painful choices

Gifted and talented center at Wheat Ridge High School on chopping block as part of Jeffco budget cuts

PHOTO: Courtesy Lisa Lee
Lisa Lee, center right, one of two gifted and talented teachers at Wheat Ridge High School, leads a discussion. Lee was a teacher of the year finalist.

Cutting off district funding to a popular gifted and talented program at Wheat Ridge High School is one of the contentious steps Jeffco Public Schools has proposed to cope with its budget crisis.

The gifted and talented center program enrolls 128 of the school’s 1,200 students, according to district officials. About three-quarters of those gifted students choice in from other district high schools, a sign of the program’s stature.

Some parents say the center at the high school has been critical not just to their children’s academic success, but to their social and emotional well-being.

More than 700 community members have signed an online petition opposing the elimination of the Wheat Ridge High-based program. Numerous signers wrote that its helped their children overcome social problems, gain a sense of belonging and get needed help.

The Jefferson County district, the state’s second largest, is considering more than $20 million in spending cuts, including the closure of five elementary schools. District officials say the cuts are needed to keep a school board pledge to improve teacher salaries after voters rejected two tax measures in November.

In what is expected to be an emotional meeting Thursday, the school board could vote to approve the reductions as part of its overall package of cuts or it could pull certain items out and continue funding them.

Besides cutting Wheat Ridge High School’s two gifted and talented teachers for a savings of $150,000, the district is also considering the elimination of four gifted and talented resource teachers who work at schools throughout the district. That cut, which would save $350,000, would leave 12 roving gifted and talented teachers in the 86,000-student district.

The proposed budget cuts wouldn’t affect gifted and talented classroom teachers at the 15 elementary and middle schools with gifted and talented centers. Wheat Ridge houses the only gifted and talented high school center in the district.

District officials have said Wheat Ridge High School would be allowed to assume the cost of the two teachers if it wanted to continue the gifted program, but noted the school already pays for some expenses associated with the program itself. Principal Griff Wirth could not be reached for comment.

While some of the district’s other proposed cuts would disproportionately affect low-income students — including the  elementary school closures — that is not the case with the potential gifted and talented cuts.

That’s because Jeffco’s gifted and talented program, like many elsewhere in Colorado and the nation, skews toward white middle- and upper-income students.

Only 12 percent of the district’s 11,500 gifted and talented students receive free or discounted school meals — a proxy for poverty — compared to 32 percent of students districtwide. Students of color make up 19 percent of the district’s gifted and talented pool and 33 percent of students overall.

Parent Jaime Peters, who is also an elementary teacher in the district, said the Wheat Ridge center program has been life-changing for her 10th-grade son, who is both gifted and on the autism spectrum. It’s vaulted him from average grades to straight As, helped him take on leadership activities and most important, make friends.

“It’s been huge,” she said.

A position paper from the National Association for Gifted Children says research hasn’t shown that gifted children face more mental health problems than non-gifted children. Still, it notes that characteristics associated with giftedness can be risk factors and that some studies have shown that gifted students are less likely to ask for help.

Peters, who also has an eighth-grade son who’s gifted, said that gifted students can’t just be slotted into honors classes or International Baccalaureate programs and expected to thrive.

She said of her sons, “They’re two years ahead academically and two years behind socially and that seems to be the thing with (gifted and talented) kids.”

money matters

Why money for Memphis schools is about to be based on students, not adults

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Under a budget model switch, Shelby County Schools would focus more on the types of students in their buildings and less on the number of staff per school.

Educators generally agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t work. Now school leaders in Memphis are saying it doesn’t work when distributing money to schools, either.

Beginning this July, Tennessee’s largest district will pilot student-based budgeting at up to eight schools, with the expectation of expanding to the entire district in three years. The goal is to distribute money more equitably.

Under the new method, each student brings to their school a certain dollar amount, which can grow based on factors like whether the student has a disability, is an English language learner, or comes from a low-income family.

That’s a big change from traditional budgeting, which distributes money primarily based on how much it costs to pay the salaries of adults who work in a building. The traditional model usually allocates less money to schools with high-needs students because they generally employ less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

The new approach would give principals more say in how they allocate money within their building. The system also appeals to those who want schools with greater challenges to receive more funding. And recently, student-based budgeting got a boost from President Donald Trump, whose proposed budget includes $1 billion in incentives for school districts with poor students that make the switch.

Leaders with Shelby County Schools have been working for more than a year with Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based consulting organization, to lay the groundwork for the transition. The method already is being used in districts in Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Boston and Houston.

