agonizing choices

Jeffco board votes to close one elementary school in budget cuts, sparing four others

Students at Pleasant View Elementary and a visiting foster grandparent in 2016 (Jeffco Public Schools via YourHub)

Facing fierce community opposition, Jeffco Public Schools significantly scaled back a plan to slash the district budget, with the school board voting to close one elementary school after this school year and spare four others, at least for now.

In a meeting that ran into early Friday morning, the board voted unanimously to close Pleasant View Elementary in Golden, where 80 percent of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty.

The schools avoiding closure at year’s end are Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge and Stober Elementary in Lakewood. Peck, Swanson and Stober will stay open in part because the board delayed adding sixth grade to the middle schools in those elementary schools’ area, making it impossible to shuffle students in a way that would work.

Two weeks ago, the school district staff laid out more than $20 million in recommended cuts after the failure in November of two tax measures that would have paid for building improvements and boosted teacher pay.

Along with the school closures, staff recommended eliminating all district social and emotional learning specialists, cutting the number of specialists who teach literacy to students who are below grade level and closing a center at Wheat Ridge High School for gifted and talented students.

On Thursday night, after more than two hours of public testimony, Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee described a new, far less drastic plan: all those services would survive and the transition to a new middle school structure would wait a year as had originally been discussed last year, putting off some of the school closures.

The board gave the district approval for the alternative plan, deferring most of the district-level cuts rather than completely taking them off the table, until there is a more clear picture from the state about how much funding Jeffco will get.

McMinimee suggested that using money from retirement savings for now could get teacher and staff salary discussions moving until state funding becomes clearer this spring. Those savings, along with holding off on using reserves to build new classrooms and the district cuts that did move forward Thursday night, give the district approximately $19 million to use toward salary increases for district employees.

“The unanimous feedback that I have heard has asked my team and I to provide you all with some additional alternatives,” McMinimee told the board.

School board members voiced concerns with the original school closure plans, though they cited different reasons. Board members said they wanted the public to understand that the conversations on school closures will continue and that the facilities needs will persist, but said they hoped extra time would improve the process and increase community engagement.

“This will not be the conclusion of the school closure conversation,” said board member Amanda Stevens. “No facility decision I make tonight is driven by a desire to pay teachers. This will get harder.”

As one district staff member put it: “The buildings are going to be a year older. It’s not like wine. It doesn’t get better with age.”

In the decision to go back to an original timeline of moving sixth grade students into middle schools in 2018-19, board members also said they still are excited and support the change, but want to stick to the timeframe they had discussed last year.

The board struggled the most with their vote on Pennington Elementary. Ron Mitchell, the board president, said he was uncomfortable with the idea of voting to close the two schools that had the highest numbers of low-income students among the five schools. Board members stressed the decision likely was just postponing another discussion on closure, and board member Brad Rupert said he was not in favor of “kicking the can down the road.”

Pennington was also one of three schools that had not been on possible closure lists last year. Board members cited the short two-week notice as their reason for sparing Swanson and Peck, the other two schools that were not on lists last year.

Thursday night’s board meeting was packed by parents and community members from each of the schools facing closure. The main board room and overflow rooms were full. West Metro Fire was at the meeting controlling the public’s entrance into the building.

Parents, students and community members criticized the district’s recommendations, the process for selecting the schools and other cuts.

“I went to the Jefferson County board of education website and it has you guys talking about integrity and it says you strive to provide a quality education,” said Ruben Arambula a parent at Swanson Elementary. “In order for my kids to get this quality that you’re talking about, Swanson needs to stay open.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and a Jeffco parent, spoke at the board meeting, saying she understands difficult budget decisions, but said these school communities have strong neighborhoods that would take too big of a hit.

“Leaving our students stranded can never be a choice,” said Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and a Jeffco parent. “We must take the time to find another way.”

In recommending the schools that would close, the district considered 10 factors including the cost of building maintenance to keep schools open, low enrollment and the utilization of the building. The demographics of the schools and their academic performance were not considered.

The five school closures would have contributed about $3.5 million toward the more than $20 million in cuts the district proposed originally.

Although the full budget doesn’t have to be approved for a few more months, the district staff had asked the board to vote on these cuts now so that the money saved could be used as the board starts hiring for next year, and as they negotiate salaries for teachers and other district employees next year.

The school district’s bond request that failed in November would have contributed more than $12 million to improve employee salaries so that they are more competitive with neighboring districts. Since other districts did get voters to approve tax increases, the district worried that the gap between those salaries and the ones Jeffco provides would grow.

