attempt at compromise

Denver school board approves new DSST building on shared campus, pledges support for Northfield High

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Northfield High School opened in fall 2015 with about 200 freshmen.

The Denver school board unanimously voted Thursday to place a charter school on the same campus as year-old Northfield High School over the objections of some Northfield parents and students, but not without making specific promises to support the school.

Charter high school DSST: Conservatory Green will be located in a separate building from Northfield on the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver starting in the fall of 2018. The school will open in the fall of 2017 in a temporary space on the nearby Samsonite campus while a new, 500-student building is built for it on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

“The driving goal, at least the lens I’m looking through, is how can we place good bets on things that have good track records of working so that more parents and more students have the opportunity to participate in them?” board member Barbara O’Brien said.

By placing a link in the high-performing DSST charter chain on the same campus as Northfield High, “we’re almost guaranteeing” that more students will have a high-quality option, she said.

Northfield High is the district’s first new comprehensive high school in more than three decades. The school’s vision is to serve a diverse student population, offering every student the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

In making the move, the board made a number of pledges to vocal Northfield parents, many of them from Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood. A separate resolution, also passed unanimously, says Denver Public Schools will do several things to address parents’ concerns, including:

— Review enrollment at Northfield High in the spring of each year through 2019 and expand the school as necessary to meet the enrollment commitments.

— Add a new parking lot with at least 100 parking spaces by fall 2017, barring any unforeseen circumstances such as construction permit delays.

— Work with Northfield High to create a library that meets the International Baccalaureate authorization standards no later than fall 2018.

— Fund and build a full-service cafeteria to serve all students on the Paul Sandoval Campus — and renovate the temporary cafeteria into additional classroom or office space — by fall 2018.

— Continue to explore options for adding athletic features on the Paul Sandoval Campus commensurate with campus enrollment and funding availability.

— Provide the staff time and funding required for Northfield High’s application to be certified as an International Baccalaureate school.

— Guarantee every student in the boundary a seat at Northfield High, making available at least 35 percent of seats to families in surrounding neighborhoods.

— Provide marketing and recruitment support to Northfield High leadership.

— Provide appropriate shared campus support based upon campus enrollment to promote a positive working relationship with all schools on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

Board members said it’s rare for the board to make such specific promises to a school but they hoped it assured the community that DPS is committed to making Northfield a success.

The new, $22.4 million building for DSST will be funded with money from the $572 million bond issue approved last month by Denver voters. Parents and students from Northfield High took issue with that use of funds, saying they believed the 500 extra seats promised in the bond proposal would go toward expanding Northfield High, which serves just freshmen and sophomores this year and will expand to serve juniors and seniors over the next two years.

The district’s website contributed to the confusion. Until recently, a DPS webpage showing the projects proposed for “Northfield High School at Paul Sandoval Campus” under the 2016 bond said “addition of 500 seats at the Paul Sandoval Campus.”

The words “Northfield High School” have been removed from the page so it now simply says “Paul Sandoval Campus.” Denver Public Schools spokesman Will Jones said he requested the change after a parent pointed out that the original wording was misleading.

But some parents were still upset. If we can’t trust DPS to provide us with accurate information about the bond, parent Dipti Nevrekar asked, “how can we trust you with our children?”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg apologized for the wording on the website.

Northfield High sophomore Jack Seward also addressed the board. He said some students are concerned that putting a DSST on the campus will “hinder” Northfield High’s growth and asked the board to “carefully consider” the implications of doing so.

But board members repeated the district’s pledge to build more seats for Northfield when necessary. DPS officials said they anticipate asking voters to approve another bond issue in 2020, which would build out the last 500 seats at the high school. The district expects Northfield serve 1,200 to 1,500 students over time — and possibly up to 2,000 students by 2030.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dipti Nevrekar’s name.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.