culture war

Jeffco parents fear censorship as board considers new curriculum panel, AP history

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi leads a discussion on the earliest days of American colonies. Rossi has taught Advanced Placement U.S. history for more than a decade.

A proposed panel that would oversee Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, curriculum, and assessments is provoking anxiety among some parents who fear the panel could be a de facto tool for censorship.

That’s because the committee’s first task might be to ensure that revisions of an advanced American history class are patriotic and teach students to respect authority.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to decide whether to establish the panel tonight at its evening work session.

The nine-member panel, as outlined by conservative board member Julie Williams, would be appointed by the board and report directly to them on an ongoing basis. The committee would most likely be comprised of lay citizens — not necessarily education and curriculum specialists.

The impetus for the panel is a number of new standards and curriculum questions that have lately proved to be political flash points, including the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and their related assessments.

But, if formed, the new committee is expected to first take up the revised Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which has become the target of conservative criticism across the country.

The new version of the course spends more time on early and recent American history and places greater focus on the role of women and minorities. Many conservative critics have complained that the changes are revisionist and present a negative view of the country. The Colorado State Board of Education has debated the topic but has taken no action. Meanwhile, the Texas State Board of Education just took a preliminary step to curtail the course.

As currently outlined, the proposed panel in Jeffco will be charged with ensuring the course is aligned to Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, and is factual and taught without bias. But the panel is also supposed to make sure materials do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Those directions, which Williams said she replicated from another source, has sparked the most conversation among critics.

“Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history?” asked Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson, rhetorically. “Hiroshima didn’t necessarily look great.”

Williams, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said she recognizes dark times in the nation’s history need to be taught, but she believes the coursework goes further than just pointing out blight spots on the nation’s record.

“There are things we may not be proud of as Americans,” she said. “But we shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place. When [the course questions] our American values and leaves out so many of our founding fathers, that’s concerning to me.”

Taught with fidelity, students should be able to identify and discuss broad themes that have helped create the nation’s identity, including happenings before the British colonies were formed, said Fred Anderson, a University of Colorado professor and one of the architects of the course redesign.

“American history doesn’t start in 1775,” Anderson said. “That’s actually the midpoint. Everything that happens in the national period goes back as equally far. That’s one of the great things [students] should come away with. We’re an amazing nation. It’s an outgrowth of specific historical circumstances. For example, there was a native population that inhabited the land before any European knew it was here.”

Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi said that despite the revised curriculum guide, her classes’ content remains the same.

“It’s America’s story,” she said. “But the new approach engages students in a more thoughtful way that does not make the test the only focus of the curriculum.”

Rossi would not directly comment on the proposed committee, but she did say she was disappointed by the approach.

“I’m saddened to think that anyone doesn’t believe Jeffco U.S. history teachers aren’t already engaging students in healthy discussions,” she said. “Do they not think we’re not talking about patriotism? They don’t even know us. They don’t know what we’re doing.”

Williams admitted she doesn’t know. And that’s the point of the committee.

“All I can say is that this has been brought to me by so many of my stakeholders,” she said. “There are certainly enough questions about this. All I’m asking is for a committee to review it. What does it hurt to look at it?”

Critics of the proposal note that Jeffco Public Schools already has two different curriculum committees that might be able to answer those questions.

One is a regular committee made up of administrators who review and make recommendations on new curriculum before its purchased. The second is an ad-hoc committee pulled together when a parent challenges a specific text.

Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students first and general supporter of the board’s majority, said parents should be more involved in curriculum selection in the first place.

“JCSF is very supportive of the move to increase transparency around curriculum and text book review,” she wrote in an email. “I absolutely agree the community should be involved in selections, but I am not certain of the manner and make up of the review committee. For years, the Jeffco board has talked about community involvement in the curriculum selection and text book review, but what that meant in reality was the books were placed in some libraries for a few weeks and no one really knew about it or even knew who was on any relevant committees.”

While the board has engaged in some conversation, including a lengthy study session with standards experts in August, it has failed to act, mostly because board chairman Ken Witt has asked for more information and time.

Because feelings on standards, curriculum, testing and local control can blur ideological lines, it’s not clear how the board will act — if at all. But some observers believe Witt likely be the swing vote on the matter. Fellow conservative board member John Newkirk is likely to follow William’s request.

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.”