Jeffco Interrupted

McMinimee on teacher evaluations, the Jeffco budget, and his role as peacemaker

On Tuesday, we told you about how Dan McMinimee, Jeffco Public Schools’ new superintendent, introduced himself to district staff. Prior to the meeting, McMinimee sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado for a wide-ranging interview. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

First 100 days

McMinimee’s No. 1 goal during his first 100 days is high visibility. “I want people to feel I’m accessible,” he said. “My door is wide open. I want to meet with anyone.” Acknowledging his role as a chief peacemaking officer, he pledged to attend any meeting he’s invited to and will host anyone in his office who asks. He also said he wants to start putting together a coalition, or as he said, “setting a table,” of individuals from throughout the district and county to work on shared goals — especially around the Board of Education’s academic achievement goals, post secondary readiness and teacher effectiveness. “A lot of people want to be engaged in these conversations,” he said. “The challenge is how do we get people to move toward common goals.”

His predecessor

McMinimee confirmed he has been in communication with his predecessor, Cindy Stevenson, who left abruptly in February after she felt she could no longer work with a newly configured board. McMinimee called Stevenson a “respected educator” and characterized the conversations as productive. Stevenson offered her support to McMinimee through his transition, he said. “I appreciate it,” he said.

Lost time

McMinimee said he wants to move quickly to make up for any impact on the classroom the ongoing turmoil between between the board’s three-member conservative majority and certain portions of the community may have had. “The last six months some momentum may have been lost,” McMinimee said, quickly pointing out that “great” work has and continues to be done in Jeffco Public Schools.

Statewide education policy issues and Jeffco

As the superintendent of the state’s second largest school district (largest if you only count K-12 enrollment, as Jeffco officials point out), McMinimee will now have a very prominent role in helping shape statewide education policy. McMinimee said he plans on not only leveraging Jefferson County lawmakers but also his old Douglas County contacts.

He said the three biggest issues challenging school districts statewide are teacher evaluations, standardized testing and how the state funds its schools.

The challenge with teacher evaluations, McMinimee said, is how does a district evaluate a teacher fairly, consistently and within different contexts.

While teacher evaluations may be the most important conversation for those working within schools, state testing is the biggest conversation moving forward, McMinimee said. He said the state and its school districts need to strike a balance and noted that sometimes districts — and not the state — are the culprits behind excessive testing.

McMinimee also said he’s looking forward to working with other superintendents to find a better way to fund schools. He said the funding debate is bigger than just Jefferson County. “We have to look out for all of our students,” he said. “That’s the future of this state.”

Compensation

McMinimee’s salary, which makes him the highest paid CEO for any school district in Colorado, was hotly debated last month. McMinimee said time will tell if he’s worth it, but he hopes in five years peoplewill consider his total $280,000 compensation as a “bargain.”

Budget

Another contentious issue the Jeffco Board of Education took up last month was the district’s budget. In the end the board approved an $18.5 million placeholder for increases in compensation and directed an extra $5 million to charter schools. McMinimee said he was “very comfortable” with how the budget ended up. And he’s confident he can sit down with Jeffco staff to find the $5 million in cuts — if necessary — the district’s finance team is projecting in subsequent years.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

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

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”