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, 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.

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.

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.