do you hear the people sing?

Jeffco students continue demonstrations; hundreds rally along major streets

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Josh Billups, a junior at Pomona High School, was one of the first students to arrive at a student organized protest. Students across Jefferson County have rallied for three schools days. They're worried a proposed curriculum review panel would lead to censorship.

ARVADA — Hundreds of Jefferson County students took to the streets today for the third school day in a row to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel they believe could stifle an honest teaching of U.S. history.

Meanwhile, Julie Williams, the suburban school board member who has proposed that the district review an advanced U.S. history curriculum, reaffirmed her position in an early morning statement to the media.

Williams, echoing concerns of conservatives across the country, believes the new curriculum for the Advanced Placement U.S. History course portrays the nation’s history in a negative context.

“I was truly surprised by the reaction of so many people regarding the AP U.S. History curriculum,” Williams said. “I must not have explained myself clearly. I thought everyone, or at least everyone involved in education, understood the huge debate and controversy surrounding the new [curriculum]. … Balance and respect for traditional scholarship is not censorship.”

Architects of the new curriculum and teachers who are using it have said the concerns are unfounded. Instead, the new curriculum guide actually allows teachers flexibility and focuses on key historical concepts that have shaped the nation’s identity.

Resistance to the idea that a community committee would review the curriculum has grown since last Thursday, when the board tabled action on the committee.

Tuesday’s protest, made up of demonstrations across the county, is the largest so far. Hundreds of students walked out of Pomona and Arvada high schools between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. to busy intersections along the county’s main artery Wadsworth Boulevard. Students from Golden High School rallied at the district’s headquarters and some later moved to an intersection near Wheat Ridge High School to join students there.

Other schools that had planned protests include Arvada West and Ralston Valley high schools.

While the student protests have primarily aimed to voice concern about the proposed committee, some students are also demonstrating on behalf of their teachers. Tension between the county’s teachers and the school board’s majority appears to be at an all-time high. The conflict has led to a teachers union vote of no confidence in board chair Ken Witt and an apparent teacher “sick out” that closed two high schools.

“The frustration level is just so high right now among students and teachers,” said Kayla Greco, a senior at Pomona High. Greco led the walkout there. “It’s not just the teachers who are upset about changes.”

Arvada High School students rallied along Wadsworth Boulevard Tuesday morning. They're upset over a proposed curriculum review committee.
Arvada High School students rallied along Wadsworth Boulevard Tuesday morning. They’re upset over a proposed curriculum review committee.

Student walkouts are likely to continue throughout the week.

Jeffco school officials said they’re monitoring social media, the main platform students have used to organize, and trying to communicate with parents as quickly as possible.

I respect the right of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee in a statement. “I do, however, prefer that our students stay in class.” 

Jeffco officials this morning also dispatched central administrators to schools they knew had planned protests to help answer students’ questions. But that didn’t seem to deter students from rallying.

“I want the school board to know we don’t want to be sugar fed history,” said Leighann Gray, an Arvada High student. “They didn’t send anyone from the school board to talk to us. [The central administrator assigned to her school] is not from the board. So I don’t care.”

As the protests have grown in size, it is becoming less clear how much the students are speaking out versus acting out. Some students who left school to rally along Wadsworth were treating themselves to nearby fast food, running through intersections, and loitering in parking lots.

Others couldn’t articulate why they were protesting. Some students incorrectly believed the board had already acted and that the new curriculum was created because of the state’s new standards. Others believed teachers were going to see pay cuts if they didn’t comply with teaching American exceptionalism.

Student organizers, such as Greco, took it among themselves to self-police goofballs, including asking some to leave. Arvada authorities were also on hand observing students.

Pomona High School students gathered at a busy intersection near their school to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believe will lead to censorship.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Pomona High School students gathered at a busy intersection near their school to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believe will lead to censorship.

It’s important that our community understand that no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee,” McMinimee said in his statement. 

But there is no indication at this point Williams will withdraw her proposal.

Despite her call for balance in history classes, Williams’s statement concluded with her belief that students should be taught that America is uniquely great.

“I humbly ask our Jeffco history teachers to review their philosophical position on the [curriculum]. I think the majority will be surprised to find they agree. I invite them to join us while we investigate this curriculum together.”

The Jeffco school board may take the issue up at its Oct. 2 meeting.

Students from Golden High, who met with district staff during their rally, said they plan on addressing the board then.

“We weren’t as prepared as we should have been,” said Noelle Cohn, a Golden High senior. “We’ll be back in a civilized way to address the board.”

Most of the protests ended by the afternoon.

In an email to parents, Pomona High principal Andy Geise said, “This is our students’ school. As I see it, they are trying to make it the best they can. I appreciate our community’s support of our students. We have great kids here at Pomona. I’m proud of all of them.”

