agonizing choices

Jeffco board votes to close one elementary school in budget cuts, sparing four others

Students at Pleasant View Elementary and a visiting foster grandparent in 2016 (Jeffco Public Schools via YourHub)

Facing fierce community opposition, Jeffco Public Schools significantly scaled back a plan to slash the district budget, with the school board voting to close one elementary school after this school year and spare four others, at least for now.

In a meeting that ran into early Friday morning, the board voted unanimously to close Pleasant View Elementary in Golden, where 80 percent of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty.

The schools avoiding closure at year’s end are Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge and Stober Elementary in Lakewood. Peck, Swanson and Stober will stay open in part because the board delayed adding sixth grade to the middle schools in those elementary schools’ area, making it impossible to shuffle students in a way that would work.

Two weeks ago, the school district staff laid out more than $20 million in recommended cuts after the failure in November of two tax measures that would have paid for building improvements and boosted teacher pay.

Along with the school closures, staff recommended eliminating all district social and emotional learning specialists, cutting the number of specialists who teach literacy to students who are below grade level and closing a center at Wheat Ridge High School for gifted and talented students.

On Thursday night, after more than two hours of public testimony, Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee described a new, far less drastic plan: all those services would survive and the transition to a new middle school structure would wait a year as had originally been discussed last year, putting off some of the school closures.

The board gave the district approval for the alternative plan, deferring most of the district-level cuts rather than completely taking them off the table, until there is a more clear picture from the state about how much funding Jeffco will get.

McMinimee suggested that using money from retirement savings for now could get teacher and staff salary discussions moving until state funding becomes clearer this spring. Those savings, along with holding off on using reserves to build new classrooms and the district cuts that did move forward Thursday night, give the district approximately $19 million to use toward salary increases for district employees.

“The unanimous feedback that I have heard has asked my team and I to provide you all with some additional alternatives,” McMinimee told the board.

School board members voiced concerns with the original school closure plans, though they cited different reasons. Board members said they wanted the public to understand that the conversations on school closures will continue and that the facilities needs will persist, but said they hoped extra time would improve the process and increase community engagement.

“This will not be the conclusion of the school closure conversation,” said board member Amanda Stevens. “No facility decision I make tonight is driven by a desire to pay teachers. This will get harder.”

As one district staff member put it: “The buildings are going to be a year older. It’s not like wine. It doesn’t get better with age.”

In the decision to go back to an original timeline of moving sixth grade students into middle schools in 2018-19, board members also said they still are excited and support the change, but want to stick to the timeframe they had discussed last year.

The board struggled the most with their vote on Pennington Elementary. Ron Mitchell, the board president, said he was uncomfortable with the idea of voting to close the two schools that had the highest numbers of low-income students among the five schools. Board members stressed the decision likely was just postponing another discussion on closure, and board member Brad Rupert said he was not in favor of “kicking the can down the road.”

Pennington was also one of three schools that had not been on possible closure lists last year. Board members cited the short two-week notice as their reason for sparing Swanson and Peck, the other two schools that were not on lists last year.

Thursday night’s board meeting was packed by parents and community members from each of the schools facing closure. The main board room and overflow rooms were full. West Metro Fire was at the meeting controlling the public’s entrance into the building.

Parents, students and community members criticized the district’s recommendations, the process for selecting the schools and other cuts.

“I went to the Jefferson County board of education website and it has you guys talking about integrity and it says you strive to provide a quality education,” said Ruben Arambula a parent at Swanson Elementary. “In order for my kids to get this quality that you’re talking about, Swanson needs to stay open.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and a Jeffco parent, spoke at the board meeting, saying she understands difficult budget decisions, but said these school communities have strong neighborhoods that would take too big of a hit.

“Leaving our students stranded can never be a choice,” said Zenzinger, a Democrat who represents Arvada and Westminster and a Jeffco parent. “We must take the time to find another way.”

In recommending the schools that would close, the district considered 10 factors including the cost of building maintenance to keep schools open, low enrollment and the utilization of the building. The demographics of the schools and their academic performance were not considered.

The five school closures would have contributed about $3.5 million toward the more than $20 million in cuts the district proposed originally.

Although the full budget doesn’t have to be approved for a few more months, the district staff had asked the board to vote on these cuts now so that the money saved could be used as the board starts hiring for next year, and as they negotiate salaries for teachers and other district employees next year.

The school district’s bond request that failed in November would have contributed more than $12 million to improve employee salaries so that they are more competitive with neighboring districts. Since other districts did get voters to approve tax increases, the district worried that the gap between those salaries and the ones Jeffco provides would grow.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

college knowledge

‘This levels the playing field’: How New York City is trying to get more high school students to apply to college

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Bryant Ramirez about his college plans at Pace High School on Monday.

Bryant Ramirez hunched over a worksheet Monday listing the private colleges where he plans to apply and, next to each one, whether he thinks he has a good shot of getting in.

It wasn’t long before the senior had written out his top choice — the Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn — and fired up a school laptop to begin filling out an electronic application.

“I feel confident,” Ramirez said of his chances of landing a spot at one of his preferred schools. “But you never know.”

On Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Ramirez and more than 20 of his peers at Manhattan’s Pace High School to showcase a growing citywide program designed to give schools more time and resources to help students through the college application process.

The program, called “College Access for All,” is meant to address the gap between students whose families already understand the application process and can help give them a leg up, and those who might be first-generation college students or who might not apply at all. This year, the education department expanded the program to include roughly 274 of the city’s high schools, or more than half of the total.

Participating schools help students craft post-graduation plans for specific careers or colleges, and ease the application process through school-sponsored college visits and additional counseling.

“More students are saying ‘I want to go to college,’” Fariña said. “This levels the playing field.”

At Pace, which is part of the program, students begin conversations about college in their advisory groups junior year, and later take college counseling classes where they are given time to fill out applications, financial aid forms, and learn about the college application process. The school also offers the SAT during a school day (instead of the weekend, when some students might not make it), and takes juniors and seniors on college visits — trips that school leaders are planning to extend to ninth and tenth graders.

Lancia Burke, the school’s college counselor, said some of those initiatives didn’t exist when she started at Pace 11 years ago and tried to cram as much information as possible into a single workshop with the entire senior class. (She also met with students individually.)

At one point, she felt overwhelmed as she tried helping students craft their college essays, so she approached the English department.

“‘Hey, I can’t handle going through all these personal essays,’” Burke recalled saying. After that, the department added college essay writing into their curriculum, she said.

The College Access for All program is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which aims to get 80 percent of students to graduate high school on time and two-thirds of graduates college-ready by the year 2026.

About 51 percent of New York City’s graduates were considered college ready in 2016, meaning they could enroll at a CUNY school without having to take remedial classes, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The proportion of students who enroll in college or a work-training program within six months of graduating has also ticked up to 55 percent, also 4 percentage point increase since 2014.

Fariña said she hopes the program boosts the number of students who apply to college. But simply applying to college isn’t enough, she added.

“We always want to see the numbers going up in terms of applying,” Fariña said. “But once you get there, do you stay there?”