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.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.