community input

A high-poverty Jeffco school is about to adopt a “community school” model. What does that mean?

Rhiannon Wenning leads a community forum at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

One of Jefferson County’s highest-need schools is about to undergo a transition, expanding efforts to not just teach kids but meet the many needs of families in the area.

As the academic year begins, Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater will begin the process of becoming a community school. That means the Jeffco Public school will act as a hub for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes, job training and medical care — to parents and families.

Community schools are an emerging trend in education, championed by teachers unions and others who believe tackling poverty, health and behavior challenges facing students and their families can help boost learning.

Although approaches to community schools differ nationwide, they share that holistic approach. One U.S. district heavily invested in the concept, New York City, has pumped millions of dollars into transforming more than 130 high-need schools into community schools over three years.

The community schools approach is also in harmony with the philosophy of new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass, who has prioritized addressing poverty and other student needs.

Jefferson teachers began leading the effort last summer, said Rhiannon Wenning, a Jefferson social studies teacher and the community school site coordinator. They hope to disrupt patterns such as the school-to-prison pipeline by better engaging parents and families in their child’s education.

Jefferson’s demographics make it a good fit for the community school model: The junior-senior high school serves students in the area from grades 7 to 12. Just over 90 percent of Jefferson students qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, and the school is 82 percent Latino.

Jefferson Principal Michael James said the school has had community partnerships and run family-focused programs for some time, but committing to a community school model will expand that effort.

It’s a reorganization for the better, for ensuring that we have good systems in place for our families,” James said. “It’s not a huge new thing. It’s really not.”

The biggest changes, Wenning said, come with operating the center and ascribing to the “six pillars” of community schools as defined by national organizations such as the Coalition for Community Schools and the National Center for Community Schools. Local nonprofit Edgewater Collective is working to establish partnerships with local organizations and help staff the center.

Over the last four years we’ve been building a great group of community partners that really want to invest in our schools,” said Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective. “This is the logical next step to solidify the connection with our schools and bring partners into the school building.”

Wenning said those pillars, which include wraparound services, restorative discipline practices, community engagement and curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives fit neatly into some of Jeffco’s school expectations.

For Wenning, making sure students have support and find school materials engaging and relatable is the ideal result from the community school transition. Research into whether community schools move the needle academically, however, has shown uneven results.

“If I’m being a good teacher and a culturally relevant teacher, I’m gonna ensure (my curriculum) includes the history of my students,” Wenning said at a recent community forum.

James said the transition to community school will be gradual, as Jefferson is still seeking support to remain open beyond the school day and hoping for funding from national organizations that has not yet come to fruition. James said as of now, the school budget will have to swallow the cost of added resources.

Wenning said the principal had committed to funding her position as site coordinator part-time, and that she was pursuing other funding sources.

Even with funding uncertainties, Wenning has faith in the ultimate success of the model. She said she expects that after a few years, students and the surrounding community will see a drastic change.

“I want Jefferson to be a school Edgewater wants,” Wenning said in an interview. “If you don’t like something with your neighborhood school, then go into it and make it better… It’s the best use of not only taxpayer dollars, but it’s the best scenario for our kids.”

out of sight

Out of town, on a Sunday morning, Sheridan’s school board approved a new superintendent contract

Sheridan school board members and Superintendent Michael Clough, right, at earlier meeting in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

The school board for the Sheridan district bordering southwest Denver voted on the incoming superintendent’s contract at a weekend meeting held in Colorado Springs, 65 miles away from community members who had objected to their choice on who should lead the district.

The board refused to release a copy of the draft contract they were considering before the Sunday morning meeting, citing attorney-client privilege. The district didn’t release the contract until more than 24 hours after the vote, even though the document became public under Colorado law at the time of the meeting.

Community members said they still haven’t seen the contract as of Monday afternoon. It has not been posted publicly by the district. Community members also said the way this weekend meeting was held was strange, but on par with what they already see as the district avoiding public input.

“We had some community members and parents wondering, even some teachers, that were wondering how much he would get paid, especially compared to Englewood schools’ superintendent,” said Indira Guzman, a mother of two district students and a community organizer for Sheridan Rising Together for Equity. “Our community has a very bitter taste after the last times they gave input. They feel it doesn’t matter what they say. They are not considered at all.”

The handling of the contract approval is the latest in a months-long controversial process for selecting a new superintendent.

Michael Clough is retiring this summer following 10 years in the role. Earlier this year, after identifying three finalists, the four members on the board butted heads on who they wanted to pick for the job. The board president filled the fifth board seat before the final vote. New board member Juanita Camacho served to break the tie and helped select Pat Sandos, a district administrator, as the new chief.

It was a blow to community members, parents, and some students, who, thinking the district needed big changes, wanted the board to select an outsider, a Denver administrator, for the job.

Veteran board members disagreed with the community and with the two newly elected board members, saying instead that the district is on the right track and that an internal candidate would keep up the momentum.

Some community members have said in public comment that they are organizing a board recall following the decision.

The signed contract (in full below) is a two-year agreement with a possibility for an additional one-year automatic extension, unless the board were to notify Sandos of a non-renewal by March 31, 2019. The contract gives Sandos a $160,000 annual salary — less than the $161,480 Clough was making before going to part-time status. The contract also entitles Sandos to $350 per month for driving expenses, and up to $120 per month for a cellphone plan.

The district posted the notice for the weekend meeting on Saturday morning, meeting minimum requirements under the law. The agenda didn’t include time for any public comment during the meeting.

The district noted in their announcement that the board’s regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting in Sheridan was cancelled, as it was instead held Sunday morning before the annual retreat when the board was going to talk about goals for the year.

Asked why the board decided to have the regular business meeting so far from its constituents, a district spokesman said it was a unanimous decision.

“One board member works six days a week,” said district spokesman Mark Stevens. “As a result, the board settled on a Sunday and agreed unanimously on June 10. Holding a business meeting and approving the contract on Sunday allows the board to cancel a Tuesday meeting.”

Stevens added, “the superintendent contract wasn’t ready until late in the week last week.”

The two board members who had voted against the appointment of Sandos as superintendent, Karla Najera and Daniel Stange, both were late to the meeting and missed the vote on the contract. But both had previously been in contact with the remaining board and said it was okay for the board to start without them, and said they did not have objections to the contract.

The three board members in attendance at the start of the meeting all voted in support of the contract, without discussion.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he struggled with the district’s justification for denying the earlier release of the contract. Roberts said waiting until Monday was not timely, and said “they could have handled it better.”

Roberts also said that while the law does not specify where governing boards should meet, he said it is rare, but not unheard of, for some governing boards to meet while out of town. School boards often have retreats in Colorado Springs while already there for other annual conferences, for instance, and in some cases have held other business meetings there. One recent example was Jeffco Public Schools, which held one of several closed-door meetings in Colorado Springs before deciding to search for a new superintendent.

Roberts said there are simple and low-cost ways boards could improve transparency when they do meet outside of their jurisdictions.

“I just think this is a transparency effort they could make,” Roberts said. “You could have used Facebook Live to stream your meeting to make sure the people back in Sheridan could see it. They can take small steps to involve the public.”

Guzman added that concern from parents and community members over the contract is valid.

“It’s our tax money that is paying for this superintendent, and it’s about our kids’ future,” Guzman said. “We want to make sure we give our kids the best opportunities and he’s our leader to do that, so we want to make sure that our input is valued.”

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”