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How Jeffco’s pick for superintendent changed his mind about education reform

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School last week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Jason Glass was recruited to oversee more than 300 Iowa school districts as the state’s director of education, he was known for his work in Colorado’s Eagle County tying teacher pay to student performance.

The Republican governor who appointed Glass in Iowa called him a “reform-minded leader” and put him to work to explore similar models for Iowa’s teachers.

Over time, both while in Iowa and after returning to serve as superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Glass changed some of his thoughts on education reform. He said it happened while he was looking at education systems around the world and found that many of the popular reforms in the U.S. “were not a strong ingredient” in other systems around the world. Addressing student needs was, he said.

“Unless you’re doing something to impact poverty, you’re really not changing outcomes,” Glass said. “It changed my focus.”

Glass’s views are front and center as he is set to take on a more prominent role as the next superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district. Pending contract negotiations and a final vote Tuesday night, he will begin the role July 1.

Glass was the sole finalist of a school board that won election with support from a coalition that included well-connected parents and the teachers union.

In Eagle County, Glass is admired by the local union. He said he no longer believes in performance pay for teachers, but advocates for other ways to pay teachers other than under traditional models. He’s been critical of testing in Colorado. He believes charter schools should meet high bars, including showing quality in instruction.

“I’m most interested in getting something done,” Glass said. “That can take on different forms.”

Jeffco board members who picked Glass as sole finalist for the job praised his ability to work with different people, his work on rolling out a biliteracy seal in his district to encourage bilingual students and for “doing his homework” on Jeffco’s master plan.

The Jeffco board launched a national search earlier this spring to find a new leader.

The last superintendent, Dan McMinimee, was hired by a previous school board in a majority decision by three conservative board members who were later recalled. Three of the five current school board members are up for re-election this November.

“I really admire this board,” Glass said. “It took a lot of courage for them to run.”

Even before officially starting, Glass has been meeting groups of staff and visiting schools. On Thursday, he visited Arvada High School, where two students gave him a tour of the school and told him about the programs they say make their school great.

Glass was quiet, mostly listening to the students and asking occasional questions.

He said he won’t start work in Jeffco with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

He said he will consider whether Jeffco could offer a biliteracy seal — a credential given to graduating students who meet requirements to prove they are fluent in two languages.

Talking about his views on budget issues facing most Colorado districts, Glass said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs — services that cash-strapped districts often have to cut.

Glass said it is clear the district needs someone to unite the community.

“It’s a place that needs a strong leader, a relationship-builder,” Glass said. “Those are skill sets that I have and areas that I’ve been successful in.”

His job application highlighted that voters in Eagle County in November approved a tax increase for the district. Jeffco failed to pass two tax increase measures in November.

Charlie Edwards, the president of the Iowa State Board of Education, agrees that Glass has learned to work well with various groups.

Edwards said that when Glass started in Iowa and was working to create a statewide model of teacher pay and to create new academic standards, the hundreds of school districts used to having local control were skeptical.

“There was initially quite a bit of resistance,” Edwards said. “He worked through a lot of it. It was not an easy sell.”

Now people describe Glass as a supporter of teachers.

When he returned to Colorado after working in Iowa, Glass negotiated a contract with the school district that tied his own pay raises to teacher pay raises. It was something important to the community at the time, Glass said, because they worried about a previous leader that took pay raises while teacher salaries lagged.

Glass also rolled back the performance-pay model that he helped create as the district’s director of human resources. Now, teacher pay is more traditional but with some added performance bonuses.

“He is very supportive of what we do,” said Megan Orvis, president of the Eagle County Education Association.

Lights - camera - action

Relive the Jefferson County school board recall in 12 minutes

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

What can a school board election tell us about American democracy?

Well, if that school board race happens to be in Jefferson County, involve the nation’s largest teachers union and one of the country’s most influential conservative nonprofit groups … quite a bit, actually.

At least that’s the premise of a new documentary short film, “Million-Dollar School Board” by independent filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler. 

The film chronicles the high-profile school board race — which included debates about how history should be taught and how teachers should get paid — that ended with three conservative members being ousted by a coalition of teachers, parents and community members. More than $1 million was poured into the campaign from all sides, hence the film’s title.

The Jeffco film is part of a nine-part series of short documentaries, “Postcards from The Great Divide,” released in a digital partnership between PBS’ Election 2016 initiative and The Washington Post, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Latino Public Broadcasting, with a PBS broadcast on the World Channel.

The goal is to answer this question:

As substantial interest group money flows down into even local races, does it also bring the same stark ideological and partisan divisions that mark our national politics today into debates that were once totally separate from Washington?

You can view the roughly 12-minute film in its entirety here:

Then reread a sampling of our coverage: