LITTLETON — After a week-long student-organized protest against a proposed curriculum review panel that some fear could lead to censorship, it appears both sides of a fractured Jefferson County Public Schools community are digging in their heels.
In interviews and statements to the media, members of the school district’s majority appear resolute in their pursuit of a commission to study an advanced history course’s curriculum and other texts as they see necessary to ensure coursework is balanced.
Meanwhile, parents and teachers critical of the board are preparing to step up their ground game by establishing a countywide network in order to quickly mobilize parents if they believe the board steps out of line.
Given the battle lines drawn, it’s becoming more uncertain how the two sides of the fractured community can find their way back to one another.
“There’s just so much,” said Jeffco Public Schools parent and teacher Allison Olis, referring to the growing list of controversies that have fractured the school system.
Olis was one of about two dozen parents and teachers who gathered early Friday morning to wave protest signs at a busy intersection in the suburban Denver commuinty. Another, larger protest is scheduled for next week.
Tina Gurdikian, a vocal parent activist who also joined the morning gathering, said the rash of student protests — and rumors of more — should be enough to get the board majority to listen to the community.
“We’re doing our part,” she said. “Now they need to do theirs: listen.”
The board will have that chance at its Oct. 2 meeting, the first since the controversy around the proposed review committee made national headlines. Students who participated throughout the week’s protest pledged to take their concerns to Golden, where the board meets.
An agenda published for the meeting late Friday afternoon did not include the proposal. However, the board can add a discussion item to the agenda up to 24 hours before they meet.
The stakes for the school district might even be higher next week, according to 9News. The station reported that students are considering a districtwide walkout on Oct. 1, the state’s official “count day” that establishes funding for school districts. If students skip school en masse Wednesday, that would cause a logistical nightmare for Jeffco Public Schools, the second largest school system in the state.
In order to secure funding for students not present on Oct. 1, schools must provide additional evidence to the state to prove just how many students are enrolled in its schools.
Students who helped organize walkouts at Chatfield, Lakewood and Pomona high schools said they haven’t heard of such plans yet. But the Chatfield principal took to social media to plead with her students not to miss class.
“If we have an inaccurate October count, we will end up being shorted on money that supports all facets of the school and school district, including possible class offerings and teacher staffing and salaries, two of the issues that many students have said they are fighting for,” Principal Wendy Rubin wrote on the school’s Facebook page.
Board chairman Ken Witt said in a statement to Chalkbeat that he hopes the students who took to the street realize that curriculum review is just part of the job for a school board.
“To ensure that the board fulfills that charge, it has been proposed that the board establish a curriculum review committee to provide input from parents and the community, in addition to many other inputs, including the school district,” Witt said. “My goal is to ensure we have balanced and thorough curriculum.”
In interviews with other media outlets, Witt has laid blame on the student walkouts at the feet of the county’s teachers union.
“I have had students tell me so, directly,” Witt told Chalkbeat when asked for evidence to support his claim the union fostered the student protests.
But dozens of students who spoke with Chalkbeat throughout the week of protests expressed frustration that their teachers in fact aren’t talking about the growing tension.
The Jefferson County Education Association has strongly pushed back against Witt’s claim it had anything to do with the protests or an apparent “sick-out” that forced Jeffco officials to close two high schools last week.
“It’s defamation of character, as far as I’m concerned,” Gurdikian said. “Give our kids some credit.”
Gurdikian said she and other parents critical of the board majority are working toward establishing a network of parents throughout the county — at least one family from every school.
“Seventy percent of Jeffco isn’t connected to the school district,” Gurdikian said, referring to those who either don’t work for or send their children to the system’s schools. “We have to reach them. This majority was elected by the people who didn’t vote last year.”
In the off-year election, about 130,000 people, or 31 percent, voted in the last year’s school board race. Williams won by the widest margin, with 61 percent of the vote. Witt earned 58 percent of the vote and Newkirk beat his opponent with 54 percent.
Sheila Atwell, executive director of reform-minded Jeffco Students First and general supporter of the board majority, pointed out those who did vote are getting what they asked for.
“We ran on giving every effective teacher a raise,” she said. “And that’s what the board majority is doing.”
Nearly 100 percent of Jeffco teachers are expected to see a raise this year after the board approved a new teacher compensation model earlier this month. The proposal came at the same meeting that the board’s majority rejected recommendations from a third party on how to settle ongoing negotiations with the teachers union.
While some teachers are concerned about linking raises to evaluations, which the third party found to be unreliable, a louder concern was the lack of collaboration between the board and the Jefferson County Education Association.
And Atwell acknowledged the criticism that chairman Witt’s sometimes-bullish behavior at meetings doesn’t provide a welcoming atmosphere.
“I want [the board majority] to succeed,” Atwell said. “So, it’s frustrating. I do wish Ken had a more conciliatory style. That would be nice.”