painful choices

Gifted and talented center at Wheat Ridge High School on chopping block as part of Jeffco budget cuts

PHOTO: Courtesy Lisa Lee
Lisa Lee, center right, one of two gifted and talented teachers at Wheat Ridge High School, leads a discussion. Lee was a teacher of the year finalist.

Cutting off district funding to a popular gifted and talented program at Wheat Ridge High School is one of the contentious steps Jeffco Public Schools has proposed to cope with its budget crisis.

The gifted and talented center program enrolls 128 of the school’s 1,200 students, according to district officials. About three-quarters of those gifted students choice in from other district high schools, a sign of the program’s stature.

Some parents say the center at the high school has been critical not just to their children’s academic success, but to their social and emotional well-being.

More than 700 community members have signed an online petition opposing the elimination of the Wheat Ridge High-based program. Numerous signers wrote that its helped their children overcome social problems, gain a sense of belonging and get needed help.

The Jefferson County district, the state’s second largest, is considering more than $20 million in spending cuts, including the closure of five elementary schools. District officials say the cuts are needed to keep a school board pledge to improve teacher salaries after voters rejected two tax measures in November.

In what is expected to be an emotional meeting Thursday, the school board could vote to approve the reductions as part of its overall package of cuts or it could pull certain items out and continue funding them.

Besides cutting Wheat Ridge High School’s two gifted and talented teachers for a savings of $150,000, the district is also considering the elimination of four gifted and talented resource teachers who work at schools throughout the district. That cut, which would save $350,000, would leave 12 roving gifted and talented teachers in the 86,000-student district.

The proposed budget cuts wouldn’t affect gifted and talented classroom teachers at the 15 elementary and middle schools with gifted and talented centers. Wheat Ridge houses the only gifted and talented high school center in the district.

District officials have said Wheat Ridge High School would be allowed to assume the cost of the two teachers if it wanted to continue the gifted program, but noted the school already pays for some expenses associated with the program itself. Principal Griff Wirth could not be reached for comment.

While some of the district’s other proposed cuts would disproportionately affect low-income students — including the  elementary school closures — that is not the case with the potential gifted and talented cuts.

That’s because Jeffco’s gifted and talented program, like many elsewhere in Colorado and the nation, skews toward white middle- and upper-income students.

Only 12 percent of the district’s 11,500 gifted and talented students receive free or discounted school meals — a proxy for poverty — compared to 32 percent of students districtwide. Students of color make up 19 percent of the district’s gifted and talented pool and 33 percent of students overall.

Parent Jaime Peters, who is also an elementary teacher in the district, said the Wheat Ridge center program has been life-changing for her 10th-grade son, who is both gifted and on the autism spectrum. It’s vaulted him from average grades to straight As, helped him take on leadership activities and most important, make friends.

“It’s been huge,” she said.

A position paper from the National Association for Gifted Children says research hasn’t shown that gifted children face more mental health problems than non-gifted children. Still, it notes that characteristics associated with giftedness can be risk factors and that some studies have shown that gifted students are less likely to ask for help.

Peters, who also has an eighth-grade son who’s gifted, said that gifted students can’t just be slotted into honors classes or International Baccalaureate programs and expected to thrive.

She said of her sons, “They’re two years ahead academically and two years behind socially and that seems to be the thing with (gifted and talented) kids.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.