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

But about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.

Changes

As Denver gentrifies, which neighborhoods are losing public school students?

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Members of Denver's Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative committee examine demographic data at a meeting Monday.

As more young adults move to Denver and the cost of housing skyrockets, some city neighborhoods are seeing drops in the percentages of people of color and children.

Those changes affect Denver Public Schools, which has been the fastest-growing urban school district in the country. But that growth is slowing. Birth rates are down and many of the new transplants responsible for Denver’s population boom don’t have kids.

In addition, rising housing prices are pushing families out of some neighborhoods. A recent report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign found that the 92,000-student district is more racially segregated now than it was ten years ago. (DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg has said he doesn’t necessarily agree with that claim.)

A new committee created by the Denver school board got a closer look this week at population changes and demographic shifts in Denver’s 78 neighborhoods.

The Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative committee is set to spend the next six months studying how gentrification is impacting schools. The 42 members are tasked with suggesting ways to increase racial and economic integration in DPS schools and address the declining number of school-aged children in certain parts of the city.

The data provided to the committee at its second-ever meeting Monday night includes a lot of numbers, and you can see them in full at the bottom of this story. But we’ve pulled out some highlights.

Five neighborhoods where the number of students who attend a DPS school declined from 2010 to 2015.

1. Highland in northwest Denver, down 21 percent.
2. Marston in southwest Denver, down 14 percent.
3. Lincoln Park in west Denver, down 13 percent.
4. Jefferson Park in northwest Denver, down 12 percent.
5. Sunnyside in northwest Denver, down 6 percent. Bear Valley in southwest Denver and Clayton in central Denver also saw 6 percent decreases.

Five neighborhoods that saw big demographic shifts from 2010 to 2015.

1. Northeast Park Hill in near northeast Denver, where the percentage of black residents shrunk from 55 to 42 percent and the percentage of white residents grew from 11 to 20 percent.

2. Baker in northwest Denver, where half the residents in 2010 were Hispanic. By 2015, white residents were the majority: 56 percent compared 34 percent who were Hispanic.

3. Whittier in central Denver, where 40 percent of residents in 2010 were black and 38 percent were white. In 2015, 24 percent of residents were black and 50 percent were white.

3. Globeville in central Denver, which saw its Hispanic population decrease from 80 percent to 61 percent and its white population increase from 15 to 33 percent.

5. A few neighborhoods saw increases in the percentage of residents of color and decreases in the percentage of white residents, though white residents remained the majority. They include Hampden in southeast Denver and Washington Virginia Vale in near northeast Denver.

Five neighborhoods that saw big changes in the percentage of families living in poverty from 2010 to 2015.

1. Baker in northwest Denver, where the percentage of families living in poverty fell from 47 percent in 2010 to 17 percent in 2015, which is the citywide poverty rate.

2. Jefferson Park in northwest Denver, where the percentage fell from 48 to 24 percent.

3. Lincoln Park in northwest Denver, where the percentage fell from 47 to 26 percent.

4. West Colfax in northwest Denver, which saw the sharpest increase from 20 to 35 percent.

5. College View in southwest Denver, which saw an increase from 29 to 38 percent.

The data shows that many of Denver’s neighborhoods are racially segregated. Here are the neighborhoods where 80 percent or more of residents in 2015 were of one ethnicity.

Westwood in southwest Denver, 80 percent Hispanic
Elyria Swansea in central Denver, 83 percent Hispanic
West Highland in northwest Denver, 80 percent white
Civic Center in northwest Denver, 82 percent white
City Park in central Denver, 81 percent white
Congress Park in central Denver, 82 percent white
Cherry Creek in central Denver, 87 percent white
Speer in southeast Denver, 86 percent white
Washington Park West in southeast Denver, 85 percent white
Washington Park in southeast Denver, 90 percent white
Belcaro in southeast Denver, 93 percent white
Cory-Merrill in southeast Denver, 86 percent white
Platt Park in southeast Denver, 89 percent white
University Park in southeast Denver, 84 percent white
Wellshire in southeast Denver, 92 percent white
Southmoor Park in southeast Denver, 87 percent white
Hilltop in near northeast Denver, 90 percent white
There were no neighborhoods where 80 percent or more of residents were black.

The committee is set to meet next in August to discuss DPS’s existing integration policies.

Chalkbeat intern Marissa Page contributed information to this report.