Getting to know ... Us

It’s a new school year. Here’s what Chalkbeat Colorado is curious about — and how you can help us find the answers.

Students at University Prep, a DPS charter school, walk in front of the building with their teacher. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat)

When Jeffco Public Schools announced the possible closure of five elementary schools last spring, Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles wanted to see firsthand what was at stake.

She arranged a visit to Pleasant View Elementary School in Golden, housed in a 1950s brick building in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, a mobile home park and aging stripmalls. There, she talked to a woman who runs an on-site pantry that hands out milk and eggs to needy families in a school building that lacks a full sprinkler system or adequate roof coverings.

Jeffco district staff at the time didn’t consider equity as a factor in selecting schools for possible closure. Yesenia’s coverage showing poor students would be disproportionately impacted by the proposal helped change the conversation. The school board voted to close Pleasant View but spare the four others, and new Superintendent Jason Glass cited Chalkbeat’s coverage and broader concerns about equity in his recent decision to put a moratorium on school closures.

These are the kinds of stories Chalkbeat is dedicated to covering — stories that inform, enlighten and make an impact, especially for students who historically have lacked access to a great education.

Now that a new school year has begun, we’re asking you to join us in informing and supporting our journalism. Below you’ll hear from Chalkbeat Colorado reporters about the stories they’re focusing on this year, but as you read, know that we can’t tell them without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, submit a story tip, give us feedback or propose a First Person essay by emailing us at [email protected].

All this work demands time and talent — neither of which are free. If every Colorado reader gave $10 right now, we could raise $650,000 to support our mission this year. That’d be enough for all these stories and more. We hope those who can will consider making a $10 tax-deductible donation here.

Melanie Asmar, covering Denver Public Schools

Melanie’s aim is to unpack what reforms the state’s largest school district is undertaking, explain the reasoning behind them and the backlash against them, and examine whether they’re having the intended effect, such as improving student learning or increasing school integration.

One of the big DPS storylines is right in front of us: This fall’s school board election. With control of the seven-member board hanging in the balance, this election could be a referendum on Denver’s reforms, which include giving families a choice from a “portfolio” of schools, including traditional district-run, charter and innovation. We’ll be profiling the races and following the money.

Melanie also will be digging into DPS’s work to tackle the impacts of gentrification and efforts to better integrate schools, as well as its experiments with granting schools more autonomy.

Melanie has a talent for rich, narrative storytelling, bringing classroom scenes to life with telling details and dialogue. The judges of this year’s Education Writers Association awards agreed: Melanie was a finalist in beat reporting for her work covering DPS.

You can reach Melanie at [email protected] and 303-446-7625, and follow her on Twitter.

Nic Garcia, covering state education issues

Nic is all things state of Colorado, which means covering the state legislature, State Board of Education, Colorado Department of Education, and issues of statewide significance.

Nic is a product of Pueblo City Schools, which has seen its share of struggles, giving us a valuable perspective about challenges facing Colorado schools.

This coming year, he’ll be focusing on big conversations over how to best hold schools accountable for their performance educating kids, the eternal struggle over adequately funding schools in Colorado, and attempts to tackle teacher shortages in some areas and subjects.

Nic also will be mining education angles in the 2018 governor’s race — and there are many. A number of candidates, especially on the Democratic side, have long track records on education. We’re planning “education profiles” of the candidates, fleshing out their pasts and proposals.

We’ll be looking for more stories in rural Colorado, which is much more diverse than many rural areas in other states and faces its own distinct challenges, many centered on race and poverty.

Nic stands at an important intersection — explaining the goals of policymakers to educators, students and parents, and the realities of educators, students and parents to policymakers.

You can reach Nic at [email protected] and 303-446-7624, and follow him on Twitter.

Yesenia Robles, covering suburban school districts and English language learners

Yesenia came to us a year ago from The Denver Post to flesh out a beat that is central to our mission — the suburbanization of poverty and how it is playing out in public schools.

As someone who was born in Mexico and grew up in Denver schools as an English language learner, Yesenia can relate to many of the students she writes about.

