Welcome home

At reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High, students are told show up and have fun

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson Junior-Senior High School Principal Michael James.

EDGEWATER — Well before noon on a recent Tuesday, 33 soon-to-be eighth graders are dancing back-to-back while Katy Perry’s “Firework” blares from the speakers.

When the music stops, the students scramble to find a new partner. The student left standing without a new mate must dance alone on a chair in the center of the gym.

“You must dance like you have never danced before,” Michael James, the principal of the newly reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said to each student who shyly climbed on top of the chair.

Backward dancing was just one of a few activities James and his eighth graders participated in earlier this month as part of Jefferson’s new-student orientation.

Most of the seventh and eighth graders enrolling at Jefferson would have attended Wheat Ridge 5-8. But that school was closed due to chronic low performance on state tests. So instead of attending the Wheat Ridge school, the middle schoolers are joining their high school peers at Jefferson.

The school shuffle is part of a larger programmatic overhaul at a cluster of schools in Jefferson County that serve mostly low-income and Latino students. Most of those schools are in Edgewater, a tiny municipality that borders Denver’s west side, and have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for several years.

Jeffco Public Schools officials hope the changes that include expanding a dual-language program, more cooperation between schools, and a project-based learning curriculum that stretches from kindergarten through high school, will be enough to consistently improve student learning.

The new-student orientation at Jefferson Junior-Senior High was a symbolic first step toward those ideas becoming a reality.

“I want them to connect fun activities to Jefferson,” said Principal James. “I know there is a lot of great learning to be had, but we’re going to have a fun time as well.”

During the three day orientation, the new students also got a tour of the school from student leaders, set personal and academic goals, and learned what teachers and counselors think it takes to be a successful Saint, the school’s mascot.

“There’s no slack time when school starts,” Angelique “Doc” Acevedo-Barron, one of the school’s deans, told the eighth graders. “You must be able to pass each of your classes. There’s no more social promotion.”

As part of the changes at Jefferson, student progress will be closely monitored by teams of teachers. Students who fall behind will be given extra tutoring and other opportunities to catch up. That includes an extra hour of learning each day for seventh and eighth graders, Acevedo-Barron said to some student moans.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Acevedo-Barron said. “We’re going to nip any slacking in the bud. We’re about school.”

Other opportunities those junior high students will have at Jefferson that they did not have at Wheat Ridge include more electives and greater math support, said James. Each math classroom will have a teacher and between three and five tutors to assist students. The students will also have greater access to support services and James said he hopes to have more regular conversations with families.

Some teachers from Wheat Ridge 5-8 are following their students to Jefferson. Tom McLoughlin is one of them. He helped James during orientation week.

“We’re really excited to be working for Michael James,” McLoughlin said. “There’s already a lot of buy-in from the current staff and students.”

McLoughlin said that he thinks combining the middle school and high school will encourage younger students, especially eighth graders, to stay focused.

“They won’t have that ‘king of the school’ mentality anymore,” McLoughlin said. “It will be be nice for them to see their older peers go on and graduate. As well as some who aren’t. They’ll be able to see that difference.”

Students at orientation were equally shy and excited.

Angelo Hulse, an incoming seventh grader, said he’s ready to learn.

“I just want to know how to get good grades so I can go onto college and play college football,” he said. “And we get to have lockers and there will be more fun stuff to do.”

Destanie Allen, meanwhile, said she was excited to meet new friends. But as a new ninth grader, she was well aware of the new social pecking order at the 7-12 school.

“We’re right in the middle,” she said.

Back in the gymnasium, James pulls his eighth graders in for a huddle and ice cream bars.

“Come with a positive idea of what this place is and about who you are,” he said. “We can have a lot fun. If you’re not afraid to have fun, you will. Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.