building immunity

New Chalkbeat database spotlights wide gulfs in Colorado schools’ vaccination rates

PHOTO: Lindsay Pierce/Denver Post
Nyah Ojeda, 6, offers her hand to her four-year-old brother, Elija Ojeda, while nurses prepare him for a round of vaccinations in 2012.

A newly updated immunization database created by Chalkbeat reveals that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records.

The database, which includes more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s 30 largest districts, is the largest collection of school-by-school immunization data available in the state.

New rules that take effect Friday will make it harder for parents to opt their children out of shots and lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive state-run database expected to go live next spring. That database, available to the public, will include immunization and exemption rates for not just Colorado schools but also licensed child care providers.

The new rules come about two years after the passage of a state law that required schools to release immunization and exemption rates upon request and instructed the State Board of Health to determine how often parents should submit exemption forms.

Public health advocates say giving parents access to immunization data helps them gauge the risk of communicable disease outbreaks and make informed choices about where to send their children for school or child care. Colorado has one of the lowest immunization rates in the country, partly because it’s relatively easy to opt children out of shots.

There’s a huge push to make Colorado healthier and embed health and wellness into schools, said Stephanie Wasserman, executive director of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition.

“Immunization is kind of foundational to all that,” she said.

Boulder County mom Lindsey Diamond, a vaccine advocate living in a community where many parents do not give their kids shots, agrees.

When considering where to send her 2-year-old son next fall, she asked every provider for their immunization rates. Diamond settled on a preschool where just one child was exempt from shots for medical reasons.

Elementary school is still a few years away, but she and her husband are keeping an eye on the rates at nearby schools in the St. Vrain Valley district—where immunization levels are all over the map.

“It’s been on our radar,” she said.

Data highlights

This is the second year Chalkbeat has built a database of immunization rates. A review of the new data reveals that many of last year’s findings persist. (See this story for charts illustrating the trends.)

Vaccination policy timeline

May 21, 2014 — House Bill 12-1288 is signed into law. It requires schools to release immunization rates upon request and directs the State Board of Health to consider how often exemption forms should be submitted.

April 15, 2015 — State Board of Health votes to increase the frequency with which parents submit personal belief and religious exemption forms and allow the creation of a database of school-by-school immunization rates.

April 25, 2015 — A bill that would have required parents to submit immunization exemption forms centrally to the state health department instead of their child’s schools dies in the State House.

July 1, 2016 — New State Board of Health rules on exemption frequency and the immunization database take effect.

Dec. 1, 2016 — Schools and child care centers must submit immunization rates to the state health department for inclusion in the new database.

Among the highlights:

  • Three-quarters of Boulder Valley’s 65 schools have exemption rates of 10 percent or higher and 13 schools have exemption rates of 25 percent or higher.
  • Outside of Boulder County, most districts have relatively few schools where large numbers of parents exempt their children from shots.
  • In many Colorado districts, exemption rates tend to be higher in some charter schools or schools with alternative philosophies such as Montessori or Waldorf.
  • Just over half of schools in Chalkbeat’s database have immunization rates of 90 percent or higher. (Immunization rates of 90-95 percent within a group help protect that group from disease, especially people who can’t be vaccinated because they are too young or have a medical condition.)
  • Districts where a large majority of schools have high immunization rates run the gamut, suggesting that socioeconomic status is not the only factor at work. The top district is Cherry Creek — which is often portrayed as wealthy but is increasingly diverse. Meanwhile, most schools in poorer districts such as Pueblo, Mapleton and Westminster also have high immunization rates.
  • In Denver, about 56 percent of more than 200 schools have immunization rates of 90 percent or better, and only six schools have exemption rates higher than 10 percent.
  • In neighboring Aurora, nearly two-thirds of more than 50 schools have immunization rates of 90 percent or better, and only one has an exemption rate higher than 10 percent.
  • Compliance rates—an indicator of how hard schools are working to make sure they have students’ immunization or exemption paperwork—improved at about 45 percent of schools in 2015-16.
  • Compliance rates worsened at just over 40 percent of schools—many of them high schools.

State health officials say the lower compliance rates at many high schools likely resulted from a rule change that took effect last school year requiring all high-schoolers to have a second dose of the chickenpox vaccine. As a result, some students who would have been considered fully immunized in previous years were out of compliance in 2015-16. Eventually, as more parents learn about the two-dose requirement, health officials expect the problem to resolve.

Asking for the data doesn’t mean you’ll get it

Although Colorado law requires the the release of immunization rates to the public, they can still be hard to get.

