Own Worst Enemy

Researchers: Jeffco leadership transition could hinder achievement goals

The Jeffco Public Schools’ search for a new superintendent may be in jeopardy even before the hunt for a new leader begins in earnest, education policy and leadership researchers told Chalkbeat Colorado.

And even the best thought-out transition plan between outgoing Superintendent Cindy Stevenson and whomever the board selects to take her place is likely to yield turnover at the district’s headquarters and schools, researchers said. A massive brain-drain could prevent the state’s second largest district from increasing its student achievement, as the board is seeking to do.

Increased media attention, rampant rumors and widespread distrust among the district’s community of parents, teachers, administrators and the board may make it difficult to attract a credible superintendent candidate, said Christine Campbell, policy director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or CRPE.

“Smart, hard working, outcome-driven people are not that interested in working in a system with a board that might be hard to understand or is akin to micromanaging,” she said.

The Jeffco board Tuesday night publicly interviewed two executive search firms it’s considering to aide in a nationwide search to replace Stevenson, who served as Jeffco’s chief for more than a decade.

The board is expected to ink a contract with either Ray and Associates or Proact Search next week.

Stevenson’s last day is Friday. She’s leaving the district sooner than expected after her relationship with the board’s new majority deteriorated. Stevenson had planned on retiring at the end of the school year. She made that announcement after the board’s new conservative majority was elected in November.

Board President Ken Witt said he expects to have a new superintendent selected — and hopefully in place — by the end of May. Several board members raised concerns with the firms about the timeline. But both companies agreed it was possible. 

Campbell contends if Jeffco’s board and the segments of community that feel disenfranchised aren’t able to publicly repair its relationship — and quickly — the district is likely to end up with a “manager” rather than an ambitious risk taker, which she believes Jeffco will need to fulfill the achievement goals the board has outlined.

Jeffco already outpaces the state’s averages in most academic achievement measures. But the district’s aggregate proficiency scores and growth rates have been flat for years.

“Right now,” she said, “[the board] is starting in a bad place.”

Even after a superintendent is hired, academic achievement might continue to stagnate — or drop — before improving, said Seattle Pacific University professor Tom Alsbury.

Alsbury has studied the relationship between board and superintendent turnover and academic achievement for more than a decade. His research, drawn from five decades of school board activity around the United States, suggests that when boards of education shift dramatically and when a superintendent transition takes place, it causes a ripple effect in personnel and policies that slow outcomes.

“Boards do matter,” Alsbury said.

Any new superintendent for Jeffco, Alsbury said, will likely be hired with a presumed mandate from the board.

“What we see, even now, before the new superintendent is hired, is concern at the central admin and  the principal level,” Alsbury said. “These people are evaluated by the superintendent. They have no tenure protections. What we see happening is a significant number of  highly effective people start to look for jobs else where, particularly where there are more stable districts.”

When principals leave, teachers follow, Alsbury said.

“We also see, when principals start to turn over, then we see teachers turn over,” he said. “They polish off the resume, and put it out there. And when they inevitably get job offers — especially the good ones — they say, ‘I’m going to take this chance.'”

Jeffco is the next …

Take a ride in an elevator at Jeffco’s headquarters during a board meeting and you’re likely to hear: “Jeffco is the new Dougco.”

In 2009, Dougco, short for Douglas County School District, saw its own conservative sweep of seats on its school board. That board ended its relationship with the teachers union, established a merit-pay system for educators and approved the state’s first voucher program, which is currently being debated in court.

Jeffco board observers charge that “the new majority is following the Dougco playbook.”

Controversy around Douglas County’s board has also sparked concerns that teachers and school leaders will abandon the district en masse. But district officials there argue that the teacher turnover rate is decreasing and is not large enough to warrant real concern.

In some ways, the apparent ideological divide on Jeffco’s board might bear even greater resemblance to the immediate past board of Denver Public Schools.

Prior to the November election, the DPS board was staunchly divided, 4-3, on issues such as support for charter schools, pay-for-performance, data driven accountability and closing low-performing schools. DPS observers regularly chastised the board for what they characterized as petty squabbles that yielded no improved academic outcomes for students. Several went so far as to assert Denver’s potential growth had been stalled out of fear of political retribution.

