Future of Schools

Dougco GOP active in Jeffco races

Apparently confident of victory in Douglas County, Republican Party officials there want to lend a hand to GOP-backed school board candidates in Jefferson County as Election Day draws closer.

Dougco Republican Party chairman Mark Baisley sent an email Thursday notifying party volunteers that they’ll be calling on behalf of Jefferson County school board candidates Preston Branaugh and Jim Powers until Tuesday.

“Thank you for all of the phone calls that you have been making to get the vote out. The returns reported by the Douglas County Clerks office show that we are well ahead,” he wrote.

“We are shifting our focus to help our Republican friends in Jefferson County with their races. If you sign in to the website to make more calls, please note the change in the script, as we will be calling Jefferson County residents from now until November 1. Thanks!”

A copy of the email was forwarded to Education News Colorado and others. Jeffco school board candidates Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, Branaugh and Powers’ opponents, cited it Friday on their Facebook pages.

Powers

“I don’t understand why my opponent wants Jefferson County to be like Douglas County,” Dahlkemper said. “I don’t understand why my opponent needs to go outside of Jefferson County for help.”

Powers, who is opposing Dahlkemper for the District 4 seat representing central Jeffco, responded to a request for comment on the email with a statement: “My position on vouchers is unchanged. I am not running for the Jeffco school board to implement vouchers.”

Douglas County has frequently cropped up in the campaigns to lead the state’s largest school district.

In 2009, Dougco’s Republican Party actively endorsed a four-member slate of conservatives in the non-partisan board races. The slate was elected and, 18 months later, the Dougco school board unanimously approved the state’s first district-run voucher pilot.

Branaugh

So when Jeffco’s Republican Party decided this year to actively promote conservative school board candidates Branaugh and Powers, also known as “the dads,” the two were repeatedly questioned about their positions on vouchers.

Their responses, particularly in early candidate forums, were not definitive. In one forum attended by EdNews, the men said the issue was unlikely to come up during their four-year terms on the board – since the Dougco voucher plan is in limbo pending appeals – so it was a moot point.

Both Dahlkemper and Fellman have consistently said they oppose vouchers.

Dahlkemper accuses her opponent, Powers, of “flip-flopping” on the issue, saying at one forum that vouchers should be “on the table” and at another that he was neither for nor against them. In a later forum attended by EdNews, Powers said, “I have no reason to push a voucher system.”

Branaugh on Friday said he was not aware of Baisley’s email to Dougco GOP volunteers to help Jeffco school board candidates. When he was forwarded a copy, he wrote that it was “interesting” and added, “I do not support sending public dollars to private schools.”

Fellman, who is vying with Branaugh for the District 3 seat representing central and northeast Jeffco, said it’s “really kind of sad that our opponents are reaching out to Douglas County to get people to call into Jefferson County.”

Baisley, who acknowledged sending the email, said he had offered help to Jeffco earlier in the year and that the candidates’ campaigns had recently requested he follow through.

Fellman

“We would like to see parents better represented by their elected officials,” he said, saying the current Dougco school board reflects the sentiments of county voters “like never before.”

“There’s a lot of folks throughout the state who call us the envy of Colorado when it comes to school board representation and where we can help out our neighbors, yeah, we will do so.”

Baisley said there’s nothing “earth-shattering” about party volunteers in one place lending aid to another, noting those in 49 states are now calling Iowa on behalf of their presidential picks.

Nor does he see is as providing an unfair advantage, noting teachers’ union have long been involved in school board campaigns and helping select those who later negotiate their contracts.

Dahlkemper

“Is that not a conflict of interest?” he said. “That’s the kind of ‘fairness’ we’ve been up against as citizens for generations and the Republican Party in Colorado has just caught on to that.”

Don Ytterberg, Jeffco’s GOP chair, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Republican Party’s involvement in non-partisan school board races in Douglas and Jefferson counties has been the subject of media reports, such as this piece from 9News.

Earlier this week, Douglas County school board candidate Susan Meek filed a complaint over mailers which depict an “official Republican ballot” and list the GOP-backed candidates.

The Secretary of State’s Office found no violation. One Dougco candidate, incumbent board member Justin Williams, declared on his Facebook page that it’s his First Amendment right to announce his affiliation.

“This is yet another example of partisan politics in nonpartisan school board races,” Meek said. “It is unfortunate the Secretary of State has chosen to cast a blind eye on the political maneuverings that have taken over these races.

“Candidates are required to sign a affidavit indicating the race as nonpartisan — clearly, this is not the case. Our children and communities deserve better than the political games politicians play.”

  • Check the EdNews Election Center for more information on school board candidates in Douglas and Jefferson counties.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.