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.

School Finance

Indiana lawmakers over-promised money for schools to teach students learning English by nearly $50 million

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, an English as a new language teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

When Indiana’s legislature wrapped up the state budget in 2017, educators celebrated a record $32 million headed to support students learning English as a new language, including considerable bonuses for schools with the highest concentrations of those students.

But what school leaders didn’t immediately realize was that because of a calculation error, state lawmakers had not budgeted enough money to give the schools the extra dollars they were told to expect — it would have cost another $50 million to pay for the promised bonuses.

“It is a pretty significant difference,” said Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for Fort Wayne schools, which serves about 2,600 English-learners. “We didn’t realize it until after the allocation came out.”

The shortfall appears to have been due to a number of factors. First, more schools than expected applied for the funding to support students who need more intensive services. But the amounts the state promised to fund per student to schools with the largest shares of English-learners were also incorrectly calculated, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans told Chalkbeat. If the data error had been caught earlier, the staff member said, the numbers promised in the initial budget would more closely reflect the dollars schools ended up receiving.

“It was definitely not intentional,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican from Indianapolis who chairs the House Education Committee, who said he didn’t realize there was an issue until schools approached him in the fall.

It’s not unusual for the state not to fund all of what they initially promised if, for example, enrollment spikes or revenue dips. When that happens, the law says, each district or charter school’s funding amount should be reduced proportionately. But because they were expecting larger bonuses than other districts, large urban public school districts and charter schools that tend to serve bigger shares of students learning English felt the deepest effects of the miscalculation.

Chalkbeat’s review of the funding data shows the state would have had to set aside about $80 million to meet the per-student expectations it set out in the 2017 budget, $47.5 million more than what lawmakers ended up budgeting. The original plan called for increased funding for students learning English to $250 and $300 per-student, depending on the year in question.

In addition to the base amount, districts and charter schools with higher percentages of students were supposed to get even more on top of that — upwards of $900 per student if they had between 5 percent and 18 percent of their population learning English, and upwards of $1,200 if it was more than 18 percent. In actuality, the schools got between $140 and $177 per-student in 2018 on top of the base, and $22 and $28 per-student extra for 2019.

Behning said lawmakers had an opportunity to backfill the dollars to schools with proportionately more English-learners, but they did not. Last year, a highly publicized shortfall in basic state aid to schools made a splash so big that lawmakers came together in a non-budget year to ensure it was filled, approving another $100 million to go to schools’ general funds.

Lawmakers decided not to bump up the funding for English language-learners because while the specifics of the calculations were based on incorrect data, the Senate spokeswoman said, $32 million was the correct total amount the state wanted to spend.

To be sure, all Indiana schools with English-learners received more money per-student from the state under the 2017 budget than in years prior. Friend said she and her colleagues were happy that lawmakers had upped the funding, recognizing the needs of districts like hers that have many students learning English.

The incorrect budget calculation would have given the district about $2 million more over the two years than the $1.5 million they received. But Friend said the difference in expected versus received dollars doesn’t mean the needs of Fort Wayne’s English-learners aren’t being met.

Rather, school leaders have to use more money from their overall state funding to provide the needed services, so across the board, there’s less to go around. Friend said the district spends $4.5 million on English-learners from its general fund. Some additional money comes from the federal government or local sources. Much of the English-learner-specific money the district gets from the state goes toward paying teachers and teaching assistants, with some also going to pay for instructional materials, interpreters used to communicate with parents, and teacher training.

“We aren’t going to make a choice for what we need to do for these students based on how much money we get,” Friend said. “We have to do what we have to do to serve them. What (the extra funding) does is it relieves the general fund for all the other non-ELL students.”

But, it’s also not a small sum, she said. In 2018, Friend said, the district thought it would receive three-quarters of a million dollars more than it did.

“You can’t sneeze at $756,000,” Friend said. “That’s a lot of money that just plays into the overall program or planning that we have as a district.”

In Marion County, several districts were affected, including Perry Township, which saw the biggest difference in actual vs. expected dollars of any district or charter school in the state. Chalkbeat’s analysis shows the district could have expected about $9 million under the incorrect formula. State data shows it received about $2.6 million. Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest district, received about $2.8 million, more than $6 million less than anticipated.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has called for more funding for English-learners next year, upping the current $300 per-student amount to $450 per-student. But in a year when lawmakers are already saying revenue is exceptionally tight, it’s not clear this funding will be a priority as it competes with teacher pay, preschool, and funding for the Department of Child Services.

Lawmakers have taken major steps to increase ELL funding in years past. After a Chalkbeat project showed how schools were increasingly trying to serve growing numbers of English-learners across the city, the legislature more than doubled funding in 2015 to about $21 million, up from $10 million in 2013. Since 2006, the total number of students learning English in Indiana schools has increased by 77 percent. Today, public schools enroll 47,672 students learning English as a new language.

new plan

Plan for Memphis schools would fold 28 old schools into 10 new ones

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Michelle Stuart, the district’s manager of facility planning and property management, presents a plan to consolidate 28 schools into 10 new buildings.

