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How Jeffco’s pick for superintendent changed his mind about education reform

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School last week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Jason Glass was recruited to oversee more than 300 Iowa school districts as the state’s director of education, he was known for his work in Colorado’s Eagle County tying teacher pay to student performance.

The Republican governor who appointed Glass in Iowa called him a “reform-minded leader” and put him to work to explore similar models for Iowa’s teachers.

Over time, both while in Iowa and after returning to serve as superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Glass changed some of his thoughts on education reform. He said it happened while he was looking at education systems around the world and found that many of the popular reforms in the U.S. “were not a strong ingredient” in other systems around the world. Addressing student needs was, he said.

“Unless you’re doing something to impact poverty, you’re really not changing outcomes,” Glass said. “It changed my focus.”

Glass’s views are front and center as he is set to take on a more prominent role as the next superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district. Pending contract negotiations and a final vote Tuesday night, he will begin the role July 1.

Glass was the sole finalist of a school board that won election with support from a coalition that included well-connected parents and the teachers union.

In Eagle County, Glass is admired by the local union. He said he no longer believes in performance pay for teachers, but advocates for other ways to pay teachers other than under traditional models. He’s been critical of testing in Colorado. He believes charter schools should meet high bars, including showing quality in instruction.

“I’m most interested in getting something done,” Glass said. “That can take on different forms.”

Jeffco board members who picked Glass as sole finalist for the job praised his ability to work with different people, his work on rolling out a biliteracy seal in his district to encourage bilingual students and for “doing his homework” on Jeffco’s master plan.

The Jeffco board launched a national search earlier this spring to find a new leader.

The last superintendent, Dan McMinimee, was hired by a previous school board in a majority decision by three conservative board members who were later recalled. Three of the five current school board members are up for re-election this November.

“I really admire this board,” Glass said. “It took a lot of courage for them to run.”

Even before officially starting, Glass has been meeting groups of staff and visiting schools. On Thursday, he visited Arvada High School, where two students gave him a tour of the school and told him about the programs they say make their school great.

Glass was quiet, mostly listening to the students and asking occasional questions.

He said he won’t start work in Jeffco with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

He said he will consider whether Jeffco could offer a biliteracy seal — a credential given to graduating students who meet requirements to prove they are fluent in two languages.

Talking about his views on budget issues facing most Colorado districts, Glass said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs — services that cash-strapped districts often have to cut.

Glass said it is clear the district needs someone to unite the community.

“It’s a place that needs a strong leader, a relationship-builder,” Glass said. “Those are skill sets that I have and areas that I’ve been successful in.”

His job application highlighted that voters in Eagle County in November approved a tax increase for the district. Jeffco failed to pass two tax increase measures in November.

Charlie Edwards, the president of the Iowa State Board of Education, agrees that Glass has learned to work well with various groups.

Edwards said that when Glass started in Iowa and was working to create a statewide model of teacher pay and to create new academic standards, the hundreds of school districts used to having local control were skeptical.

“There was initially quite a bit of resistance,” Edwards said. “He worked through a lot of it. It was not an easy sell.”

Now people describe Glass as a supporter of teachers.

When he returned to Colorado after working in Iowa, Glass negotiated a contract with the school district that tied his own pay raises to teacher pay raises. It was something important to the community at the time, Glass said, because they worried about a previous leader that took pay raises while teacher salaries lagged.

Glass also rolled back the performance-pay model that he helped create as the district’s director of human resources. Now, teacher pay is more traditional but with some added performance bonuses.

“He is very supportive of what we do,” said Megan Orvis, president of the Eagle County Education Association.

different voices

Jeffco superintendent extends listening tour through event targeting multilingual community

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass talks to community members at Arvada K-8 during a Many Voices event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

In an extension of his district tour, new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass on Monday answered questions about biliteracy, equity gaps and school financing in the first of three “many voices” events.

The events are meant to give the multilingual and non English-speaking community an opportunity to speak out on issues. About 35 people showed at the auditorium at Arvada K-8 Monday, including a handful who listened to Glass through a translator on a headset.

Glass said he heard more questions about equity and language issues than he had on previous stops on his tour to get acquainted with different parts of the sprawling, 86,000-student district. Roughly 10.5 percent of Jeffco residents speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data.

When Glass was hired, and as he moved into the position, he said he would make equity issues a priority. He often talks about disparities in Jeffco school buildings, with some in desperate need of updates and others that are “fantastic” — and did again Monday.

He also answered a question — familiar to many Colorado superintendents — about why marijuana tax revenues aren’t helping with significant building needs.

One man asked if Glass was interested in offering Jeffco students a biliteracy seal, an endorsement that proves graduates have mastered two languages. Glass, as leader of Eagle County schools, helped that district become one of the first in the state to offer the seal.

“I think it has a positive aspect, just cognitively,” Glass said. “And I think it’s a huge advantage when kids go out into the workforce. I think we should move this forward.”