In a report, released earlier this month, by the Donnell-Kay Foundation found only one in every six students in DPS attended a quality school in 2013. One reason why, the report’s author said, was because of its governing board.

“DPS has to have been, over the last five years, overly political because of the divisiveness on the school board,” Alex Ooms said. “You often make choices, in a climate of difficult politics, you would not make otherwise.”

Boards across the nation face similar struggles, said David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Organizations founder when there is instability,” Bloomfield said. “Like any corporation, where there is infighting and distraction among leadership, the organization loses direction.”

Jeffco board members and union leaders insist their teachers and administrators are professionals and classrooms won’t suffer. Everyone from the top down is focused on one thing: student performance.

But, amid conversations about issues that do impact student achievement such as the budget, teacher contract negotiations and a search for a new leader, a member of the board’s majority, Julie Williams has asked for a review of the district’s communication policies.

Williams’ request comes after a public exchange on the social media website Twitter between two members of the Jeffco PTA Michele Patterson and Shawna Fritzler. Their tweets reference Williams, Witt, the Jeffco PTA, and guns. The conversation does not include a specific threat against any member of the board, but it was enough to rattle Williams.

“We already have enough to worry about with the cyber bullying going on among our students,” Williams said in a statement. “This type of behavior is immature and is not the type of example we want to be for our children. This should be handled in the proper administrative manner as soon as possible.”

While both Patterson and Fritzler are members of the PTA, the conversation was exchanged from their personal accounts — not authorized Jeffco accounts.

“Very often small issues become causes for irreparable fracture,” Bloomfield said.

Big picture: Empower the district

The school boards that are most effective at boosting student achievement, according to research done by CRPE, are governing bodies that  focus on just a few things. They hire an executive to build a team to handle the rest.

The more hands-on a board is, the lesser the results, CRPE’s Campbell said.

“A board should really be very focused on a few responsibilities that might make them more effective,” she said. “Hiring-firing the superintendent, be accountable for school performance, focus on strategies and outcomes, reduce distractions. At the end of the day, looking across all types of governance models, what mattered most was the scope of the work.”

There are specific policies and practices the board can direct Jeffco to adopt or improve to smooth things over and keep its best teachers and administrators, CRPE’s Campbell said.

  • Promote autonomy: Make sure district professionals, especially school leaders, have control of their own staff, budget and curriculum. Establish a culture of valued professionals and their expertise.
  • Expand professional development: Give teachers the time and opportunity to leave the classroom to learn. Arrange teachers to visit other classrooms across the district and partner with teachers to share their work.
  • Create and maintain career ladders for central administrators.

In interviews and public statements, Witt has hinted he’s interested in exploring some of these exact policies, especially innovation schools.

However, in the three months since he’s been sworn in, Witt also has been repeatedly accused of micromanaging the district and overstepping his authority

Stevenson said she’s leaving in part because she felt she was unable to manage the district. And Tuesday, Witt wanted to personally release a letter to district staff reassuring stability and next steps. While his intentions may have been noble, members of the board’s minority cautioned him: direct communication with Jeffco staff isn’t the role of a board president.

Witt tabled the letter to review board policies.

Another piece of advice for the any new board, said Brooklyn College’s Bloomfield: go slow.

“I think the best change is always incremental,” he said.

Recalls tend to be fruitless

Experts Chalkbeat Colorado spoke with also had a few suggestions for members of the community who might find themselves opposed to the board’s new majority.

First: don’t attempt a recall. They rarely work, Alsbury said. Usually successful recalls only follow egregious abuses of power, like embezzlement. Stay active and wait for the next election cycle.

Second: be vigilant, but not forceful. Any large organized demonstration — especially by the teachers union — could backfire, Campbell suggested.

“It can be very distressing to live in a place where [a lot of change] is happening, whether you’re a teacher, a parent or just someone reading the paper,” she said. “Fight for what you really value” but appearing to resist change may not help the cause.

Third: don’t turn a rowboat into the Titanic, Bloomfield said.

He pointed to the co-location debate in New York Public Schools. The policy impacts only about 4 percent of the entire student body, Bloomfield said. But those who oppose the policy make it out to be a bigger inconvenience.

“That’s the kind of sensation that can ruin [a district],” he said.

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.