Shelby County Schools’ outgoing leader wants to consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited plan to avoid massive deferred maintenance costs on the district’s crumbling campuses.

If implemented, the plan could take up to 10 years, impact some 15,000 students, and cost the district at least $700 million.

“We’re building schools. We’re taking kids in the inner city who have been traditionally underserved and putting them in brand new learning facilities,” Hopson said, presenting the proposal to the Shelby County Schools board, which has the final say on school closures.

Hopson, who leaves office next month for a job at insurance giant Cigna, is proposing all but two of the closed buildings be demolished — saving the district about $102 million in deferred maintenance on those structures. Shelby County Schools business operations chief Beth Phalen estimated the consolidation would also save the district between $15 million and $20 million annually and said that money could then be in the classroom.

The proposal echoes a model Hopson and county leaders have favored — building new neighborhood schools, even if that means long-standing schools nearby would have to close. One such example is Westhaven Elementary, which opened in 2016. It combined three elementary schools and quickly became overcrowded, as families sent their students to the new building after years of choosing other schools. Westhaven Elementary was one of two schools in the district that the state has recognized two years in a row for high academic growth.

For context on previous school closures and how Shelby County Schools got here, read our primer.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, board members Teresa Jones, Miska Clay Bibbs, and Stephanie Love listen to the district’s consolidation plan.

Before putting the Hopson’s plan into motion, Shelby County Schools staff will propose rezoning 22 schools for next school year. That would give some 3,200 students priority to attend a school closer to home. (You can view rezoning maps here by selecting a map and clicking “open.”)

Board members Tuesday had a slew of questions about plans for individual schools, but also wondered how academic and extracurricular offerings would be maintained under the new arrangement.

“What was at the school they left and how will that be transferred to where they’re going?” said board member Teresa Jones. Hopson said that would be considered before consolidating the schools.

Notably, the plan does not include recommendations for how to merge schools with those in the state-run Achievement School District. Hopson said he spoke with state leaders yesterday about “renewing commitment” to collaborate on future building plans for the next phase.

The district would also need buy-in from the county commission, which funds new construction, and Hopson is scheduled to present the plan to the commissioners Wednesday.

Phalen said the analysis of the district’s facilities is not complete and still needs to address alternative schools, technical education, and state-run schools.

Below is a list of the schools that would feed the new ones being proposed:

  • Build a new Woodstock K-8: This is an updated version of a previous recommendation Hopson presented in 2016 to build a K-12 school at the site. The plan would consolidate all of E.E. Jeter K-8, Northaven Elementary, Lucy Elementary, and part of Woodstock Middle into the new building.
  • Build a new Raleigh-Egypt K-12 campus: Consolidate the rest of Woodstock Middle, part of Barret’s Chapel K-8, and all of Bolton High, Trezevant High, and Raleigh Egypt Middle-High, Lucy Elementary, and Egypt Elementary.
  • Build a new elementary in Orange Mound: Consolidate Bethel Grove Elementary, Dunbar Elementary, and Cherokee Elementary into a new building.
  • Build a new high school in the Parkway Village area: Consolidate all of Wooddale High, Sheffield High, and Oakhaven High into the new building.
  • Build a new JP Freeman Optional School with the existing student population.
  • Build a new elementary school in Hickory Hill: Consolidate all of Crump and Ross elementary schools into a new building.
  • Build a new high school in Cordova or convert Mt. Pisgah into a 6-12: Some students from Cordova High, Kingsbury High, White Station High, Germantown High, and Bolton High would attend the new high school. For the 6-12 option, some students from Bolton High, Germantown High, Germantown Middle, Cordova High, and Cordova Middle would be moved to Mt. Pisgah Middle.
  • And two new school buildings, Alcy Elementary and Goodlett Elementary, are already in process. The new Goodlett Elementary would bring in students from Knight Road Elementary, along with some from Sheffield and Getwell elementary schools. The new Alcy Elementary would bring in students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools.

These schools would close and consolidate into existing buildings that are in better condition:

  • Consolidate Alton Elementary into A.B. Hill Elementary.
  • Consolidate Westwood High into Mitchell High.
  • Consolidate Hamilton Middle into Hamilton Elementary, making it a K-8 school.
  • Consolidate Georgian Hills Middle into Grandview Heights and build an addition.
  • Consolidate Scenic Hills Elementary into Lucie E. Campbell Elementary and build an addition.
  • Consolidate Oakshire Elementary into Whitehaven Elementary and build an addition.
  • Consolidate Gardenview Elementary into Winchester Elementary and build an addition.
  • Close Shady Grove Elementary and rezone students to Dexter Elementary and White Station Elementary.

All closed schools except Shady Grove Elementary and Ross Elementary would be demolished under the proposed plan.

Below is a map of the proposed new buildings and school closures (zoom in!). Further down is the district’s full presentation.

Source: Shelby County Schools