In theory it took a year and a half for Flagstaff Academy to be awarded the national designation of a School to Watch (STW), but in fact the award’s rigorous objectives have been in the works far longer than that. One of only 18 Colorado schools currently holding the title, Flagstaff Academy is also the first and only charter school to have earned the award.
The STW program began in 1999 and is administered through the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, and within Colorado is called the Trailblazer Schools to Watch program. Schools hold on to the STW title for three years and then go through the review again for re-designation.
Flagstaff middle school principal Katie Gustafson said she found out about STW through her membership with the Colorado Association for Middle School Education. In January 2018 she made the decision to launch the process to qualify for the award.
To earn the STW designation requires that a school perform exceptionally well in four areas on a rubric: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity and organization structures and supports.
Each school must demonstrate how programs and practices comprehensively meet students needs. First, Gustafson, along with a committee of parents and teachers, spent a semester analyzing the required criteria to determine the school’s strengths and its opportunities for improvement.
The STW application required filling out a very lengthy form with student demographics, grades, behavior, and attendance. Then Gustafson needed to deliver evidence of meeting the measures for each of the components on the rubric. Each middle school staff member completed a survey and the final application step was the submission of a video students produced about the school.
In December 2018 Flagstaff was notified it had made it through the first round. The second round entailed a day-long visit by six administrators from different schools. Every middle school classroom was observed as was a teacher team meeting. A group of students, a group of parents, and the entire administrative team were also interviewed.
Flagstaff was selected because of its excellent marks in each of the required criteria.
Academic excellence was demonstrated by students meeting grade and test standards. Flagstaff uses a curriculum format called core-knowledge which ties together subjects from one class to another and from grade to grade. Overall, Gustafson said, this results in building foundations in the early years and then provides a deep dive into topics.
The developmental responsiveness component required that the school be sensitive to the specific challenges that middle school students face. “This type of growth is second to when they’re toddlers and learning language and growing so quickly,” Gustafson said.
To support kids through this stage Flagstaff offers a transition class called Compass for sixth graders. It’s essentially a life skills program, which helps students navigate new elements such as moving to different classrooms, learning how to use their Chromebooks and planners, taking notes, learning how to conquer projects, and learning best practices for studying. It also covers how to interact with other people and how to be empathetic. Students then use their new skills in a culminating “passion project.”
Having strong organizational structures was demonstrated by the extent to which Flagstaff has teacher team collaboration in regards to individual students, overall curriculum and scheduling.
Lastly, the category of social equity was covered by providing learning opportunities for every student, which includes appropriate level classes regardless of what grade the student is in, as well as making sure that students are shored up with any needed academic support.
“From my perspective the whole Schools to Watch initiative is about knowing who our clientele is. So it’s knowing who our students are as adolescents, being responsive to their needs and meeting them where they are,” Gustafson said “and allowing them to transition well to high school.”
This is Gustafson’s fourth year as the principal of the middle school. Prior to being in administration, she was a social studies middle school teacher for seven years. The middle school has 300 students in its sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
“I would definitely say this is the top of the top for middle school,” Gustafson said of the award.
State Coordinator of the Colorado Trailblazer STW program, Diane Lauer said, “Our site visit team really thought that Flagstaff Academy provided an exemplary environment where students have access to exciting and engaging extracurricular activities and challenging academic opportunities.”
Gustafson and four other school staff members will be attending the National Schools to Watch Conference this June in Washington, DC, to receive the award. Three other Colorado middle schools were also selected for the first time this year: Rocky Top Middle School in Thornton, West Middle School in Colorado Springs, ad Brentwood Middle Sc