Location matters

For Jeffco students with special needs enrolled at schools slated for closure, more questions than answers

Students with special needs enrolled in programs at five Jeffco schools recommended for closure face additional uncertainty about where they might end up going to school next year.

Jeffco Public Schools said it hopes to keep the same services intact, just at different locations. But while the district already has announced which schools would get displaced students from the five elementary schools, the special needs centers could be placed elsewhere in the district — and families won’t know where until 30 days after Thursday’s scheduled vote on the closures.

The district is looking to significantly cut its budget in part because of the failure of two November tax requests and in part to pay teachers a more competitive salary.

The programs that could be moved include centers for students with autism at Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, and centers for students with physical and other significant needs at Peck Elementary in Arvada, Pleasant View Elementary in Golden and Stober Elementary in Lakewood.

The programs at the five schools serve 77 students this year. Not all students with special needs attend a center-based program, but across the district more than 900 students do.

The programs are funded by the district and won’t depend on the budget of the individual school where they’re located. Teachers who work at the centers will not need to reapply for their jobs, and students will not have to fill out any new paperwork to attend the same program at a new location.

If families decide they don’t want their child at the location the district picks, families will need to go through the district’s choice process to find a spot elsewhere. The first round ends this week, but a second round process immediately follows.

Another factor for families making a choice  — transportation plans — are also still in the works. Most special needs students get transportation to school, but not always.

Diana Wilson, spokeswoman for Jeffco schools, said the district would like to provide transportation to all students during the first year of their change to a new, possibly farther school, but whether they can afford to will depend on which schools, or how many, the board approves for closure.

For Sadie Steffen, a mom of a 9-year-old who is in a wheelchair and cannot speak, not all schools’ programs are the same.

This year, Steffen moved her son to the program at Peck Elementary after her son had a bad experience at another Jeffco school.

Already this year he’s making progress, she said. She credited the school for including her son in the broader school community, not just segregating him in a center program. Such inclusion is critical for many parents of children with special needs.

“He spends a lot of time in his regular classes,” Steffen said. “He eats lunch in the cafeteria. They don’t believe in just shutting him out.”

Steffen’s son starts each morning walking around the school with the help of a paraprofessional and attached to a device that helps him get around. He has a device with different recordings, and he presses the button that corresponds to the message he wants to give — such as “good morning.” He spends at least one to two hours in a classroom apart from the center, and the rest of the day gets more attention and help from the teacher in the center.

Aimee Beazley, a parent and PTA president at Peck Elementary, said the program also helps students who do not have disabilities.

“Peck really does embrace that diversity and inclusion of everyone,” Beazley said. “For our students, it’s normal to be different.”

Some parents fear that kind of inclusion might not transfer well if the programs are relocated.

“If the school closes, and I’m forced back, I will not,” Steffen said. “I will not let my son regress.”

Other proposed district-wide cuts to services for students’ social and emotional needs could also impact students with special needs who aren’t enrolled in a center program.

In Jeffco, gaps between the achievement of students with disabilities and those without have been larger than the state average, according to state test data.

At third grade, 8.3 percent of students who have disabilities tested proficient or advanced on the state’s reading test in 2015 compared to 46.8 percent of students without disabilities. That’s a gap of 38.5 percentage points, compared to the gap of about 33 percentage points at the state level. This year the state noted that the gap got wider at the state level, but district level data that was released is not disaggregated for different student groups.

The gaps also get wider at higher grade levels.

Jessica Shymkiw, a parent of four special needs students, including two sons at Pleasant View Elementary said she moved to Jeffco from out of state and appreciates that her boys’ problems weren’t brushed off as behavioral problems when they enrolled.

“They were really good at working with them,” Shymkiw said. “The school has been really good at testing them and trying to get them a diagnosis. That kind of thing can be hard to pick up on.”

Shymkiw said the school feels like a family and that might not be easily replicated elsewhere.

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”