Jeffco contract draft: big on site-based decisions, short on teacher evaluation specifics

New York's Board of Regents voted in committee Monday to replace the Common Core standards with the "Next Generation Learning Standards."

Jeffco Public Schools officials Friday released a 25-page draft contract for its teachers union that puts more decision-making in the hands of school leaders and teams of teachers, lacks details on some of the district’s most important efforts, limits some of the historic privileges of the union, and lasts for less than a year.

The document, which was sent to the Jefferson County Education Association and reporters Friday morning, is meant to focus the work of the committee tasked with creating a new contract, the district’s lawyer stressed. The bargaining teams have until Aug. 31 before the current contract expires.

But the document, which lawyer and lead negotiator for Jeffco Jim Branum has been working on for months behind the scenes, is the most comprehensive work to date to come out of negotiations. JCEA agreed to discuss the document’s contents at 4 p.m., Monday. The association might also bring specific language of its own.

We spent today comparing and contrasting Branum’s document to the current master agreement between Jeffco and JCEA. Here are a few of the noteworthy items we found:

The proposed document is one-fifth the size of the current contract.

A priority for the district is to streamline the contract. Officials suggested early in the process that some provisions were out-of-date and could be struck all together while others could be moved to an employee handbook.

This draft accomplishes that goal.

A side-by-side comparison found 27 different sections of the current contract either no longer exist or have been collapsed into broader sections. Some of those sections include topics on academic freedom and what happens if classroom materials are challenged.

While the contract is a quicker read, many of the sections are short on specifics. For example, the current contract spells classroom limits and how extra unpaid hours teachers may be required to work are to be used. The proposed contract leaves those decisions to individual school committees.

Jeffco removes specific language about evaluation process.

While the details about how teachers are evaluated exist in a policy that’s separate from both the current contract and the new draft, the current contract does include some specific language about how many observations a teacher is to receive and by when.

That’s not the case in Branum’s draft. Instead, the contract says the evaluation system and process will be “clearly defined and communicated to” teachers.

This point is likely going to be a huge rallying cry for the JCEA, maybe even more so than pay increases. Armed with an independent report that found the district’s evaluation system isn’t applied equally across the district, the union has been pushing for evaluation reform. They want stricter guidelines and more training for observers — not less.

While it’s completely possible for both stricter guidelines and more training to co-exist outside of a contract, JCEA is looking to codify as much as it can to provide its teachers with assurances and predictability given the increasing stakes of evaluations.

The contract would expire on June 30, 2016.

Since 1992, the district’s contract with its teachers has ended on Aug. 31, well after the start of the school year. (In earlier years, the contract ran from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.)

The end of summer deadline gave teachers and the district time to workout their issues over a few months without the stress of the classroom.

It’s unclear why the district has proposed this change, other than maybe it wanted to align its contract to its fiscal year that ends June 30.

It’s also unusual for the district to propose only a one year extension of the agreement. Contracts have also historically have been multiyear agreements for many cycles.

District officials declined to explain this change saying, “we’ll be discussing the contract at the bargaining table.”

The union gets a win — for now — in seniority rights for displaced teachers.

One of the earliest signs of tension during this year’s negotiations was around how schools should decide which teachers to fire if their student population decreases.

The union believes teachers with more years in the classroom should get to stay. The district team believed these kinds of personnel decisions should be based on evaluations, not years in the classroom. The two sides dropped the topic in an effort to find common ground on less contentious issues.

For the moment, JCEA’s preferred method of choosing which teachers stay and which go when a school has to cut staff — seniority — remains in the contract. But that’s likely not going to sit well with the district’s conservative school board majority that has pushed evaluations as a decision making tool.

The union’s rights have been scaled back.

Many of the historic rights the union has been given in its teachers contract don’t exist in Branum’s draft.

For example, the union’s right to use school buildings, free of charge is gone. The union’s right to post information on employee bulletin boards? That’s gone too. Also, JCEA is going to have make more trips to Office Depot. The proposed contract doesn’t allow JCEA to order office supplies from the district’s vendors.

What is preserved? one of the first sections in the district’s proposed contract is the recognition of JCEA as the exclusive representative of teachers. That might rub some of the board’s conservative majority the wrong way.

There are no new details on teacher raises.

Any hope for a more robust system to determine teacher raises remain unaddressed in this proposal.

Since the district abandoned the traditional salary schedule last fall, in lieu of a plan linked only to teacher evaluations, some have hoped for a different system. Earlier this spring, the union presented a plan that rewarded teachers with raises for a variety of things including advanced degrees, leadership roles, and time in the classroom.

Not only does none of that exist in Branum’s draft, but under today’s proposal, teacher salaries remain the same until a percentage increase linked to evaluations can be agreed to by the bargaining teams.

How big of a fight will a new system to determine teacher raises be for JCEA given the battles on other fronts? That’s hard to say.

Meet your new ‘professional problem solving committee’ (whatever that is).

Under the new contract language, schools will be required to establish a “professional problem solving committee.” This group will be made up of at least three teachers selected by the school’s staff and administration. The panel will be called upon to help mitigate conflict among staff.

It’s not clear what kind of disputes this group might be tasked with. What we do know is that this group won’t replace a formal human-resource grievance process because that’s outlined elsewhere.

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”

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.