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.

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

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.