Game changer

Changes embraced at Jeffco schools that serve low-income students

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Principal Susie Van Scoyk observed a class last spring. The high school merged with a nearby middle school this fall to form Alameda Junior-Senior High School.

GOLDEN — Building and curriculum changes at schools serving most of Jefferson County’s low-income and Latino students are taking hold and working, the school board heard Thursday.

Early anecdotal evidence suggests the changes, which include combining four schools into two and developing a dual language program in primary schools, are resonating with teachers, students and parents, district leaders said.

But there are long-term building needs that the district will need to tackle and it’s still too early to know whether an emphasis to improve students’ vocabularies will be enough to boost achievement for those who are chronically behind.

“We’re in a good place,” said Susie Van Scoyk, principal of the reconfigured Alameda International Junior-Senior High School.

As part of the changes the school board approved last spring to schools in the Lakewood and Edgewater portions of Jefferson County that border Denver, Alameda High and O’Connell Middle schools merged to create the new grades 7-12 school.

Traffic congestion persists at the school, which now enrolls more than 1,300 students, 300 more than anticipated, Van Scoyk said. And classroom and meeting space are at a premium.

But, “it is really exciting to say, we’re full — we’re at capacity,” Van Scoyk said.

Alternatively, elementary students and teachers at the new Stein Elementary at O’Connell school are relishing their new digs, said Principal Samantha Salazar.

“We’re all under one roof,” Salazar said.

At the school’s former campus, kindergarteners were in mobile classrooms. Precious time was lost shuffling them in and out of the building for lunch or a trip to a library, especially during winter months, Salazar said.

And teachers now have a space to meet and plan together, Salazar said.

“No longer are we in a custodial closet to do our professional learning community,” she said.

At Jeffco’s second reconfigured junior-senior high school, Jefferson, older students have taken the lead to welcome the middle school students from the shuttered Wheat Ridge 5-8 school, said Karen Quanbeck, a Jeffco achievement director who oversees the schools in Edgewater.

“They feel a deep responsibility to mentor the junior-high students,” she said.

District officials believe the instructional changes at schools in the Edgewater area, including a push for stronger vocabulary skills and designing classes around projects, will boost student learning where it has traditionally fallen behind the more white and affluent district.

Jefferson has bounced on and off the state’s academic watch list for years.

No school in the area is on that list now. But student test scores across all grade levels in Edgewater continue to lag. Only about four of every 10 students at Lumberg Elementary could read at grade level in the third grade, according to state tests issued in 2014. At the same time, seven of every 10 Jeffco third graders were reading at grade level.

Given a switch in state assessments, it will be difficult in the near future to gauge whether the changes are effective. However, the schools will be using local benchmark assessments as a barometer.

Principals at both Alameda and Jefferson Junior-Senior High schools told the board a nascent concern is their aging buildings that are now “bursting at the seams” with students.

“We’re in our 60th year at Jefferson,” Principal Michael James said. “We can feel that in our building.”

School board members praised both communities for their work.

“We’ve come a long way from last year,” said board member Julie Williams. “We had parents lined up for public comment with many different concerns.”

new model

Achievement First is betting on a new model to help more of its students graduate college

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Alexis Riley teaches a ninth-grade physics class at Achievement First.

Charter school operators across the country have been grappling with a vexing problem: graduating large numbers of students who go on to college, yet flounder when they get there and never earn a degree.

It’s an issue Achievement First — a national network that operates 19 schools in Brooklyn — is trying to solve by experimenting with a new model that gives students more control over their own learning. The model, known as “Greenfield” for its open-minded approach, was first piloted in Connecticut. But starting next school year, it will roll out for the first time in New York City at a new Brooklyn middle school.

“What a lot of alumni revealed to us were gaps in student agency and student choice in what they were learning in the lower grades,” explained Amanda Pinto, an Achievement First spokeswoman. Though virtually all of the network’s students attend college, Pinto said, only about 50 percent graduate.

The model is designed to prepare students to handle self-direction years before they’re in college. It uses a curriculum that emphasizes personalized learning, where students guide themselves through different units of study and are responsible for mastering each piece of content before they can move on (an approach that has earned both hype and mixed reviews).

Zachary Segall, who will serve as the school’s inaugural principal, said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and art classes four times each week, will set their own goals throughout the year, and participate in “expeditions” that allow them to explore interests outside the traditional curriculum. That could include something like podcasting, Segall said, or architecture.

“Part of the model is addressing the idea that our students need to be prepared for college, and not just prepared academically,” Segall said. The new school will be called Achievement First Aspire Middle School, and will open in East New York this fall to serve the students aging out of the network’s local elementary school.

Achievement First is known for high academic expectations and a style of discipline that “sweats the small stuff.” Whether the approach will help the network get more of its students through college remains to be seen.

Pinto pointed to some signs of success: The Greenfield model yielded higher math and reading scores at the pilot school in Connecticut compared to other schools in the network that didn’t use the model. But she acknowledged that the approach is still in its infancy.

“‘Good enough’ is never good enough when you’re talking about getting kids college success,” Pinto added. “Time will tell.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and music classes. In fact, they will be dance and art classes. 

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.