counting down 2014

Changes in Jeffco, testing defined year for Chalkbeat readers

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.

As the year comes to a close, Chalkbeat Colorado asked readers to share their most memorable education-related moments of 2014 for our first digital yearbook. We heard from nearly 150 parents, teachers, district leaders, and policy experts.

There’s no question, the changes happening in Jeffco Public Schools — from how teachers are paid to how U.S. history is taught — kept our readers’ interest. We also heard concerns about how  new state standards are being rolled out and changes to the testing system.

Here’s a sample of what’s on the minds of some of our readers:

“Jeffco wanting to review AP history,” wrote Stacy Rader, of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, in answer to a question about the most surprising news story of the year. “I think it was blown out of proportion. The board wanting to review the textbooks is one thing. The school walkouts made it seem like the Jeffco board had physically removed the textbooks from the schools and burned them. I think it was an over-reaction and I was surprised how much media attention it received.”

Other folks answered the question this way:

“The student protests,” wrote a reader who identified himself only as Ron. “I wasn’t sure students would protest, but I’m proud of them for doing so. I love the fact they are becoming part of the democratic process.”

“Some teachers had enough nerve to try to fight back,” answered Kathy. “We usually just do what we’re told.”

Teacher Mark Sass said not much surprises him any more, but “the emerging role of students in education policy, be it in Jeffco with APUSH, or with opting out of testing has been surprising.”

While most responses centered on Jefferson County, the backlash against testing and standards caught the attention of some of our readers.

“Increasing opposition to Common Core, PARCC, and standardized tests from all parts of the political spectrum,” wrote a reader who identified himself only as Jim. “Odd to have right wing and left wing agreeing on something.”

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools said the political fight around the standards has become outsized.

“Colorado has always had academic standards, and the politicization of the adoption of Common Core and PARCC was a real distraction,” she said.

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign echoed Flood in his response.

“I was most surprised this year by the lack of understanding out there regarding the new standards and assessments in schools,” she wrote.  “I heard some really surprising ‘myths’ about who created the standards and what was in the tests, etc. I think when people learn more and see these new tools in action, they will really appreciate how rigorous and relevant they are to our students’ success!”

But the conversation about testing has been a good one, argued Colorado’s education commissioner Robert Hammond.

“It has given us a great opportunity to have a conversation around federal and state minimum testing requirements as well as make sure that we are doing the right amount of testing, with the right tests which will have the greatest positive impact on the students’ education experience,” he said.

Some outliers included Sean VanBerschot’s answer. He was most shocked by the dip in test scores at Denver’s STRIVE charter network. VanBerschot is Teach For America Colorado’s director.

And a few readers, who did not share their names, cited funding and the negative factor, a legislative workaround to both balance the state’s budget and meet the constitutional requirement to fund educations, as a top concern for the year.

You can read more responses to our survey in your very own copy of Chalkbeat Colorado’s 2014 yearbook. The digital download is yours when you donate to Chalkbeat’s end-of-year campaign. And when you do, your contribution will be tripled by some very kind donors. 

Student count

Aurora school enrollment continues sharp decline, but budget woes not expected

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The number of students enrolled in Aurora schools this fall dropped by almost twice as much as last year, part of a trend district officials have blamed in part on gentrification as housing prices in Aurora climb.

This year, as of Oct. 2, the district has enrolled 41,294 students from preschool through 12th grade. That’s 867 fewer students than last year — and almost twice the number of students lost between 2015 and 2016.

Last October, staff told the board that district enrollment had dropped by a historic amount. At the time, enrollment was 41,926, down 643 from 2015. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district had enrolled almost 200 more students.

But in Colorado, school districts are given money on a per-student count that’s based on the number of students enrolled on count day, which this year was Oct. 2.

The district expects to see a similar decline in students again next school year, but expects that new developments start bringing more children to the district in the future.

The good news, provided in the update given to the Aurora school board Tuesday night, is that district officials saw it coming this time.

“The magnitude of the impact is not the same as last year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “This kind of decline is now something we will predict and budget to.”

Because enrollment numbers are higher than what officials predicted, the budget that the board approved over the summer should not need adjustments for the current year.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools had to cut more than $3 million in the middle of the year. District officials also worked on gathering input and finding ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by up to $31 million, but better than expected funding from the state meant the district didn’t end up cutting the full $31 million.

The district may look for ways to trim the budget again next year in anticipation of another anticipated enrollment decline.

Board members asked about other factors that may be contributing to enrollment declines, such as school reputations, and asked about how staff predict future enrollment.

Superintendent Munn told the board that the enrollment decreases are changing several conversations in the district.

“APS was not in the business of marketing our schools,” Munn said. But this year, the district launched an interactive map with school information on the district website to help feature all schools, their programs and their performance measures, and has been doing outreach to the approximately 4,000 Aurora students who leave to attend neighboring districts.

Three schools also received district-level help in creating targeted marketing.

One of those three schools was South Middle School, a low-performing school in the northwest part of the district where enrollment declines are especially drastic.

This year, after receiving some marketing assistance, South was one of few schools in the district that saw enrollment increased. The school’s Oct. 2 enrollment was 825, up from 734 last year.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”