Future of Schools

State Board divisions pop to the surface

Simmering philosophical differences on the State Board of Education bubbled up Wednesday as members tried to work through a list of priorities for the 2013 legislative session.

State Board of Education meeting
State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman (in lavender sweater at left) sits in the audience after leaving the board table because of a disagreement with other members over legislative goals.

At the peak of the discussion, member Elaine Gantz Berman got up from the board table and left the room. She returned a few minutes later but sat in the audience section for a time and then left the meeting for good before it concluded.

Before she left the board table, Berman said, “Let’s cut this off. This is such an unproductive conversation. We’re embarrassing ourselves. … I’m ashamed of this board. Nobody cares what this board thinks. … Why have legislative priorities? We’re completely ideologically opposed to each other. … I’m taking a break. I’m getting out of here.”

When Berman exited, the board was about 45 minutes into a discussion of its proposed priorities for next year’s legislative session. Most of the time was spent on goals related to school finance and teacher quality, issues on which board members have disagreed before.

The board has four Republican and three Democratic members, but member differences aren’t necessarily partisan. Rather, differing philosophies about education are what divide the group.

Berman and fellow Democrats Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff are generally supportive of increased school funding and of education reforms such as the new educator evaluation system. They also support the greater state regulatory role that’s been created by recent reform legislation.

Three Republican members, Debora Scheffel, Paul Lundeen and chair Bob Schaffer, are by no means defenders of the educational status quo but are skeptical about whether more money and more state regulation are the way to improve schools. All three are strong advocates of parent choice as a free-market way to improve schools. The three also are skeptical about the active federal role in education under the Democratic Obama administration.

The board’s fourth Republican, Marcia Neal, often takes something of a middle ground.

All of the members are a bit sensitive about their role in education policymaking. Most of Colorado’s major education initiatives in recent years have come from the governor’s office or key legislators.

Board differences were on display last month during a discussion of teacher licensing. A report presented to the board recommended that license renewal be tied to teacher evaluation results. (See story.)

Wednesday, Lundeen talked extensively about school finance, saying that funding needs to be tied to schools’ ability to improve student achievement: “Money needs to follow success.”

Lundeen also referred to “shopworn language in the education space about more resources. … I don’t want to just keep talking about more resources.” He also indicated his preference for funneling money through parents – the word “vouchers” wasn’t used – rather than to schools.

When the conversation turned to educator quality, last month’s discussion about licensing picked back up, and Berman left during the middle of it. After she left, Schaffer said, “I frankly want a high bar” to entering teaching. “I prefer that it be at the hiring end … rather than at the state bureaucracy level.”

Despite their philosophical differences, state board members generally are cordial and at ease with each other during meetings, and discussions remain civil.

Berman returned to the room within five minutes, but she pointedly sat in the audience and didn’t participate. A few minutes after that, Scheffel asked, “Might we invite Elaine back to the table?” Berman didn’t move.

A short time later, after Schaffer called a break, Berman returned to the board table and began packing up her laptop. Scheffel came over to her, and the two talked for a moment before embracing. Then Berman left for good.

The board made some minor tweaks to the draft of the legislative priorities but left the rest of the discussion, and a vote, to its Nov. 14 meeting.

At the very end of the meeting, long after Berman had left, Scheffel raised another touchy subject – the Common Core Standards in English and math that the board adopted on a split vote in 2010. Scheffel, noting growing discussion in parts of the education world about whether those standards are a good thing, asked if the state board should have a full-blown discussion of the issue before the end of the year.

Members casually kicked the issue around for a while but made no decision.

Although the Common Core Standards were not developed by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Education has made state adoption of Common Core a requirement for waivers from the No Child Left Behind law. But some conservatives see the Common Core as one more example of federal intrusion into education.

About the State Board of Education

Board members are elected on a partisan basis from the state’s congressional districts. Here’s a list of member districts:

  • Elaine Gantz Berman – 1st District – Denver
  • Angelika Schroeder – 2nd District – Northern Colorado, centered on Boulder
  • Marcia Neal – 3rd District – Western Colorado plus Pueblo
  • Bob Schaffer – 4th District – Eastern Colorado plus Fort Collins area
  • Paul Lundeen – 5th District – Colorado Springs area
  • Debora Scheffel – 6th District – Southern Metro area
  • Jane Goff – 7th District – Northern, Western Metro area

Changing district lines

  • District lines are changing with the Nov. 6 election. Schroeder is running for reelection in a 2nd District that now includes Fort Collins. Schaffer is not running, and Republican Pamela Mazanec of Douglas County is unopposed in the new 4th District. So the state board will continue to have a GOP majority even if Schroeder is reelected.

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”


‘Genius grant’ writer to Memphis: ‘We’re losing the only gains we’ve made’ against segregation

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning New York Times Magazine writer, speaks on school segregation during her first public appearance in Memphis.

Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.

She was among the 24 recent winners of a no-strings-attached prize known as the MacArthur “Genius Award.” (Read more about her work here.)

Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported  article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.

In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.

Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:

“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.

“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”

Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district sessessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th Century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.

“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are.… You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”

Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.

“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”

“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”

She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation —  before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.

Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here).