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.

creating community

Seeking to broaden its support base, Jeffco looks at building bridges to community

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

When Elizabeth Panzer’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, the school community in northwest Arvada organized a schedule to prepare and deliver meals to her family those first few months.

“The community of that school, they kept us afloat,” Panzer said. “That was powerful for me because I didn’t know that many people in the school because I hadn’t been very involved.”

It was that experience of the community coming together that brought Panzer to join the group tasked with delivering recommendations to Jeffco Public Schools for how the district can engage and build better relationships with the community.

Superintendent Jason Glass said he convened the group after hearing during his listening tours that too many people in the county have no connection to the schools. Forging stronger ties with more folks is especially critical this year as the Jeffco district contemplates placing a tax measure on the November ballot to produce new local revenue.

“We recognized we have this disconnect, and we have an understanding that if we can increase that connection, we can also increase support for public education,” Glass said.

Panzer said she wondered if the same community strength that helped her family could be fostered to create a “give-and-take” relationship that benefits other children who may be struggling.

“There are so many people who are struggling, and they’re quiet,” Panzer said. “They’re not the ones involved. They’re the ones on the edges. The more connected we are, the better able we are to scoop up the ones on the edges who need help.”

From any school district’s perspective, there are many reasons to foster community engagement. Schools could use partnerships with local businesses to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. Community members can make good volunteers, mentors, or donors. And students can learn something from giving back to their community, too.

Glass cited all of those reasons. He has asked the task force to give him recommendations on better engaging the community — particularly Jeffco residents who aren’t connected to schools — by September.

Next meeting:

  • 6 p.m. Monday July 30
    at the Ed Center, 1829 Denver W Dr, Golden
  • More information on providing input online, here

The tight deadline reveals another reason improving community engagement is important to the district now. If Jeffco’s school board next month decides to ask voters for increased local funding this November, the district must prepare to communicate their needs to voters.

Two years ago, the district asked voters for new dollars to improve salaries, add new counselors at elementary schools, and to improve buildings by adding space and by replacing older schools. But voters rejected both requests.

“The work of this community engagement task force is really important for that work coming up,” Glass said.

Many put the percentage of Jeffco residents who don’t have a connection to schools as high as 75 percent. Using rough estimates from the district including 86,000 students, 14,000 employees and about 130,000 parents, that would leave almost 60 percent of the estimated 575,000 residents of the county without a direct link to schools.

So far, the task force of about 35 people has met twice. Its volunteer members are asking for more input from the community and for more participants to help draft the recommendations. Anyone interested in joining still may. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. July 30.

Katie Winner, a district mom on the task force, said many participants have shared stories of how they were involved at their school or examples of problems they faced in trying to get access to a school in their neighborhood.

The task force will look at ways to address barriers people have faced in connecting with schools. It also will look at what kind of engagement makes a difference and is worth the district’s support. And they will consider if different strategies are needed for various segments of the community such as senior citizens, faith based organizations, or local businesses.

“We have to think about policy for an entire district,” Winner said. “So, it’s challenging.”

Panzer said she believes the group should look at having more open schools and creating trust.

“I believe the power will come from us reaching out to the community first,” Panzer said. “That starts to build trust.”

Glass said he didn’t create the group with any preconceived ideas about what kind of recommendations it should create, but instead said he wants it to lead to a better relationship with the community.

“I’m really relying on the members of this task force to draw on the wisdom of the community,” Glass said. “Schools and districts can operate with a sort of fortress mentality. We haven’t necessarily done the work to show the community we honor and value them. We realize there is work to do to show the community there’s outreach that its genuine and real.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

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

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.