Analysis

Five questions we’re asking as Jeffco students head back to school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

More than 85,000 students across Jefferson County returned to their classrooms today — the first day of school for the state’s second largest school district.

As students sharpen their pencils and crack open their books, there is a tension in the suburban Denver school district that hasn’t existed before — and raises plenty of questions. Here are the top five we’ll be asking this school year:

Will teachers have a new contract on Sept. 1?

Jeffco Public Schools and the Jefferson County Education Association reached a tentative agreement for a new teacher contract earlier this month. While it’s big on decisions being made between teachers and principals at the school level, it’s short in duration. The contract only lasts 10 months. Nationally, the average contract length is three years.

The contract’s length may be a huge sticking point for teachers already wary of a school board they don’t trust.

Members of the teachers union will vote on the contract this weekend after a membership meeting Friday. A simple majority of the membership must ratify the contract’s terms. Then the school board must give it the OK.

If the union’s membership ratifies the contract, the school board will vote on it Aug. 27.

If neither the union nor the board sign off on the deal, it’s unclear what might happen after Aug. 31 when the contract expires.

How might the recall effort impact classrooms?

We’ll know Tuesday whether a group of parents calling itself Jeffco United for Action collected enough signatures to ask voters to recall school board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk this fall.

What won’t be immediately known is what — if any — effect the political unrest will have on classrooms.

Supporters of the recall claim they want politics out of the classroom and that Jeffco teachers will remain professional. But critics of the recall fear it will cause a rift between teachers who oppose the school board majority and parents who support the majority with students stuck in the middle.

Researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat in the past suggested student achievement is likely to stall until some sort of harmony is restored to the school district.

Will a plan to improve chronically underperforming schools be successful?

One of the school district’s most ambitious endeavours this school year is improving academic achievement at a cluster of schools that border Denver’s west side. The schools serve mostly Latino students from low-income homes. These students lag academically behind their more affluent and white peers throughout the rest of the county.

But Jeffco school officials are putting a renewed emphasis on these schools.

As part of the shakeup the district is combining a middle school and high school, asking teachers to boost the vocabulary skills of students and putting a greater emphasis on teacher collaboration.

All the pieces are in place. Now we wait to see if the plan works.

How will Jeffco manage its overcrowded classrooms?

A flashpoint in last school year’s budget debate was how to pay for a new school in rapidly growing northwest corner of Jefferson County.

Superintendent Dan McMinimee and his team wanted the school board to authorize a private loan for about $50 million to build a new school in Arvada that would serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Not wanting to increase the district’s debt, the school board majority approved $18 million to build an elementary school.

According to the district’s own projections, the elementary school will only be a short-term fix. It will be big enough for 1,000 students, not the 6,000 projected during the next seven years.

Other school districts struggling with overcrowding — like Aurora — are beginning conversations about asking residents for a tax increase on the 2016 ballot. Will Jeffco’s conservative board majority be interested in a similar conversation?

What lessons will Jeffco learn from student-based budgeting?

For decades, Jeffco principals were required to staff buildings based on a formula. A certain number of students meant a certain number of teachers, librarians, assistant principals and support staff.

But last school year, principals were asked to work with their teachers and parents to determine the unique needs of their school and hire accordingly. No more “one-size-fits-all” budget formulas.

The district did not turn school administrators loose, and this sort of budgeting approach is nothing new. But there’s bound to be lessons learned from the first year of budget flexibility. Let’s just hope no one loses $600,000.

planning ahead

New superintendent’s vision for Jeffco: It’s not just what happens in school that matters

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School in May. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

In a vision document meant to guide Jeffco Public Schools for the next several years, Superintendent Jason Glass is underscoring the importance of boosting student learning by addressing issues that reach beyond the classroom.

Glass took the top job in the state’s second largest school district this summer. The new vision document, released Wednesday, has a strong focus on equity, improving students’ learning experiences and working with outside groups to help create “a Jeffco where no child suffers from hunger, preventable illness, lack of dental care or lack of mental health supports.”

Though the plan draws on previous district planning documents, it is more specific in parts and carries a strong emphasis on addressing out-of-school issues, a big emphasis of Glass’s since before he assumed the role.

“This was not intended as some jarring change,” Glass said in an interview. “But I think it provides greater clarity.”

The structure of the plan divides the work into learning, conditions for learning and readiness for learning. The first two sections focus on work happening inside schools, while the third section points to “decades of education research which confirms that the biggest indicators of student success are related to out-of-school factors and the student’s environment. ”

Some of the work under the readiness for learning section — such as expanding social and emotional support and parent and community engagement — is not new. But using schools as “community hubs,” and having a section on expanding early childhood education is new compared to the existing Jeffco Vision 2020 authored by former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The two vision documents share similarities.