David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, said traditional budgeting models cater to the most politically savvy principals who find funds for academic programs and interventions in system loopholes. Student-based budgeting changes the dynamic to empower principals, making them more like CEOs than strict academicians. It also means principals will have to learn more about the complexities of budgeting.

“It works because you make it more flexible for schools and teams for how they see fit within parameters the district provides,” Rosenberg said.

During the next few months, the Memphis district will analyze how money is being allocated to its schools — which ones don’t have enough funds and which ones have too much under the new formula. The change will create winners and losers, and it’s the losers that concern some school board members.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, finance chief of Shelby County Schools

The board is generally supportive of student-based budgeting and is scheduled next week to vote on a resolution endorsing it. But board members also want the transition to be as painless as possible in a district that they say is underfunded by the state.

Finance chief Lin Johnson reassured board members at a work session this week that the district can mitigate losses for schools with less money. Options include tapping a separate pool of money to lessen the shock and giving some schools an extra year for the transition.

“The goal is not to fund all schools equally, but equitably (and) to make sure the funding we have is meeting the unique needs of students,” he said. “We need to work with schools to provide training and examples, to give schools the support they need to maximize the resources that they have.”

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which fully switched to student-based budgeting 2015, about 60 percent of schools received more money than the previous year. The rest received the same amount.

In other districts, the model has had the effect of shaking up central office structures, increasing the need for fiscal oversight, and stretching principal capacity.

Below is a video from Nashville’s school district to explain how student-based budgeting was rolled out there.

Compromise

Teacher pay overhaul would establish merit pay, tackle salary inequities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small, chief of human resources for Shelby County Schools, explains the district's proposal for a new teacher pay structure.

Since 2014, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has tried to establish a merit pay plan for teachers in Shelby County Schools but, for one reason or another, it’s eluded the district.

Now, his team is trying again — and they’ve come up with a proposal that they hope will help Tennessee’s largest district retain its most talented teachers, while also appealing to teachers that previously have balked at shifting to performance-based pay.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday would address inequities in the pay structure that have given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience for up to 10 years.

Any subsequent raises would be based on teacher evaluation scores of 3 to 5 on the state’s 1-to-5 model, which is based on classroom observations and student test scores.

The plan also would resurrect additional compensation for job-related advanced degrees — but only in the form of bonuses if the teachers rate 4 or 5. The same goes for hard-to-staff teaching positions such as in special education, math and science, as well as veteran teachers who have reached the district’s maximum salary, which would go from $72,000 to $73,000.

The overhaul would take effect next school year using $10.7 million earmarked in Hopson’s proposed $945 million spending plan for 2017-18. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget in April.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a high priority as Shelby County Schools seeks to boost test scores in low-performing schools with many poor students. And research shows teachers have the most influence on student achievement.

Trinette Small, chief of human resources, said the district has to keep its pay structure competitive to retain its most effective teachers, especially with six municipal school systems nearby.

“This is trying to get base pay stabilized,” Small told school board members during a budget review session. “This is an investment in teachers but this is something we can afford.”

In exit surveys, a fourth of high-performing teachers cited noncompetitive pay as their reason for leaving the district, she said. And most who left had the second-highest evaluation score.

The plan pleased school board members, and parts of it appeared to appeal to teachers unions, although its leaders still had some concerns.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said the new structure positions the district for a more stable learning environment.

“The big point about the change was to have (pay) merit-based and not just longevity-based because at a certain point, they plateau,” Caldwell said. “The main thing we got to worry about is student draining and teacher draining.”

School board member Mike Kernell said the plan should boost teacher morale by addressing inequities in the system. “I think by resetting this, we’re going to start seeing more experienced teachers at the right level starting to help the younger teachers without the resentment that you’re making $2,000 less,” he said

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, was mostly pleased with the proposal but took issue with tying pay for advanced degrees with evaluation scores. Teachers should be rewarded in their base pay for advanced degrees, not through bonuses, she said.

Rucker and Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, both said the initial leveling up should apply to all teachers on the former step schedule up to 17 years, instead of stopping at 10.

“If you’re going to abandon the schedule system, at least level everyone up,” Williams told Chalkbeat. “If it’s not going to benefit everybody, you might as well throw it in the trash.”

Small said the leveling up is meant to make teacher pay competitive with new hires. Since the district only incorporates up to 10 years of experience in pay for new teachers, the leveling up was limited to the same.

The New Teacher Project provided consultation on the district’s pay plan by gathering data, conducting focus groups and crafting the compensation model.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the district proposes to level up pay up to 10 years of experience.