Why Jeffco hasn’t considered academic performance in picking schools to close

Of five Jefferson County elementary schools recommended for closure, one recently received the state’s lowest possible rating for academic performance and another has won awards from the governor for narrowing achievement gaps separating different groups of students.

The other three schools fall somewhere in between on test scores, student academic growth and other measures.

None of that mattered, however, when it came to which schools ended up on the proposed closure list. When Jeffco Public Schools staff considered a list of criteria used to identify which schools should close after this school year, performance was not taken into account.

While districts such as Denver’s use academic performance as the overriding factor in closing schools, Jeffco Public Schools rejects the idea that a struggling school should be shuttered. Still, some board members have questioned whether performance also should be considered in budget-related closures.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the school closures at a meeting Thursday night.

District spokeswoman Diana Wilson, who has handled most interviews about the recommended closures, said Jeffco officials didn’t consider performance because they believe that all schools can be good schools and that struggling schools should get help, not be “punished” with closure.

“That’s just not how we operate,” Wilson said. “All of our schools have great potential and great strengths.”

Board member Amanda Stevens said she would worry about how to best measure performance.

“Jeffco is not in the business of closing low-performing schools,” she said in an interview. “I believe great work is happening at our schools.”

Stevens added she was still open to “exploring different criteria” for selecting schools to close.

That three of the schools recommended for closure were not earlier identified as potential closure victims in a district facilities master plan also has caused tensions.

That list of about a dozen schools was made public in spring 2016. The plan was to close schools that were too costly to fix and merge them in new, bigger buildings.

But rather than pursuing that path, the board voted instead to put two tax requests on the ballot asking for money that in part might help avoid some of the closures and also provide money to move forward with the new buildings.

Bond details provided at the time show Stober Elementary in Lakewood — of the schools now facing closure — would have gotten $7 million for a renovation and four new classrooms. The other four schools now up for closure were not listed as getting any money in the detailed bond summary.

When the measures failed in November, district officials had to rewrite the earlier proposal — without the money for new buildings. In weighing closures, they considered 10 factors including enrollment, underused buildings and the cost of maintenance if the school stayed open. But they also had to find schools near others that could absorb displaced students.

Of the five schools facing closure, Stober and Pleasant View Elementary in Golden were on the original master plan list — and the communities behind those schools organized at that time pressing the board to save their schools. Parents and teachers at Pennington, Swanson and Peck elementary schools only learned two weeks ago that their schools might close this summer.

The district did not respond to questions about which factors mattered more, if any, in deciding which schools to recommend. Stober is not underutilized; it is 99 percent full. Enrollment at Pennington is already showing some growth this year, and all the schools except Swanson Elementary are projected to grow in the next few years.

According to the most recent state ratings released last month, four of the 12 schools where the district has said displaced students would go are lower performing schools than the schools students are in now.

Parents at all five schools are rushing to understand the district’s strategy while they worry about where their children will go next year — and whether their learning will slow at lower performing schools.

In one example, Stober Elementary, which scored a 72.2 out of 100 on the most recent state quality ratings, if closed would send students to Vivian Elementary, Kullerstrand Elementary or Maple Grove Elementary. Kullerstrand and Maple Grove have similar achievement data compared to Stober, but Vivian’s performance is rated much lower. In the most recent state ratings, Vivian scored a 36.3.

The state rating considers achievement on state test scores but also growth and gaps between students of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds or learning abilities.

In another example, Peck Elementary, the school that has won the state awards for closing achievement gaps, would send students to one of three schools including Arvada K-8, where students are showing improvement at a much slower rate than the district and Peck.

At Arvada K-8, students taking state reading tests had a growth score of 31.5. That means Arvada K-8 students showed improvements, on average, better than just 31.5 percent of similar Colorado students. That compares to students at Peck who had a growth score of 58. The Jeffco district’s average growth on the same reading test was 54.

(The school district provided clarifying information after this story was published: Only some students from Peck who would be sixth graders next year — and not any students from other grades — would be relocated to Arvada K-8 if the school closes and the board also approves moving sixth graders to middle schools).

The lowest performing school in the group is Pennington Elementary, a Wheat Ridge school that has had at least three years of low performance and is in the first year of turnaround. So few third graders scored at least proficient on state tests last year that numbers weren’t reported.

Students from Pennington would go to schools that all have higher academic marks.

Francisco Donoso, the father of a third grader at Pennington said he believes his school is a good one, and wondered why the district recommended closing the school.

“I didn’t hear of any problems,” Donoso said.

Experts say closing schools is always emotional, but said a good process is important and performance should be considered.

“Any time you have kids being displaced from school, research shows, it is disruptive,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. He is studying how districts with declining enrollment can make good cost-cutting decisions. “You want to make sure the school options they’re going to are better quality or at least as good quality as the school they left. You would want to try to mitigate some of the ill effects of school closure.”

But measuring that performance is tricky for districts that aren’t always experienced at measuring school performance, Gill said.

“The challenge on school performance, and I would guess why they were maybe reluctant, is if the measures are all test-based,” Gill said. “I think people are sometimes concerned that’s not a complete picture. There are some things almost intangible about schools.”

Gill added that some private school operators are exploring making small school models financially sustainable, but it’s not yet possible in public school districts unless districts consider other changes such as sharing buildings with other groups that could help with maintenance costs.

John Ford, the president of the Jeffco teachers union, criticized the district’s process, but did not address whether the union supports closing the schools, or which factors should count.

The Jeffco teachers union is in a tricky spot because Jeffco’s superintendent has pointed out that the reason the district is looking for at least $20 million is to give teachers a more competitive salary.

“Not only were educators, parents, and building administrators at these schools excluded from these conversations, it seems that the Board of Education was kept in the dark until the very last minute,” Ford said in a released statement. “Our elected representatives have difficult choices to make to ensure we can attract and retain high-quality, experienced educators and we continue to have the schools JeffCo students deserve.”

Depending on the area and when they were built, some Jeffco schools have extra space while others are crowded. The district has estimated there are more than 13,000 unused seats across the district.

So Jeffco is preparing to shift students around, including by moving sixth grade students into middle schools, which will require building new classrooms to make enough space at some.

In Jeffco, most middle schools only enroll seventh and eighth graders, though originally they were built to hold seventh through ninth graders.

Board members have made comments agreeing with the move, pointing out that other districts already have had sixth graders in middle schools for years, and saying that those students are ready to have multiple teachers who are content specialists.

Many families, meanwhile, are struggling with all the changes. Debbie Hansen said she bought her house in Arvada 11 years ago because she knew she wanted her kids to go to Peck.

“Academically, I knew they were a good school,” Hansen said. “Peck has a good reputation. I do think they should have looked at their performance level.”

“Basically if they close down Peck,” she said. “I will probably look at different charter schools because I don’t feel like my kids would be served well at the other schools.”

Hansen had one word for the process she now faces: scary.