Disease prevention

    Colorado law requires children attending school to have immunizations against these diseases or a signed parent exemption.
    • Hepatitis B
    • Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
    • Tetanus
    • Diphtheria
    • Haemophilus Influenza Type B (HIB)
    • Pneumococcal disease
    • Polio
    • Measles
    • Mumps
    • Rubella
    • Varicella (Chickenpox)

This year, Chalkbeat requested immunization and exemption rates in January. Several districts, however, declined to release them until March or April because district officials said they were waiting on fixes to a commonly used student data system where immunization information is housed.

But by late spring, even as most districts were reporting that the glitches had been fixed, there was still some pushback. For example, officials in the Lewis-Palmer district near Colorado Springs said they could offer only inaccurate data for their schools.

Later, they provided some updated information, but said it was only accurate for three of nine schools where a nurse had carefully tallied the rates and not relied on the student data system.

Next year, not only will the state health department compile immunization rates for the new statewide database, there will be a Dec. 1 due date for districts to submit the information.

“We’re already geared up for that,” said Julie Stephens, Lewis-Palmer’s public information officer.

While some school health leaders say they like the idea of sharing school immunization rates with the public, it can be a lot of extra work for school nurses.

Jean Lyons, nursing supervisor for Denver Public Schools, said she’s torn.

“I think we have to look at it as an opportunity to make our community healthy,” she said.

At the same time, she called the reporting requirements an unfunded mandate, saying, “I really empathize with the small districts that have fewer resources internally.”

Stricter requirements for opting out

In addition to the new state database, new immunization rules taking effect Friday will require parents who excuse their children from shots for personal or religious reasons to do so more often.

Starting in the 2016-17 school year, parents of K-12 children will be required to submit the exemption forms annually and parents of younger children will need to submit the forms up to five times prior to kindergarten. (There will be no change to the process for claiming a medical exemption from shots.)

Previously, parents often had to submit the forms only once during their child’s educational career.

Public health experts say the more stringent requirements will help reduce exemptions claimed out of convenience rather than conviction and help push down Colorado’s higher-than-average exemption rates. Parents opposed to the change have argued that they think carefully about their vaccine decisions and shouldn’t have to jump extra bureaucratic hurdles.

Other efforts to change the exemption process in Colorado have failed in recent months, highlighting the state’s vocal anti-vaccine constituency. Last spring, a bill that would have required parents to submit exemption forms centrally to the state health department instead of their child’s school drew emotional testimony and was eventually killed in the State House.

shot down

Boys & Girls Clubs unlikely to open soon in Memphis schools as SCS funding plan collapses

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

If there’s a downside to the improved financial condition of Shelby County Schools, it’s the challenge of getting additional funding for a new initiative, even if everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

That scenario played out this week as some county commissioners balked at a request for an extra $1.6 million to open Boys & Girls Clubs inside of three Memphis schools.

The decision was close, just one vote shy of approval, demonstrating the tension among commissioners wrestling over how to invest in a community with big needs, limited resources and a desire to keep property taxes in check.

In many ways, the proposal to open school-based clubs felt like a slam-dunk. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. The district has empty space. Neighborhoods near schools have young people in need of enriching afterschool activities.

“We talk everyday about crime, and this is a safe haven,” Chairman Melvin Burgess told his fellow commissioners on Monday in arguing for the investment. “What people don’t know is that an afterschool program is a place for kids to go instead of an empty home.”

But even as the district’s $985 million spending plan sailed through the board, several commissioners questioned the need for anything extra.

“I really support Shelby County Schools spending their own money to do it,” said Commissioner David Reaves. “They have $80 million sitting in a savings account, and we gave them a huge bump last year. Here’s the reality: I was on the school board and I know how it works. They need to spend their own money.”

The decision kicks the proposal back to district leaders, who have been in talks for months with Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that Shelby County Schools has no plans to fund the initiative at this time.

Keith Blanchard, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, agreed that it’s now unlikely for new clubs to open inside of Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High by 2018.

“This process has drug out so long, we don’t know what next steps will be yet,” he said. “If we can secure funding at this point, maybe we start in just one school in the fall. Maybe we try again next year. We’re not giving up.”

Shelby County Schools began its 2017-18 budget season without a shortfall for the first time in years, allowing the district next year to provide teacher raises, hire new guidance counselors and behavior specialists, and make new investments in struggling schools.

But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says the school system still doesn’t have enough money to propel students to academic success in a community challenged by high poverty and mobility.

Such concerns are among the reasons that school-based investments in Boys & Girls Clubs made all the more sense, according to the idea’s backers.

“(The commission vote) was really disappointing,” said Blanchard. “We thought we had the votes going in. I think it was most disappointing for the students who were there, and for them to have to listen to the reasons why this didn’t pass.”

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.