Glass also mentioned he’s looking into different ways schools might address students’ differing needs. He cited community school models, which bring in community organizations to help provide health care and other services to students and student-based budgeting, which involves allocating more or less money to certain students depending on need, following them to whichever school they attend. But Glass said the key is not to lower expectations.

When a woman asked what he’s noticed visiting Jeffco schools, Glass said he’s seen a lot of hard work and professional talent. But he said he has also seen a lot of worksheets.

He told the group he’d like to see better student engagement through more hands-on learning.

A mom of a kindergartener told Glass she wanted more school communication to know what her student is learning and how well he is doing. Glass agreed.

“That needs to be a priority for us is how we view our partnership with our parents,” Glass said.

At the end of the event, Glass noted similarities in the hour-long discussion and previous ones he hosted.

“The thing that we keep coming back to, that can unite us, is the student experience,” Glass said.

Glass said that although many things can be done in different ways, if student experience doesn’t change, reforms won’t make much of an impact.

The next two multilingual events are scheduled for: 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2 at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School and 6 p.m. Monday, October 10 at Alameda International Junior-Senior High School.

slow down

New Jeffco superintendent calls a timeout on any more school closures

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Preschoolers work on body movement exercises at Pleasant View Elementary March 6, 2017.

In one of his first big moves as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Jason Glass has pledged to not recommend any schools be closed until the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

Last spring, the staff of then-Superintendent Dan McMinimee recommended that five elementary schools be closed, citing voters’ rejection of a tax increase to improve school buildings and board members’ direction that the district find a way to pay teachers more.

Ultimately, the school board voted to close one school but left the door open to revisit closures on a broader scale, citing soaring maintenance costs for aging buildings.

Glass said that barring any drastic changes, the second largest district in Colorado should be able to manage without closing schools a couple more years. According to his plan, if Jeffco needs to close schools, those recommendations would be discussed in 2019 at the earliest, for closure in the 2019-20 school year. Glass announced the plan in a letter posted Friday on his blog.

“It buys us the time to re-envision what the schools’ purpose and direction is,” Glass told Chalkbeat Monday. “Really, the purpose about this is to slow down.”

Glass said the idea for the change, just two months into his tenure as Jeffco superintendent, came after talking to people through his district tour, and after reviewing “historical documents and news coverage,” including Chalkbeat stories about the potential impacts of the proposed closures.

Glass is directing district officials to work on a new process for deciding if a school needs to close.

Then the next year will be spent concentrating on efforts to ward off closures, including helping schools create programs to better attract students, and planning other uses for unoccupied space in buildings with declining enrollment.

That could include bringing in nonprofit partners or government agencies that might also serve Jeffco students — an idea raised during the most recent school closure discussions. One Jeffco school that was not being considered for closure last spring is moving forward with a similar approach under what is known as a community school model.

“There’s an entrepreneurial stance that has to be a part of this,” Glass said. “We need to be thinking of the type of schools the district has and about how can we use the space the district has to create opportunities for our families.”

If school closures are necessary in the future, the district will use whatever new process is created to make those decisions. Denver Public Schools in late 2015 adopted a new “bright line” school closure policy meant to use more objective criteria, but had to revise it after the first year it was put into practice was marred by challenges and setbacks.

The Jeffco closure plan will apply to district-run schools, not charter schools. Glass said charter schools will continue to be managed under their individual contracts unless the schools ask to renegotiate those.

The current school board majority generally supports Glass’s position on school closures, said board president Ron Mitchell. But three of the five seats are in play in this November’s election, and a different board could direct Glass to reconsider the plan.

Glass said any new closure criteria should consider a number of factors, including equity, school performance and the school’s context in the community.

“It is a numbers conversation, but it’s broader than that,” Glass said. “Performance, equity, service to the community, disruption to the community, entrepreneurial approaches, aspirations — all should be part of the calculus. If you have a school closure process that does not recognize all of those things it’s really not complete and they end up coming up one way or another.”

John Ford, president of the Jeffco teachers union, said creating a new plan will take time but is necessary to consider impacts for disadvantaged communities and students of color — which were not factors for staff in the last round of recommended closures. A recent study found school closures disproportionately affect students of color and often don’t help student learning.

“I think we learned our lessons from last year and the process we attempted to use when we closed Pleasant View,” Ford said. “There were some pieces missing.”

In the last discussion the district had about school closures, one school on the list, Peck Elementary in Arvada, was a high-performing school that had won state awards. School community members asked the school board to consider the school’s good work with students. Ultimately, one board member did cite that in his vote to spare the school.

Debbie Hansen, a mother of three children at the school, said parents are relieved by Glass’s announcement.

“We can finally breathe,” Hansen said. “I think that if you get a fuller picture, you’re able to understand better the impact that you have if you realize you might be closing down good schools. I think it’s great to have that broader sense of everything.”