Denver Education Compact kicks off kindergarten transitions project

Students gathered at Pascual LaDoux Academy in Southwest Denver to hear Mayor Michael Hancock read "'Twas the Night Before Kindergarten."
Students gathered at Pascual LaDoux Academy in Southwest Denver to hear Mayor Michael Hancock read “‘Twas the Night Before Kindergarten.”

Denver’s partnership between the city school district, business and community leaders aimed at improving educational outcomes is launching its first major initiative, an attempt to improve kindergarten readiness and smooth the transition into elementary school for young children in Southwest Denver.

The Denver Education Compact was launched by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock launched in 2011 as a way to bring together civic and educational leaders to identify new ways to promote improved outcomes for Denver’s children.

Early education emerged as a key component of the compact’s work quickly as the project was developed, and in April the group formally identified several key goals, including increasing the number of children enrolled in early childhood programs and increasing the number of third-graders reading at grade level.

The kindergarten transitions project, dubbed “Countdown to Kindergarten,” is the compact’s first attempt to tackle those goals. Its aim is to educate parents on key school readiness strategies and to bring together staff at nine Southwest Denver elementary schools and four public and private early learning programs to coordinate and develop plans to support students.

“The reality is that every child enters kindergarten at a different place,” said Hancock at the project’s kick-off event Tuesday. But regardless of whether a child has been in a formal pre-school program, a day care or at home with a caregiver, Hancock said, the transition into kindergarten presents challenges for the student.

“They have a new school, and in some cases it’s the first school they’ve ever been to,” said Terry Bower, the director of the compact. “They have a new teacher. They have new rules. They eat in the cafeteria.”

Bower said that the program’s goal is to make sure students arrive to kindergarten ready to meet those academic, social and emotional challenges and help ease their experience into elementary school.

The initiative will hold a series of workshops for parents organized around ideas like navigating the school choice system and preventing summer learning loss. It will also bring together school leaders and staff from the schools and childcare centers together to learn from experts on school transitions and prepare concrete plans to take back to their classrooms.

Early childhood education and kindergarten readiness was in some ways a natural place for the compact to begin its work, Bower said, because pre-school and kindergarten are the first time students enter the educational system and because there were relatively few public and private agencies and organizations to coordinate.

“The ideas is we’re tackling the whole feeder system,” Bower said. The compact eventually plans to introduce more initiatives that widen its focus out to the entire span from birth to when a student enters the workforce.

The nine elementary schools that are participating in the kindergarten transitions program all feed into Southwest Denver’s Kepner Middle School. And the four early learning centers, which include Pascual LaDoux Academy, an early childhood education center run by Denver Public Schools, and community groups including Mile High Montessori, were selected because of the number of students who enter the participating elementary schools from their programs.

All in all, Bower said, the program is targeting about 750 4-year-olds in its initial year.

Although the program eventually hopes to scale out to other parts of the city, Bower said its initial focus on Southwest Denver comes because of both the community work that is already happening in the neighborhood and because of the large achievement gaps that exist between the neighborhood’s students and their more affluent peers.

“The compact has made a very strategic decision to use the resources where they’re most needed,” said Bower.

Coverage of early literacy is supported in part by a grant from Mile High United Way. EdNews Colorado retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.