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.

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.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.