New Beginnings

New Jeffco superintendent emphasizes community engagement, visibility during first day tour

PHOTO: Jack Maher
Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee speaks to students at Jefferson High School on the first day of school.

Jefferson High School principal Michael James started the school year by challenging his new freshmen to beat the upperclassmen to a cheering contest.

The freshman lost, but, James consoled them that over time their voices would become louder and their spirit stronger.

“I know it’s a challenge to have your first day of school in a new building,”James said.

Jefferson High School is the smallest high school in Jefferson County, with about 550 students. It is this small, close-knit culture that makes the school so special, James said.

“I am one of those principals that is going to push you in many different areas, and one of those areas is involvement,” he said. “I want you to raise your leadership. I want every one of you to be able to say ‘I am a student leader.'”

These freshmen weren’t just meeting new students and staff. Today, they met Jefferson County Public Schools’ new superintendent, Dan McMinimee.

There’s a lot at stake for the new district leader, a former Douglas County Public Schools assistant superintendent.

McMinimee came into leadership during a tumultuous time for the district. Tensions between the board and parents, teachers and community members reached an all-time high when Cindy Stevenson bowed out four months before her retirement, after 12 years as superintendent. Stevenson left, citing distrust between her and the board’s new conservative majority, leading residents demanding a recall of its board members.

His road to appointment wasn’t an easy one. After a split 3-2 vote from the board in May, community members raised concerns about his credentials and whether McMinimee is worth his $280,000 salary.

His message to the students echoed his own charge as district leader — they should become actively involved in their schools.

“You make the decision, today, whether you’re going to be engaged in the Jefferson community,” he said to the 200-some students, teachers and staff gathered in the school’s auditorium.

A principal for seven years, McMinimee said visibility and community input in decision-making are two of his top priorities this school year.

When it comes to getting parents and students involved in decision-making at the school level, McMinimee said empowering principals will be the most important thing.

“I think one of the big things that I do really well is high visibility and high access,” he said. “I think that’s important for people  — especially in a district the size of Jefferson County — to feel like they have access to the superintendent and board of education.”

McMinimee spent Jeffco’s first day back visiting seven schools, including Jefferson High and Edgewater Elementary, which have two of the district’s highest number of students on free-and-reduced lunch.

“If there are challenging circumstances, we need to provide the resources to make sure that building principals get an opportunity to do the things they need to do with their staff to make it a great place for kids,” he said. “Authentic engagement really happens at individual schools,”

After the school assembly, James and McMinimee met to talk about the school’s goals.

“We want to raise the bar for every student,” James said. “We want students to realize that a diploma is the most important gift to receive.”

James said he hopes McMinimee and Jefferson High students and staff can work toward those same goals throughout the school year.

McMinimee said one of his toughest challenges this year will be acclimating to Jeffco’s climate and culture.

“Dr. Stevenson was here for 12 years, so she leaves a tremendous legacy of knowledge around what’s going on in schools and who’s doing what,” McMinimee said. “She probably hired most, if not all, the principals in these schools. I think that familiarity is a big challenge to overcome.”

He said, from there, he hopes the board, teachers and parents can come together to develop common goals.

The board will meet later this month, and McMinimee said he is looking forward to getting to know its members and the community in the coming months.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to meet with them at all, except for my interviews way back in May,” he said. “I hope what comes of that meeting is a sense that we have some great goals that we’re going to be working toward, and we’re going to work together moving forward.”

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.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.