Both suggest the use of so-called “multiple pathways” to offer students a variety of ways to learn and reach graduation. But Glass gets more specific, mentioning apprenticeships, internships and partnerships with community colleges to increase early college credit options.

Both documents also mention the need to incorporate technology for student learning and the need to hire and retain high quality educators. Glass goes further by suggesting the district must commit to paying teachers and staff “a fair, livable and reasonable wage.”

Glass’s vision also notes that the district must find a balance between giving schools flexibility and having district-wide direction. Several metro-area districts have been moving for years to give school leaders more autonomy to make decisions, especially through innovation status.

In an interview Tuesday, Glass said that flexibility in Jeffco schools already exists, and that he would allow principals to keep flexibility in hiring and budgeting. But, he said he’ll have to evaluate whether more or less flexibility is better, saying, “both or neither” are possible.

But in keeping with a new value he’s adding in the document for having an entrepreneurial spirit he adds that innovative thinking toward the same district goals, will be encouraged.

“So long as there is a north star we’re all looking toward,” Glass said.

The former vision document included a strategic plan that laid out a rubric with goals, such as having all students completing algebra by the end of ninth grade by 2017. Other metrics were not as detailed, only pointing to certain reports, like attendance or discipline reports, to look for progress.

The Jeffco district will contract with a consultant, Deliver-Ed, that will evaluate the district’s ability to execute the new vision plan.

The group is then expected to provide some recommendations and help the district create a more detailed strategic plan with clear performance metrics and ideas for how the budget will affect the district’s work. Glass said he expects the detailed action plan to be completed by March or April.

Asked whether the plan is also meant to lay out the need for more local funding through a future ballot measure, Glass said that work is separate. He said the work laid out in the vision plan will happen regardless of more or less funding.

“We’re going to take whatever resources we have, at whatever level, and we’re going to execute what’s in this plan,” Glass said.

Glass has toured the district holding public meetings to gather input for the document. Now that it is created, the components of the vision plan must still be vetted by the community, Glass said.

It will start with Glass hosting a Facebook live event at 11 a.m. to discuss the vision document.

different voices

Jeffco superintendent extends listening tour through event targeting multilingual community

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass talks to community members at Arvada K-8 during a Many Voices event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

In an extension of his district tour, new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass on Monday answered questions about biliteracy, equity gaps and school financing in the first of three “many voices” events.

The events are meant to give the multilingual and non English-speaking community an opportunity to speak out on issues. About 35 people showed at the auditorium at Arvada K-8 Monday, including a handful who listened to Glass through a translator on a headset.

Glass said he heard more questions about equity and language issues than he had on previous stops on his tour to get acquainted with different parts of the sprawling, 86,000-student district. Roughly 10.5 percent of Jeffco residents speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data.

When Glass was hired, and as he moved into the position, he said he would make equity issues a priority. He often talks about disparities in Jeffco school buildings, with some in desperate need of updates and others that are “fantastic” — and did again Monday.

He also answered a question — familiar to many Colorado superintendents — about why marijuana tax revenues aren’t helping with significant building needs.

One man asked if Glass was interested in offering Jeffco students a biliteracy seal, an endorsement that proves graduates have mastered two languages. Glass, as leader of Eagle County schools, helped that district become one of the first in the state to offer the seal.

“I think it has a positive aspect, just cognitively,” Glass said. “And I think it’s a huge advantage when kids go out into the workforce. I think we should move this forward.”

Glass also mentioned he’s looking into different ways schools might address students’ differing needs. He cited community school models, which bring in community organizations to help provide health care and other services to students and student-based budgeting, which involves allocating more or less money to certain students depending on need, following them to whichever school they attend. But Glass said the key is not to lower expectations.

When a woman asked what he’s noticed visiting Jeffco schools, Glass said he’s seen a lot of hard work and professional talent. But he said he has also seen a lot of worksheets.

He told the group he’d like to see better student engagement through more hands-on learning.

A mom of a kindergartener told Glass she wanted more school communication to know what her student is learning and how well he is doing. Glass agreed.

“That needs to be a priority for us is how we view our partnership with our parents,” Glass said.

At the end of the event, Glass noted similarities in the hour-long discussion and previous ones he hosted.

“The thing that we keep coming back to, that can unite us, is the student experience,” Glass said.

Glass said that although many things can be done in different ways, if student experience doesn’t change, reforms won’t make much of an impact.

The next two multilingual events are scheduled for: 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2 at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School and 6 p.m. Tuesday, October 10 at Alameda International Junior-Senior High School.