staying power

Jeffco students to board majority: we aren’t going anywhere

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco Public Schools students took to the streets for a week in September to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believed would censor some of their classes.

Feeling scorned by their school district’s conservative board majority, Jefferson County high school students plan to keep the heat on their elected officials.

Calling themselves the Jeffco Student Network for Change, the coalition plans to make their public debut at a noon rally Saturday in Littleton.

Organized by about 20 students from most of the suburban county’s high schools, the students plan to ask attendees whether they would support a recall of at least two members of school board majority made up of Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk.

The question of whether to attempt to recall the conservative majority, who were each elected by wide margins last year, has often been a topic of conversation among parents, teachers, and board observers.

While the conversation reached a fevered pitch last spring before a summer cool-down, no official campaign manifested. In fact, some of the most vocal and connected opponents to the board majority privately dissuaded one another from pulling the trigger on an expensive recall election.

It won’t work. It will cost too much money. It will be mutually assured destruction, they said.

But a recent decision to revamp an existing curriculum review process and place it under the board of education’s purview has changed things, said Ashlyn Maher, a Chatfield High School senior.

Still too young to vote herself, Maher said, “a recall is much more feasible now.”

If official recall petitions aren’t ready by Saturday, Maher said, students will collect contact information from attendees Saturday.

In order to establish a recall election, the student organization would need to collect 15,000 signatures, or 40 percent of the voters in the last regular election, per board member. They would have 60 days to collect those signatures after they file the recall petitions with the county clerk. If enough certified signatures are gathered in time, an election would be held between 45 and 75 days.

Jeffco Public Schools would be required to pay for the election’s costs.

“It’s a huge step, it’s a huge commitment, it’s a lot of money,” said Thomas Sizemore, a Lakewood High School student. “It’s a really big decision.”

Both Maher and Sizemore organized protests last month at their respective high schools during a week of acrimony. Thousands of students marched out of their classrooms to the street to protest a proposed curriculum review committee that they believed would lead to censoring a popular advanced history course.

While the board ultimately adopted tamer language, students are skeptical.

“It was like a smack on the face,” Sizemore said, referring to the board majority’s decision to move forward with the panel.

Both Sizemore and Maher said they believe the board majority chose to push their own political agenda instead of listening to a groundswell of public opposition. Opponents to the curriculum review panel outnumbered supporters by more than two-to-one during an expanded public comment before the board took its vote Thursday.

Witt, the board’s chairman, defended the 3-2 decision to expand the district’s current system to include teachers and students when curriculum is challenged and to make those meetings public.

“I’m delighted with the result we’ve come up with the curriculum review process,” he said by phone Monday. He said input from the district, community, and board were all a part of the final solution.

“Unanimity is not necessary for compromise,” Witt said. “I’m very confident that this is by far the best compromise we could have come up.”

While student organizers behind the network said they hope to establish working relationships with other community advocacy groups, their decisions are their own.

“We’re going to make our opinions known,” Sizemore said. “We’re not going to give up that easily.”

Besides reigniting the conversation about a recall, Jeffco Student Network for Change leaders plan to attend upcoming board meetings. 

“We will definitely be at the next meeting for sure, and the next one, and the next one, until we’re heard,” Maher said. “There is no stopping us now.”

Witt said he welcomes more students speaking during public comment.

“I think it’s great that our students want to involve themselves in our civic dialogue,” he said.

different voices

Jeffco superintendent extends listening tour through event targeting multilingual community

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass talks to community members at Arvada K-8 during a Many Voices event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

In an extension of his district tour, new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass on Monday answered questions about biliteracy, equity gaps and school financing in the first of three “many voices” events.

The events are meant to give the multilingual and non English-speaking community an opportunity to speak out on issues. About 35 people showed at the auditorium at Arvada K-8 Monday, including a handful who listened to Glass through a translator on a headset.

Glass said he heard more questions about equity and language issues than he had on previous stops on his tour to get acquainted with different parts of the sprawling, 86,000-student district. Roughly 10.5 percent of Jeffco residents speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data.

When Glass was hired, and as he moved into the position, he said he would make equity issues a priority. He often talks about disparities in Jeffco school buildings, with some in desperate need of updates and others that are “fantastic” — and did again Monday.

He also answered a question — familiar to many Colorado superintendents — about why marijuana tax revenues aren’t helping with significant building needs.

One man asked if Glass was interested in offering Jeffco students a biliteracy seal, an endorsement that proves graduates have mastered two languages. Glass, as leader of Eagle County schools, helped that district become one of the first in the state to offer the seal.

“I think it has a positive aspect, just cognitively,” Glass said. “And I think it’s a huge advantage when kids go out into the workforce. I think we should move this forward.”

