Our top stories of 2019 — and what to look for in 2020

From the Denver teachers strike to a school safety panic that closed hundreds of Front Range schools to the launch of free full-day kindergarten statewide, Colorado education news made headlines last year.

Other top stories of the year include the closely watched election that “flipped” the Denver school to a union-backed majority, the thorny takeover of the struggling Adams 14 school district by an external manager, and the passage of new laws and policies on student discipline.

As we head into 2020, we thought we’d take a moment to round up our top stories of 2019 and let you know what to expect next year. If you’d like to share a story idea or comment with us, reach out at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Full-day kindergarten

Free full-day kindergarten is coming. Here’s what Colorado parents need to know.

This has been a dream of education advocates and cash-strapped parents for decades. With a new governor who campaigned on expanding kindergarten and a strong economy bringing in more revenue, lawmakers finally took the plunge and funded full-day kindergarten for Colorado students.

What’s next: More than 90% of eligible students enrolled in kindergarten this fall, more than state officials predicted. Education advocates hope to see big payoffs from this investment, with more children reading at grade level and even graduating high school on time. The next big push: Free preschool for more Colorado 4-year-olds.

Denver teachers strike

How a once-promising merit pay system led Denver teachers to the brink of a strike

Teachers in Colorado’s largest school district went on strike for three days in February, the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years. The dispute was not only about higher pay but also about widespread dissatisfaction with a merit pay system that advocates had hoped would transform the teaching profession. By the end of that strike, teachers won both raises and significant changes to the ProComp system.

What’s next: Viewed narrowly, what remains to be seen is whether the new pay structure caused more teachers to return to the district this year than in years past and to stay on the job long-term. The strike also set the stage for a union-backed majority to win control of the Denver school board, potentially setting in motion much bigger changes.

A historic school board election

Why the Denver school board ‘flipped’ and what might happen next

Carried by momentum from February’s teachers strike and a broader backlash against the status quo, candidates opposed to the policies that made Denver Public Schools a national exemplar for education reform took control the school board for the first time.

What’s next: With a former teacher as president and a majority of members backed by the teachers union, the Denver school board will tackle several complicated issues in 2020. One of the biggest? How to “reimagine” the district’s controversial school rating system.

School safety

‘Nothing makes me feel safe.’ How Colorado educators and parents are processing yet another school shooting.

A school shooting in May at STEM School Highlands Ranch took the life of Kendrick Castillo injured eight others, and sent shockwaves through the Denver metro area. The attack took place less than a month after hundreds of schools shut down due to reports that a troubled young woman obsessed with the Columbine had made unspecified threats to schools. Both events revived long-running conversations about school safety, gun control, and mental health but provided no easy answers.

What’s next: State lawmakers are expected to take up a host of school safety related bills, and school districts continue to revise safety procedures. But changes are likely to be incremental. Statistically speaking, schools will remain very safe places, but teachers, students, and parents will continue to live with a gnawing fear in the background.

Read more: First Person: Sol Pais scared me. She also reminded me of the troubled students I want to protect.

Early literacy

Concerned about reading instruction, state cracks down on teacher prep programs, starting with Colorado’s largest

Last February, Colorado’s education department released a scathing review of the University of Northern Colorado teacher prep program, criticizing it for offering reading courses that don’t match up with literacy research. The review came amid ongoing concern about Colorado’s low reading proficiency rates. State leaders also updated the state’s 2012 landmark reading law — the READ Act — with tougher rules, launched a multimillion dollar external audit of how schools and districts spend READ Act money, and authorized a pilot program for dyslexia screening.

What’s next: Consultants will dig into how schools and districts are using about $40 million a year meant to boost third-grade reading proficiency. In addition, the state will continue to scrutinize courses on reading instruction in teacher prep programs. Fort Lewis College in Durango is up next. And the University of Northern Colorado will have to prove it has complied with five state conditions, in order to keep its reauthorization.

Adams 14 in turnaround

Adams 14 defends bilingual model as the district’s new plan for English learners

In the Commerce City-based district of Adams 14, a private company is managing the school district as a last resort imposed by the state to try to improve education. It’s a first for Colorado. The district serves more English language learners than any other in the state, as a share of its student population, and turnaround efforts include yet another plan for how to teach them. That plan raised some concerns from parents who favored the previous approach, which was put on hold.

What’s next: The state is keeping a close eye on what MGT Consulting, the private company, is doing to improve Adams 14 schools. The district also has new locally elected board members to whom MGT is also accountable. Helping English language learners will be essential if test scores are to improve, but it’s just one of many initiatives being pursued by the external manager.

Student discipline

From dozens of suspensions to one: How this Colorado school stopped removing young children

After years of effort, state lawmakers limited out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through second grade. Even before the law changed, one Jeffco elementary that previously had some of the district’s highest early childhood suspension numbers radically changed how it approaches discipline, providing lessons for other schools undertaking this work.

What’s next: Expect to see more districts and schools examine their discipline practices in the early grades to ensure compliance with the new law. Plus, with state data showing out-of-school suspension numbers by grade, it will be easy to see which districts and schools have — and have not — curbed the use of suspensions.

Handcuffed in Denver in fifth grade: ‘Whenever I shut my eyes, I saw the cuffs’

Eleven-year-old Jake DiProfio was handcuffed at school four times this year. The experience left him with nightmares, scars on his wrists, and a visceral fear of police. Faced with stories like Jake’s and others, including the handcuffing of the 7-year-old son of a parent activist, the Denver school board banned the use of handcuffs in elementary schools this year. Data shows that black students and students with disabilities are far more likely to be handcuffed at school.

What’s next: As part of a new policy that bans the use of handcuffs on elementary school students, Denver Public Schools is more closely tracking how many times its school safety officers use handcuffs and on whom. The first “trimester transparency report” was filed in November, and the district will produce two more before the end of the school year.

Changing demographics

Aurora lists campuses that could become magnet schools, or could be ‘repurposed’

Rising rents are pushing families out of some parts of Aurora, while developers plan new subdivisions in the city’s eastern edge. As population shifts leave some schools half-empty and others crowded, Aurora is looking at a new facilities master plan. As part of that process, the Aurora school district released a list of schools for potential “repurposing.”

What’s next: Teams of educators and community members have been formed in each region of the district, with recommendations expected in two regions this spring. First, representatives of each region will determine focus areas for their schools. With that as a guide, the recommendations could include merging schools, closing schools, finding other uses for school buildings, as well as suggestions for creating future schools in growing areas.

Student mental health

‘It’s OK to not be OK’: How one high school saved lives with a 34-question survey

Staff at Cañon City High School in southern Colorado use a 34-question mental health survey to pinpoint teens who need help. In the first year of the program, district staff identified a dozen high-risk students and immediately referred them to community-based mental health crisis teams for formal evaluations. Some of those students had concrete plans to kill themselves.

What’s next: Identifying and supporting students with mental health issues continues to be a massive issue in Colorado. State lawmakers are considering several proposals for the 2020 legislative session that would address youth mental health. They include bills to allow schools to excuse “mental health” sick days, reorganize the Safe2Tell anonymous tip line, expand mental health training for teachers, and require insurance companies to cover annual mental health check-ups.

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed to this roundup.