Pondering performance

Why Jeffco hasn’t considered academic performance in picking schools to close

Of five Jefferson County elementary schools recommended for closure, one recently received the state’s lowest possible rating for academic performance and another has won awards from the governor for narrowing achievement gaps separating different groups of students.

The other three schools fall somewhere in between on test scores, student academic growth and other measures.

None of that mattered, however, when it came to which schools ended up on the proposed closure list. When Jeffco Public Schools staff considered a list of criteria used to identify which schools should close after this school year, performance was not taken into account.

While districts such as Denver’s use academic performance as the overriding factor in closing schools, Jeffco Public Schools rejects the idea that a struggling school should be shuttered. Still, some board members have questioned whether performance also should be considered in budget-related closures.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the school closures at a meeting Thursday night.

District spokeswoman Diana Wilson, who has handled most interviews about the recommended closures, said Jeffco officials didn’t consider performance because they believe that all schools can be good schools and that struggling schools should get help, not be “punished” with closure.

“That’s just not how we operate,” Wilson said. “All of our schools have great potential and great strengths.”

Board member Amanda Stevens said she would worry about how to best measure performance.

“Jeffco is not in the business of closing low-performing schools,” she said in an interview. “I believe great work is happening at our schools.”

Stevens added she was still open to “exploring different criteria” for selecting schools to close.

That three of the schools recommended for closure were not earlier identified as potential closure victims in a district facilities master plan also has caused tensions.

That list of about a dozen schools was made public in spring 2016. The plan was to close schools that were too costly to fix and merge them in new, bigger buildings.

But rather than pursuing that path, the board voted instead to put two tax requests on the ballot asking for money that in part might help avoid some of the closures and also provide money to move forward with the new buildings.

Bond details provided at the time show Stober Elementary in Lakewood — of the schools now facing closure — would have gotten $7 million for a renovation and four new classrooms. The other four schools now up for closure were not listed as getting any money in the detailed bond summary.

When the measures failed in November, district officials had to rewrite the earlier proposal — without the money for new buildings. In weighing closures, they considered 10 factors including enrollment, underused buildings and the cost of maintenance if the school stayed open. But they also had to find schools near others that could absorb displaced students.

Of the five schools facing closure, Stober and Pleasant View Elementary in Golden were on the original master plan list — and the communities behind those schools organized at that time pressing the board to save their schools. Parents and teachers at Pennington, Swanson and Peck elementary schools only learned two weeks ago that their schools might close this summer.

The district did not respond to questions about which factors mattered more, if any, in deciding which schools to recommend. Stober is not underutilized; it is 99 percent full. Enrollment at Pennington is already showing some growth this year, and all the schools except Swanson Elementary are projected to grow in the next few years.

According to the most recent state ratings released last month, four of the 12 schools where the district has said displaced students would go are lower performing schools than the schools students are in now.

Parents at all five schools are rushing to understand the district’s strategy while they worry about where their children will go next year — and whether their learning will slow at lower performing schools.

In one example, Stober Elementary, which scored a 72.2 out of 100 on the most recent state quality ratings, if closed would send students to Vivian Elementary, Kullerstrand Elementary or Maple Grove Elementary. Kullerstrand and Maple Grove have similar achievement data compared to Stober, but Vivian’s performance is rated much lower. In the most recent state ratings, Vivian scored a 36.3.

The state rating considers achievement on state test scores but also growth and gaps between students of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds or learning abilities.

In another example, Peck Elementary, the school that has won the state awards for closing achievement gaps, would send students to one of three schools including Arvada K-8, where students are showing improvement at a much slower rate than the district and Peck.

At Arvada K-8, students taking state reading tests had a growth score of 31.5. That means Arvada K-8 students showed improvements, on average, better than just 31.5 percent of similar Colorado students. That compares to students at Peck who had a growth score of 58. The Jeffco district’s average growth on the same reading test was 54.

(The school district provided clarifying information after this story was published: Only some students from Peck who would be sixth graders next year — and not any students from other grades — would be relocated to Arvada K-8 if the school closes and the board also approves moving sixth graders to middle schools).

The lowest performing school in the group is Pennington Elementary, a Wheat Ridge school that has had at least three years of low performance and is in the first year of turnaround. So few third graders scored at least proficient on state tests last year that numbers weren’t reported.

Students from Pennington would go to schools that all have higher academic marks.

Francisco Donoso, the father of a third grader at Pennington said he believes his school is a good one, and wondered why the district recommended closing the school.

“I didn’t hear of any problems,” Donoso said.

Experts say closing schools is always emotional, but said a good process is important and performance should be considered.

“Any time you have kids being displaced from school, research shows, it is disruptive,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. He is studying how districts with declining enrollment can make good cost-cutting decisions. “You want to make sure the school options they’re going to are better quality or at least as good quality as the school they left. You would want to try to mitigate some of the ill effects of school closure.”

But measuring that performance is tricky for districts that aren’t always experienced at measuring school performance, Gill said.

“The challenge on school performance, and I would guess why they were maybe reluctant, is if the measures are all test-based,” Gill said. “I think people are sometimes concerned that’s not a complete picture. There are some things almost intangible about schools.”

Gill added that some private school operators are exploring making small school models financially sustainable, but it’s not yet possible in public school districts unless districts consider other changes such as sharing buildings with other groups that could help with maintenance costs.

John Ford, the president of the Jeffco teachers union, criticized the district’s process, but did not address whether the union supports closing the schools, or which factors should count.

The Jeffco teachers union is in a tricky spot because Jeffco’s superintendent has pointed out that the reason the district is looking for at least $20 million is to give teachers a more competitive salary.

“Not only were educators, parents, and building administrators at these schools excluded from these conversations, it seems that the Board of Education was kept in the dark until the very last minute,” Ford said in a released statement. “Our elected representatives have difficult choices to make to ensure we can attract and retain high-quality, experienced educators and we continue to have the schools JeffCo students deserve.”

Depending on the area and when they were built, some Jeffco schools have extra space while others are crowded. The district has estimated there are more than 13,000 unused seats across the district.

So Jeffco is preparing to shift students around, including by moving sixth grade students into middle schools, which will require building new classrooms to make enough space at some.

In Jeffco, most middle schools only enroll seventh and eighth graders, though originally they were built to hold seventh through ninth graders.

Board members have made comments agreeing with the move, pointing out that other districts already have had sixth graders in middle schools for years, and saying that those students are ready to have multiple teachers who are content specialists.

Many families, meanwhile, are struggling with all the changes. Debbie Hansen said she bought her house in Arvada 11 years ago because she knew she wanted her kids to go to Peck.

“Academically, I knew they were a good school,” Hansen said. “Peck has a good reputation. I do think they should have looked at their performance level.”

“Basically if they close down Peck,” she said. “I will probably look at different charter schools because I don’t feel like my kids would be served well at the other schools.”

Hansen had one word for the process she now faces: scary.

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.