Jeffco Spring

Jeffco interrupted: Who’s writing what you’re reading?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson County students, parents, and teachers rallied outside of the Jefferson County Ed Center last month to protest a proposed curriculum review committee. The rally was organized by a network of organizations, including the teachers union, and their online networks. Several websites and organizations have been created to serve as watchdogs and supporters of a conservative board majority.

The first post on JeffCoSchoolBoardWatch.org, a website created to track the efforts of a new school board majority who many fear will lead to radical change in their school district, was uploaded nearly a year ago on a January evening.

It reads, in part, “Specifically, we are worried about the ideological direction that they may try to take the district.”

Since then, hundreds of blog updates, links, videos, and comments have been posted on that website and several others that have sprung up. These websites, mostly critical of the Jefferson County Board of Education and its new majority, have served as part watchdog, part organizing tool, and part rumor mill.

While the motives driving the websites and their creators are clear, the identities of the individuals behind the sites and their financial backers are often not.

What’s happening in Jeffco is a smaller example of the phenomenon that’s happened all over the world of on-the-ground activism being spread and aided by online tools like WordPress and Twitter.

During a week’s worth of protests last month, students and adults panned a controversial proposal that would review an advanced history class. At the height of the protests, a hashtag “#JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory” was trending nationwide.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco interrupted 

“Social media has definitely become a player in how news is reported, but in some cases it also has a role in how news happens,” said Gil Asakawa, manager of student media at the University of Colorado-Boulder and an expert on social media. “Social media, because it gathers together all these voices of like mind, it can actually facilitate an event, like a protest. It happened in Iran during the elections there four years ago, and it has happened pretty much anywhere there’s a big policy protest.”

Both journalists and consumers of online media need to be wary.

“The accuracy of stuff that is out there in social media, well, you have to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt because of how easy it is to say whatever you want,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the consumer, public to question everything and decide what sources you can trust.”

With promise of more websites and advocacy organizations to come, Chalkbeat Colorado decided to take a look at the who’s who of the online players in the debate as it’s unfolding.

Support Jeffco Kids

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: February 2014
Founded by: Jeffco parents Shawna Fritzler and Jonna Levine. Fritzler has held many voluntary positions in the district, including serving as chair of the Strategic Planning and Advisory Council. Levine previously served on the district’s budget development committee.
Claim to fame: Support Jeffco Kids has a large library of videos, produced by another organization called Transparency Jeffco, from previous board meetings. The videos capture on film some of the board’s most controversial movements, giving viewers a sense of the tense atmosphere at board meetings. But, viewers should be aware, the videos are edited and are sometimes accompanied by commentary.
FYI: Support Jeffco Kids is a social welfare nonprofit that claims tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code. Unlike other nonprofits, these organizations are allowed to endorse candidates and donate to candidates.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @supportJeffkids, and is on Facebook.

JeffcoTruth.org

Position: Anti-teachers union
Founded: September 2014
Founded by: Unknown
Claim to fame: JeffcoTruth launched during a week of student walkouts with two videos. The videos intend to blame the Jefferson County Education Association for the student walkouts. In one video, a compilation of student interviews, the organization tries to reclaim the narrative of the curriculum review committee by attempting to discredit the students’ motives and highlighting the school board’s duty to review curriculum. Like some of the Support Jeffco Kids videos, the JeffcoTruth reels have a clear agenda. Unlike the Support Jeffco Kids video, they have a killer soundtrack featuring the ominous attack-ad themed music.
FYI: Rumors have circled across Jefferson County about who exactly is behind the website. Some point to local conservatives. Others suggest out-of-state money is behind the effort.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @JeffcoTruths, and is on Facebook.

Stand Up For All Students

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: Spring 2014
Founded by: Jefferson County Education Association
Claim to fame: More than anything, Stand Up has been more of a social movement and brand than a just website. The organization has launched and maintained a successful hashtag on Twitter, #standup4kids,” and “IRL” will begin to sell T-shirts. Other organizations have adopted similar branding. Stand Up has also led the organizing behind three countywide protests, including two along Wadsworth Boulevard that stretches 30 miles.
FYI: Critics of the union claim that rather than basing their arguments on fact, they’re using their outsized might and “field-tested” talking points of secrecy, waste, and disrespect to win emotional support. A union spokesman told Chalkbeat the union hasn’t polled on any language.
Social media: No official Twitter of Facebook presence. Advocates are encouraged to tweet with the hashtag “#standup4kids.”

JeffCo School Board Watch

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: January 2014
Founded by: Unknown
Claim to fame: No other website spooks supporters of the board majority like JCSBW, short for JeffCo School Board Watch. Some believe it’s backed by local Democrats. But sources close to the organization and those who claim to have interacted with the organization say that’s not true. Perhaps JCSBW’s signature post is this breakdown of all the elements of a recall effort.
FYI: If you’re looking for shortcuts to specific pages on the actual Jeffco Public Schools website, JSBW is a great place to start. It has links to meeting agendas, school ratings, and email addresses for board members.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @JCSBW.

Other organizations and resources

Before there was a new board majority, there was already an active online ecosystem surrounding Jeffco Public Schools. Here is a look at a couple of additional players who have continued to play an active role as the politics have intensified.

Jeffco Students First

Founded in 2011, Jeffco Students First has been leading the charge for education reform ever since. In 2013, the nonprofit’s political arm Jeffco Students First Action supported the candidates who now make up the board majority and has continued to do so. Its website features talking points and blog posts that generally back up — and sometimes elaborates — the reasons board majority’s thinking. Jeffco Students First also distributes the Jeffco Observer, an education only publication. The organization has a Facebook page and Twitter handle, @JCStudentsFirst.

Jeffco PTA

This isn’t your mother’s PTA bake sale. One of the organizations most critical of the board majority has been the Jeffco Parents and Teachers Assocation. Led by Michele Patterson, the Jeffco PTA is a regular at board meetings and played a role in several of the countywide protests. When not acting like a watchdog, the organizations help recruit parents to volunteer on a number of school committees. It has a Facebook page and Twitter handle, @JeffcoPTA.

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.”