought of its schools’ work. Ciancio and her colleagues discovered that while most participants had a favorable view of Mapleton Public Schools, there were calls for smaller high school class sizes, more mentoring for students, and hands-on high school options. The district was also serving an increasingly heterogeneous student population; once a primarily Italian, farming, and working class community, Mapleton Public Schools were becoming more Latino and more economically diverse. This demographic change also prompted the district and community to think about how its schools were doing business.

To gather ideas for next steps, Ciancio convened a planning process in January 2002, gathering 150 people to identify the strategic direction, mission, and characteristics of an environment that would allow them to achieve the district’s goals. Ciancio remembers, “We started hearing the mantra in the community that what we’re doing today isn’t working. We knew we had to do something different.” Something different, the group realized, meant creating a variety of small, personalized secondary learning environments that challenged and engaged students, supporting high standards for all within a variety of learning environments. Jamie Kane, longtime Skyview High School principal, recalls, “What we did had to be very significant. It couldn’t be rearranging the deck chairs. It couldn’t be a pilot. It had to be something big that we really believed would make a difference to every student in the district. It is not okay to have some good schools and some not so good. Our school board was adamant that we change the way we were doing our work but that we not experiment with our children.”

In order to investigate possible programs and partners for the new small Mapleton high schools, the district turned to the Colorado Small Schools Initiative (CSSI) for a planning grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for travel and professional development. CSSI Executive Director Van Schoales, knowledgeable about what was happening in the American high school reform scene, served as a connector and advisor, pointing district and school staff, students, families, school board, union, and community members to potentially resonant school sites and educational programs around the country. Ciancio and others in the district describe these trips to Oakland, Chicago, Boston, Providence, New York, and elsewhere as a tipping point. “We saw amazing things,” recalls Ciancio. “We were compelled to change; it would be unethical to continue with the practices we were engaged in knowing there was a better way.”

CES Legacy

Though the district eventually connected with a number of partners with which it has created its new small high schools, it had the advantage of prior connection with the Coalition of Essential Schools. Mapleton was, in the 1980s and early 1990s, one of the earliest adopters of CES principles and practices. Billy Hufford, a 36-year district veteran, former high school principal and district administrator, and current Mapleton reform coach, describes how the initial CES affiliation produced a proposal to subdivide Skyview High School that the then-superintendent and high school principal rejected. The proposal didn’t survive, and initiative and passion among a group of CES-inspired teachers faded away. “This time, the stars aligned for us. It was undone work that we are now having the chance to do,” says Hufford. “It’s such a pleasure.” This time, one of the district’s new small high schools, Skyview Academy High School, is an Essential school, a participant and grant recipient in CES National’s Small Schools Project.

Considering Mapleton’s prior CES history of structuring challenging, personalized small high schools that run counter to prior district practice, Jamie Kane doubts the success of making change within a system without all stakeholders committed, commenting, “We’ve talked with lots of individual high schools that are fascinated with what we’re doing, but unless they chartered, I don’t know how they could do it. It’s crucial to have everybody – the school board, the superintendent, central administration, high school folks, the teachers’ association – in the same reform mindset before you do something as all encompassing as what we’re doing.”

Reflecting on the district’s CES legacy, Ciancio says, “The principles of the Coalition provide a proven path for getting to student achievement. They match our beliefs about how kids learn, about choice options, and about what we’re trying to become as a community. The complexity of the principles causes a school district to change; you have to be willing to have difficult conversations and change practices. You can’t go down the path successfully without adjusting the way you do your work. Most importantly, you can no longer lead from the top. It becomes the district responsibility and superintendent role to engage everyone. You have to adopt the belief of ‘student as worker, teacher as coach’ in a district context. My job as superintendent is to facilitate the system, not direct the system.”

