do you hear the people sing?

After week of protests, an uncertain path forward for Jeffco schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Leslie Aranjo a Jeffco parent and teacher prepares a protest sign Friday morning. A small group of teachers and parents met at the corner of Kipling Street and Bowles Avenue to raise awareness of their concerns about the school district's board majority.

LITTLETON — After a week-long student-organized protest against a proposed curriculum review panel that some fear could lead to censorship, it appears both sides of a fractured Jefferson County Public Schools community are digging in their heels.

In interviews and statements to the media, members of the school district’s majority appear resolute in their pursuit of a commission to study an advanced history course’s curriculum and other texts as they see necessary to ensure coursework is balanced.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers critical of the board are preparing to step up their ground game by establishing a countywide network in order to quickly mobilize parents if they believe the board steps out of line.

Given the battle lines drawn, it’s becoming more uncertain how the two sides of the fractured community can find their way back to one another.

“There’s just so much,” said Jeffco Public Schools parent and teacher Allison Olis, referring to the growing list of controversies that have fractured the school system.

Olis was one of about two dozen parents and teachers who gathered early Friday morning to wave protest signs at a busy intersection in the suburban Denver commuinty. Another, larger protest is scheduled for next week.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco Interrupted 

Tina Gurdikian, a vocal parent activist who also joined the morning gathering, said the rash of student protests — and rumors of more — should be enough to get the board majority to listen to the community.

“We’re doing our part,” she said. “Now they need to do theirs: listen.”

The board will have that chance at its Oct. 2 meeting, the first since the controversy around the proposed review committee made national headlines. Students who participated throughout the week’s protest pledged to take their concerns to Golden, where the board meets.

An agenda published for the meeting late Friday afternoon did not include the proposal. However, the board can add a discussion item to the agenda up to 24 hours before they meet.

The stakes for the school district might even be higher next week, according to 9News. The station reported that students are considering a districtwide walkout on Oct. 1, the state’s official “count day” that establishes funding for school districts. If students skip school en masse Wednesday, that would cause a logistical nightmare for Jeffco Public Schools, the second largest school system in the state.

In order to secure funding for students not present on Oct. 1, schools must provide additional evidence to the state to prove just how many students are enrolled in its schools.

Students who helped organize walkouts at Chatfield, Lakewood and Pomona high schools said they haven’t heard of such plans yet. But the Chatfield principal took to social media to plead with her students not to miss class.

“If we have an inaccurate October count, we will end up being shorted on money that supports all facets of the school and school district, including possible class offerings and teacher staffing and salaries, two of the issues that many students have said they are fighting for,” Principal Wendy Rubin wrote on the school’s Facebook page. 

Board chairman Ken Witt said in a statement to Chalkbeat that he hopes the students who took to the street realize that curriculum review is just part of the job for a school board.

“To ensure that the board fulfills that charge, it has been proposed that the board establish a curriculum review committee to provide input from parents and the community, in addition to many other inputs, including the school district,” Witt said. “My goal is to ensure we have balanced and thorough curriculum.”

In interviews with other media outlets, Witt has laid blame on the student walkouts at the feet of the county’s teachers union.

I have had students tell me so, directly,” Witt told Chalkbeat when asked for evidence to support his claim the union fostered the student protests. 

But dozens of students who spoke with Chalkbeat throughout the week of protests expressed frustration that their teachers in fact aren’t talking about the growing tension.

The Jefferson County Education Association has strongly pushed back against Witt’s claim it had anything to do with the protests or an apparent “sick-out” that forced Jeffco officials to close two high schools last week.

“It’s defamation of character, as far as I’m concerned,” Gurdikian said. “Give our kids some credit.”

Gurdikian said she and other parents critical of the board majority are working toward establishing a network of parents throughout the county — at least one family from every school.

“Seventy percent of Jeffco isn’t connected to the school district,” Gurdikian said, referring to those who either don’t work for or send their children to the system’s schools. “We have to reach them. This majority was elected by the people who didn’t vote last year.”

In the off-year election, about 130,000 people, or 31 percent, voted in the last year’s school board race. Williams won by the widest margin, with 61 percent of the vote. Witt earned 58 percent of the vote and Newkirk beat his opponent with 54 percent.

Sheila Atwell, executive director of reform-minded Jeffco Students First and general supporter of the board majority, pointed out those who did vote are getting what they asked for.

“We ran on giving every effective teacher a raise,” she said. “And that’s what the board majority is doing.”

Nearly 100 percent of Jeffco teachers are expected to see a raise this year after the board approved a new teacher compensation model earlier this month. The proposal came at the same meeting that the board’s majority rejected recommendations from a third party on how to settle ongoing negotiations with the teachers union.

While some teachers are concerned about linking raises to evaluations, which the third party found to be unreliable, a louder concern was the lack of collaboration between the board and the Jefferson County Education Association.

And Atwell acknowledged the criticism that chairman Witt’s sometimes-bullish behavior at meetings doesn’t provide a welcoming atmosphere.

I want [the board majority] to succeed,” Atwell said. “So, it’s frustrating. I do wish Ken had a more conciliatory style. That would be nice.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”