Glass also mentioned he’s looking into different ways schools might address students’ differing needs. He cited community school models, which bring in community organizations to help provide health care and other services to students and student-based budgeting, which involves allocating more or less money to certain students depending on need, following them to whichever school they attend. But Glass said the key is not to lower expectations.

When a woman asked what he’s noticed visiting Jeffco schools, Glass said he’s seen a lot of hard work and professional talent. But he said he has also seen a lot of worksheets.

He told the group he’d like to see better student engagement through more hands-on learning.

A mom of a kindergartener told Glass she wanted more school communication to know what her student is learning and how well he is doing. Glass agreed.

“That needs to be a priority for us is how we view our partnership with our parents,” Glass said.

At the end of the event, Glass noted similarities in the hour-long discussion and previous ones he hosted.

“The thing that we keep coming back to, that can unite us, is the student experience,” Glass said.

Glass said that although many things can be done in different ways, if student experience doesn’t change, reforms won’t make much of an impact.

The next two multilingual events are scheduled for: 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2 at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School and 6 p.m. Monday, October 10 at Alameda International Junior-Senior High School.

slow down

New Jeffco superintendent calls a timeout on any more school closures

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Preschoolers work on body movement exercises at Pleasant View Elementary March 6, 2017.

In one of his first big moves as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Jason Glass has pledged to not recommend any schools be closed until the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

Last spring, the staff of then-Superintendent Dan McMinimee recommended that five elementary schools be closed, citing voters’ rejection of a tax increase to improve school buildings and board members’ direction that the district find a way to pay teachers more.

Ultimately, the school board voted to close one school but left the door open to revisit closures on a broader scale, citing soaring maintenance costs for aging buildings.

Glass said that barring any drastic changes, the second largest district in Colorado should be able to manage without closing schools a couple more years. According to his plan, if Jeffco needs to close schools, those recommendations would be discussed in 2019 at the earliest, for closure in the 2019-20 school year. Glass announced the plan in a letter posted Friday on his blog.

“It buys us the time to re-envision what the schools’ purpose and direction is,” Glass told Chalkbeat Monday. “Really, the purpose about this is to slow down.”

Glass said the idea for the change, just two months into his tenure as Jeffco superintendent, came after talking to people through his district tour, and after reviewing “historical documents and news coverage,” including Chalkbeat stories about the potential impacts of the proposed closures.

Glass is directing district officials to work on a new process for deciding if a school needs to close.

Then the next year will be spent concentrating on efforts to ward off closures, including helping schools create programs to better attract students, and planning other uses for unoccupied space in buildings with declining enrollment.

That could include bringing in nonprofit partners or government agencies that might also serve Jeffco students — an idea raised during the most recent school closure discussions. One Jeffco school that was not being considered for closure last spring is moving forward with a similar approach under what is known as a community school model.

“There’s an entrepreneurial stance that has to be a part of this,” Glass said. “We need to be thinking of the type of schools the district has and about how can we use the space the district has to create opportunities for our families.”

If school closures are necessary in the future, the district will use whatever new process is created to make those decisions. Denver Public Schools in late 2015 adopted a new “bright line” school closure policy meant to use more objective criteria, but had to revise it after the first year it was put into practice was marred by challenges and setbacks.

The Jeffco closure plan will apply to district-run schools, not charter schools. Glass said charter schools will continue to be managed under their individual contracts unless the schools ask to renegotiate those.

The current school board majority generally supports Glass’s position on school closures, said board president Ron Mitchell. But three of the five seats are in play in this November’s election, and a different board could direct Glass to reconsider the plan.

Glass said any new closure criteria should consider a number of factors, including equity, school performance and the school’s context in the community.

“It is a numbers conversation, but it’s broader than that,” Glass said. “Performance, equity, service to the community, disruption to the community, entrepreneurial approaches, aspirations — all should be part of the calculus. If you have a school closure process that does not recognize all of those things it’s really not complete and they end up coming up one way or another.”

John Ford, president of the Jeffco teachers union, said creating a new plan will take time but is necessary to consider impacts for disadvantaged communities and students of color — which were not factors for staff in the last round of recommended closures. A recent study found school closures disproportionately affect students of color and often don’t help student learning.

“I think we learned our lessons from last year and the process we attempted to use when we closed Pleasant View,” Ford said. “There were some pieces missing.”

In the last discussion the district had about school closures, one school on the list, Peck Elementary in Arvada, was a high-performing school that had won state awards. School community members asked the school board to consider the school’s good work with students. Ultimately, one board member did cite that in his vote to spare the school.

Debbie Hansen, a mother of three children at the school, said parents are relieved by Glass’s announcement.

“We can finally breathe,” Hansen said. “I think that if you get a fuller picture, you’re able to understand better the impact that you have if you realize you might be closing down good schools. I think it’s great to have that broader sense of everything.”