Agency and Autonomy

Though the new small school and district leaders draw on their CES legacy, they’re cautious about the term “autonomy,” often associated with Essential schools and a tenet of agreements with districts in which they are thriving. Ciancio says, “We have been trying the words ‘agency’ or ‘autonomy plus.’ You can’t really be autonomous and also be part of a school district. Conversations about autonomy divide us into us and them. We are one system, one organism.” While many decisions are still in process, the district doesn’t see each small school as a completely free agent; it is committing to a suite of services that the schools automatically receive – among these, secretarial support, transportation, janitorial and maintenance services. And while the district still has a hand in its individual schools’ curriculum and assessment programs, Ciancio sees the bulk of decisions about teaching and learning under the control of the district’s schools. “I cannot control what happens in the classroom,” Ciancio says. “Many of the things I once wanted to control, I’ve had to give away. How do you balance the responsibility of a school district to remain a system while allowing others to take on the ownership?” Jamie Kane refers to this process as “strategic abandonment. What are those things you no longer do as you take on new responsibilities to close your gaps? How do you get rid of sacred cows?” Even as the new small high schools continue to open – two in the 2004-5 school year and four in 2005-6 – Kane says that they still have big issues to work out with the district, including appropriate attendance, graduation, and assessment policy adaptations.

Starting Now, Every Student Ready for College

In addition to the six new small high schools and the district’s K-12 school, the original Skyview High School still exists for those members of the 2006 and 2007 classes and those teachers who chose to remain. But it, too, is different, with a sharpened focus on college readiness through participation in the College Summit program. CSSI’s Schoales says, “This sets an example for the rest of the district: it says change now for students now.” This gradual rollout of small schools also makes it possible for Skyview staff members to decide their next steps at varied paces. Some early adopters transferred to the two new small schools that opened in 2004. Others will Skyview Big Picture advisors help students actively explore their interests join one of the four that will open in 2005. Some are committed to the original Skyview High School 2006 graduates – and some will, inevitably, leave the district.

Because it anticipates increased student retention from 9th through 12th grade, the district is upping its annual teacher hires. Cooperation with the teachers’ union and modification of the teachers’ contract has made hiring outside the district easier, allowing earlier consideration of national applicants to attract new teaching candidates. The district engaged the union at the outset as a full partner, encouraging union participation in all phases of discussions and on school visit trips, resulting in a contract that preserves the district seniority and pay scales while allowing individual work conditions in the various school settings. Mapleton also looked to its own pool of administrators to swell the teaching ranks. “There were certified adults out there who were not teaching,” says Ciancio. “Their work was about management and punishment. That is in conflict to our work. We have to dismantle those structures and make them instructional.”

Early Days for New Ways

Mapleton Public Schools is still in the early days of their sweeping changes and has yet to resolve a number of key dilemmas – among them, finding appropriate permanent facilities for all of its new small schools. The district has begun conversations throughout the community reframing “schools” as groups of people learning together rather than buildings. With a vote on a bond issue likely in November 2006, the district is assessing and planning now, but Ciancio and the school board are clear that a reform plan has to precede the facilities plan, knowing that if they can demonstrate some success, the bond measure would be more likely to pass. Early indicators are promising. Hufford says, “What we’re initially seeing in the two small schools that started last fall is an increase in attendance, a decrease in disciplinary action, and an increase in engaged parents coming to individual learning plan conferences.” As Norma Frank says, “The more we looked at it, the more it made sense that the old way wasn’t working. That big gigantic high school isn’t going to meet people’s needs anymore.”

In 2006-2007, the redesigned Mapleton Public Schools small secondary schools will be:

Opened 2004-5:

Skyview Expeditionary Learning School (6-12)
Skyview Big Picture High School (9-12)

Opening 2005-6:

Skyview Learning Through the Arts School (6-12)
Skyview Academy High School (9-12)
Skyview New Technology High School (9-12)
Skyview Early College High School (9-13)

In 2006-7, after both Mapleton middle schools are closed:

York School building will house K-12