kindergarten clash

Jeffco board balks at expanding free full-day kindergarten

In a school district with a $648 million budget, the $600,000 proposal to add free full-day kindergarten at five more Jefferson County elementary schools next year appeared to be a modest expansion of an existing program.

But the removal of that line item by a split vote of the conservative-leaning  school board on April 3 has generated an outcry that has some community members questioning the board’s priorities and its approach to the district’s growing low-income population.

Now, a group of concerned parents is mobilizing to speak out against the removal of the line item at the board’s May 1 meeting, and administrators are scrambling meet the board majority’s request for Jeffco-specific data showing the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten.

The fate of the kindergarten expansion proposal is still unclear and there’s been no move to eliminate free full-day kindergarten at the 40 schools where it’s currently offered.

But the debate has highlighted how much the political winds have changed since the district first launched free full-day kindergarten at 30 schools in 2008 and expanded it twice in subsequent years. These days, the board’s three-member majority has taken a skeptic’s stance on the accepted wisdom that full-day kindergarten can help improve reading proficiency, close achievement gaps and reduce retention rates.

School Board President Ken Witt said on Thursday that while he found national studies showing positive outcomes from full-day kindergarten “certainly enlightening,” other studies have shown that the effects don’t last.

“There’s competing information on this topic,” he said.

For veteran observers of the early childhood political landscape, the board’s demand for local data and concerns about possible “fade-out” come as no surprise.

“Typically, it’s the conservative right that’s opposed things like quality preschool and full-day kindergarten,” said Bruce Atchison, director of the Early Learning Institute at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

He said while fade-out of full-day kindergarten effects has been demonstrated in some research, “the reality is that’s a couple studies.”

Many more, he said, show that such programs have lasting positive effects on children

Expansion proposal follows trends

In Colorado and nationally, free full-day kindergarten — especially in schools and districts with large concentrations of poor students — has become increasingly common in recent years.

“As we had money available, we made sure it went to free full-day [kindergarten]” said Marcella Hoefner, director of early childhood education in Jeffco.

Parents like Kelly Johnson worry that by blocking expansion of the program, the current board is neglecting the needs of low-income students.

“I just am not getting the picture… that they are looking at those kiddos,” she said. “We’re going to be a have- and have-not district.”

But Witt said the current model in which free full-day kindergarten is available school wide at select schools even though some families can afford to pay for it isn’t efficient or fair.

The 40 Jeffco schools that currently offer free full-day kindergarten — down from 45 a couple years ago — have low-income populations ranging from 36.8 to 95 percent. The five schools that would have added free full-day kindergarten under next year’s budget proposal have low-income populations ranging from about 37 to 43 percent.

Given such numbers, it’s clear that some families not classified as low-income currently have access to free full-day kindergarten and even more would under the expansion proposal. At the April 3 meeting, Witt expressed concern that the proposed expansion could lead the way to free full-day kindergarten at every school. In response, some audience members called out “yes” and applauded.

Witt responded, “No, I’d like to make data-based decisions, data-driven decisions.”

Advocates for the five-school expansion agree that some of the families served by free full-day are not officially poor, but say they may not be particularly well-off  either, or may include English language learners who struggle in school because of language barriers, not poverty.

Overall, 34 percent of Jeffco students come from low-income families, up from 18 percent a decade ago. District administrators noted that the county also has the highest homeless population in the state.

Tricky funding 

While some states fund universal full-day kindergarten, Colorado does not. Currently, school districts get funding for full-day kindergarteners equal to 58 percent of the amount they receive for first- through 12th-grade students — an average of $3,858 instead of $6,652 per student. That means districts must come up with the rest of the money for free full-day themselves, either from their general funds, federal Title 1 dollars, grants or some other source.

“The more innovative districts are out there raising money,” said Atchison.

DPS data showing achievement differences between full-day and half-day kindergarteners.
DPS data showing achievement differences between full-day and half-day kindergarteners.

Colorado Springs District 11, where 57 percent of district students are low income, is one district that offers free full-day kindergarten at all traditional elementary schools.  In Cherry Creek, where 26 percent of students are low-income, free full-day kindergarten is available at six of the district’s more than 40 elementary schools. At other schools there, parents pay $290 a month, or $218 if they’re low income, for an afternoon add-on called “Kindergarten Enrichment.”

In Denver, where 73 percent of students are low income, full-day kindergarten is available at every school, but is only free for students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Others pay a sliding-scale fee ranging from $90 to $310 a month. All told, 99.27 percent of Denver kindergarteners attend a full-day program. In Jeffco, that number is 75 percent.

Asked if Jeffco would consider a sliding scale fee model for full-day kindergarten, administrators said they were unsure.

Witt said, “We will certainly consider a proposal that’s brought.”

While parent Tina Gurdikian believes the state should fully fund universal full-day kindergarten, she said, “In the meantime, it doesn’t mean the district shouldn’t advocate for it.”

Like other parents concerned about the recent board decision, she feels it will help the district reach some of its key achievement goals, including increasing the percentage of third-graders who score proficient or advanced on third grade reading tests from 80 to 85% by August 2015.

But to Witt, it’s not clear without seeing Jeffco-specific data that free full-day kindergarten is the means to that end.

“We have to have plans that are data-driven,” he said. “Jeffco information is important.”

Gurdikian said, “I understand his request for Jeffco data, but to ignore any state and national data is shortsighted.”

Hoefner, noting that the district’s assessment team is now working to compile kindergarten achievement data, said, “We had not, as a team, ever been asked to provide trend data.”

In neighboring Denver Public Schools, local data on the impact of full-day kindergarten show that full-day students do better in reading than their half-day peers. The differences were largest in kindergarten, but were still evident by third-grade.

For example, 57 percent of Denver’s kindergarteners who attended full-day programs between 2001-02 and 2008-9 scored proficient or advanced on third-grade reading tests , compared to 51 percent of half-day kindergarteners.

Picking and choosing investments

One of the issues that has rankled supporters of free full-day kindergarten over the last few weeks is that some higher-dollar programs that appear to benefit advantaged students most have gotten the green light. These include $7.5 million for charter schools and $855,000 for gifted and talented education.

Johnson cited Sheridan Green Elementary as an example of how the board’s budget choices are creating a disparity in funding for different populations. The school, one of the five that would have added free full-day kindergarten next year, will become a gifted and talented center school thanks to the budget line item.

While Johnson said it’s a great program, she said it “creates another divide.”

“The gifted and talented kids just got significantly invested in…and the at-risk kids don’t get it,” she said.

Witt said funding for charters and gifted and talented education are not related to funding for free full-day kindergarten.

He said they are “separate decisions based on separate issues.”

Interestingly, the community appears to support both types of programming. A recent district survey of more than 13,000 people showed that 71 percent of respondents agreed with investing in free full-day kindergarten and 70 percent agreed with expanding choice options, such as gifted and talented, IB and STEM education.

Parents like Johnson and Gurdikian believe the district can afford to fund both priorities and hope they can convince the board to revive the free full-day kindergarten line item at the next meeting.

“In my mind, it’s still on the table,” said Gurdikian. “We’re not giving up on this yet.”

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.