It's personal

Jeffco’s Latino students: U.S. history debate could cost them a chance to get ahead

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Jefferson High School student skipped across Wadsworth Boulevard Monday during a student-organized protest. Jefferson High was the last Jeffco neighborhood high school to demonstrate against a proposed curriculum review committee they believe would lead to censorship.

EDGEWATER — Students at Jefferson High School want their school board to know they’re just like their peers: They want their advanced U.S. history curriculum left alone.

“We want [the school board] to know every Jeffco student feels this way,” said Angelica Dole, a sophomore and the lead organizer of the Jefferson High’s Monday protest.

But for the upperclassmen at Jefferson High School — who are mostly Latino and poor — the debate over the district’s Advanced Placement U.S. history program may have higher stakes than for their more affluent peers around the county.

Nearly 90 percent of the 552 students at Jefferson High qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices, a proxy of poverty. In contrast, only about a third of the entire district are low-income. For students all over the district, success in AP classes means a easier path to college. But for the district’s low-income students, that path is often much more challenging and students at Jefferson High School fear that changes to the AP U.S. history curriculum could throw up one more obstacle.

“The school board is not putting themselves in our shoes,” Dole said. “We’re trying to learn and get smarter. We’re trying to get to college.”

Students who successfully pass an Advanced Placement test, like the one offered with U.S. history, may earn college credit, effectively giving students a head start and saving tuition money.

But now, students fear that opportunity might be in jeopardy after school board member Julie Williams proposed a review of the Advanced Placement U.S. history course. William’s proposal ignited a dozen days of acrimony across the county. Jefferson’s own small but rowdy outcry capped a list of 17 neighborhood high schools that rallied in the streets across the county.

The protests were bookended by teachers missing class en masse due to their own criticism of a new compensation plan at four high schools, including Jefferson High.

Students’ fear that their AP credit might be at stake were stoked Friday when the College Board, the company behind the Advanced Placement courses and SAT, said they would forbid Jeffco Public Schools from offering the U.S. history course under their banner if significant changes were made to the curriculum. While the course is one of the most popular advanced electives in the county, for Jefferson High School students, it’s also the rare opportunity to get ahead.

Board chairman Ken Witt told Chalkbeat Colorado last week he is not in favor of scrapping the AP U.S. history course. But, the leader of the conservative board majority doesn’t appear to be backing down from the idea that a panel of community members should be established to review the course’s materials — and other subjects.

“I do want you to understand that I am not advocating to eliminate AP U.S. history,” Witt said in an email. “I do believe that there is enough concern expressed from many sources to warrant careful review, rather than naive assumption.”

Conservatives, like Williams, believe the AP U.S. history course, which was redesigned last year to put more emphasis on historical themes and critical thinking than fact, is revisionist and portrays the nation’s history in a negative light. The architects of the new framework and teachers disagree.

And students said their opportunities should not be limited because of political infighting.

“It’s not their education they’re taking away,” said Elissa Jaramillo, a junior at Edgewater High. “It’s ours.”

Because most of the students at Jefferson High are Latino, they are already less likely to take an Advanced Placement course and test than their peers. According to state data, Jeffco’s Latino students accounted for only 10 percent of the 1,169 student who enrolled in the AP U.S. history course during the 2012-13 school year. By comparison, 25 percent of the district’s entire student population is Latino.

Further, it appears Latino students either have fewer options for AP classes or, at the least, not taking advantage of some course offerings. Only four AP courses during the 2012-13 school year had more than 100 Latino students enrolled: English, literature, U.S. history, and world history. In classes like AP physics, government and politics, and micro-economics, fewer than a dozen Latino students were enrolled.

In total, Latino students enrolled 1,163 times in AP courses across Jefferson County during the 2012-13 school year. (The state’s data does not indicate whether students were enrolled in more than one AP class at a time.) That’s slightly more than the 1,049 white Jeffco students who were enrolled in AP English and Composition alone.

“Studies have shown that students who take AP courses are less likely to need remediation and more likely to graduate from college,” said Lesley Dahlkemper, vice president of communications for the Colorado Education Initiative. “Unfortunately, many students either are not offered this opportunity or do not take advantage of it. If we hope to close the achievement gap, expanding access to and success in AP must be part of the solution.”

Dahlkemper is also a member of the Jeffco school board. She and fellow board member Jill Fellman, who together generally make up a dissenting minority, raised concerns about Williams’ proposal at a Sept. 18 meeting.

There are some signs that more Latino students are participating in Advanced Placement classes. According to Jeffco officials, the number of students at Jefferson High enrolled in AP English language and AP English literature doubled during the last year. The increase is due in part to a $10,000 grant from the Colorado Education Initiative that goes toward fees, classroom equipment and supplies, and study sessions for AP math, science and English courses.

According to the nonprofit, Colorado schools that received similar grants have seen a 106 percent increase in the number of passing scores by African American and Latino students on AP math, science, and English exams.

The out-of-pocket cost for just one AP course can be more than $100, which could be a determinant to some students.

“It’s a paradigm shift for our kids to be more successful because it’s opening doors and removing obstacles that would have stopped them in the past,” said Molly Harrington, a former Jefferson High counselor, after the grant was announced.

Jefferson is also offering more AP courses this year, students said as they marched toward Wadsworth on Friday.

“We have to work harder,” said Hannah Pape, a junior.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to pick up the curriculum review discussion Thursday. And students from Jefferson High have a message they hope the board hears.

“We’re not one of the richer schools,” Jaramillo said. “We get looked down upon. But we want to learn and get out of here. I want to be somebody in life.”

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:

 

full disclosure

Teachers unions gave huge sums of seed money to Jeffco recall, new records show

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Organizers of a school board recall effort in Jefferson County, from left, Michael Blanton, Wendy McCord, and Tina Gurdikian, spoke at the campaign kick off event in July.

National and local teachers unions provided more than $265,000 to a nonprofit group that served as a catalyst to recall three conservative school board members in Jefferson County.

That is according to campaign disclosures filed Thursday in response to a judge’s order that the group, Jeffco United, disclose its donors.

The organization, a social welfare nonprofit with tax-exempt status, was established in May and received its first donation — $25,000 — from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. In total, the CEA gave $113,500 to the group, records show.

The national union was even more generous. The National Education Association gave $150,000 to Jeffco United in late August.

Complete Colorado — an arm of the free-market think tank The Independence Institute, supported the recalled school board members — first reported the NEA contribution.

The disclosures shed significant new light on who bankrolled the high-profile recall, which opponents of the conservative board majority repeatedly described as a broad community-based effort. But the full picture of the financial forces on both sides of the campaign remains incomplete, because of lax state and federal reporting requirements.

Who gave to Jeffco United? |
• National Education Association, $150,000
• Colorado Education Association, $113,500
• Jefferson County Education Association, $20,000
• All other individuals, $3,115

“This is all we asked for,” said Dede Laugesen, director of Colorado Government Watch, the El Paso County-based organization that filed the complaint against Jeffco United. “It is only too bad voters did not have this information before the election.”

Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United, said it would be a mistake to say the recall was “union-led.”

“This was a parent-led and parent-organized recall,” Hansen said. “But parents can’t raise the kind of money to compete with the kind of out-of-state money that keeps coming into Colorado. This is the way the game is set up. We’re playing by the rules that we’re given.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffco United eventually launched two sister political committees to finance the recall and the election of a five-candidate slate. Most of that money — more than $200,000 — was raised locally.

Those committees raised and publically disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a large donation from Jeffco United early in the campaign.

An administrative court judge last week ruled that Jeffco United violated the state’s campaign finance laws. The judge found there was enough evidence to suggest that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to spearhead the recall of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk.

Typically, social welfare nonprofits — such as One Colorado, Progress Now and Americans For Prosperity — are allowed to raise money without disclosing their donors and then donate a portion to political committees, which are required to disclose donors to the secretary of state.

It’s common practice for advocacy organizations to operate multiple fundraising and spending apparatuses including 527s, independent expenditure committees and issue committees.

However, under Colorado law if an organization’s “major purpose” is to act only on a singular political issue, it must file as a political committee with the secretary of state and not as a nonprofit.

Judge Robert N. Spencer, in his decision, found Support Jeffco Kids — another group named in the original complaint — had an established track record of work on a variety of issues, therefore it did not violate the “major purpose” law.

Spencer’s decision only applies to Jeffco United.

Other nonprofits, including Colorado Independent Action, which acted similarly to Jeffco United, came to the aid of the recall targets. Independent Action, like Complete Colorado, is an arm of the Independence Institute, which does not disclose its donors.

Ousted board chairman Witt said the institute has a long track record for supporting politicians who champion for expanding school choice.

“I don’t think there was any surprise in those organizations being strong advocates for what we’re doing,” Witt said. He added, “I’m delighted that the truth has finally come out.”

The transparency watchdog organization Colorado Ethics Watch earlier this month called on lawmakers to revisit the state’s campaign finance laws that govern school board races.