Yesenia will continue to invest significant resources in covering Aurora Public Schools, which has a high-needs student population and its own reform agenda under Superintendent Rico Munn. That will include chronicling this fall’s high-stakes school board election.

We’ve decided to turn more attention to a couple of high-poverty districts that haven’t gotten enough attention: Adams 14 in Commerce City and Westminster Public Schools. Both ran out of time last school year on the state’s “accountability clock,” and we’ll be paying close attention to how their state-approved improvement plans play out.

Both districts serve large numbers of English language learners. Are districts doing enough to help these students succeed? Who is failing and succeeding? We intend to find out.

You can reach Yesenia at [email protected] and 303-446-7622, and follow her on Twitter.

Ann Schimke, covering early childhood education and healthy schools

The early childhood years are getting more emphasis in Colorado and nationally as policymakers, educators and funders realize how critical these years are to brain development and learning. No reporter in Colorado owns this subject like Ann Schimke.

Our coverage focuses on the drive for quality and equity in early childhood, covering issues including finding qualified teachers, navigating funding disparities and addressing discipline.

This fall, look for a project from Ann and Yesenia examining life in a child care desert — a long-neglected Denver neighborhood where good options for early care are hard to find, and a variety of organizations and advocates are trying to change the narrative.

Ann also has taken a broader lens to covering how health intersects with schooling, expanding our coverage beyond traditional physical health issues (obesity, immunizations, and nutrition) to cover social and emotional learning, mental health, and childhood trauma.

Everyone is talking about social and emotional learning. One of Ann’s goals for this year is to take a thoughtful look at the growing arsenal of tools and approaches that help foster these skills.

You can reach Ann at [email protected] and 970-238-0179, and follow her on Twitter.

Chalkbeat

Coming soon (and hiring now): Chalkbeat in Chicago and Newark

Top: Chicago skyline via Flickr/Carroll. Bottom: Newark via Wikimedia Commons/Jamaalcobbs

Dear readers,

We have some exciting news: After hearing from community leaders across the country, we’ve selected the next two places where we’ll launch Chalkbeat coverage.

By early 2018 — just a year after launching in Detroit, our fifth city — we’ll have Chalkbeat coverage in Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

The timing couldn’t be better. Both Chicago and Newark are in the midst of sweeping changes with far-reaching consequences for students and families, educators, and communities.

Chicago is living an education paradox: Poverty, violence, and deep segregation present steep challenges for students, their families, and their schools. After a last-minute budget deal, the city school district remains on the brink of financial disaster. At the same time, Chicago boasts one of the fastest-improving big city school systems in the nation, a conclusion so unexpected that a Stanford researcher double-checked his work before confirming it.

Amid these highs and lows, Chicago’s public schools face a slew of changes at every level of the school system. In the K-12 system, school closures and bureaucratic overhauls have made a complicated system more confusing for many families. City officials also want to lead the country by dramatically growing the number of children enrolled in public prekindergarten, and, controversially, by not allowing students to graduate unless they have a plan for what to do next.

In Newark, meanwhile, an effort to overhaul the local schools with performance pay for teachers and more charter schools — driven in part by Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 — initially led to a three-year test score decline that has recently bounced back and turned positive in English, according to a new study.

Today, one third of Newark students are enrolled in charter schools, one of the highest percentages in the country. The school district, meanwhile, is returning to the control of a locally elected school board after years of being run by state-appointed managers. As we’re seeing in Detroit, where a similar transition is underway, the shift to local control comes with great optimism — and high stakes.

Both cities have important stories that the whole country can learn from. But while there are talented journalists producing great stories about education in both Chicago and Newark, both cities lack the depth of coverage they will need to navigate so much change.

Chicago recently lost a longtime news source dedicated to covering schools, Catalyst. And the two major Chicago newspapers have seen their reporting teams diminish significantly, in keeping with trends in newsrooms across the country. The local public radio station, WBEZ, has admirably stepped up to fill gaps, creating a dedicated education reporting team. But there is much more in-depth daily reporting to be done.

In Newark, the local newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has also seen its reporting resources diminish in recent years. And while a laudable nonprofit news organization, NJ Spotlight, has offered thoughtful and high-impact coverage of education across New Jersey, dedicated education coverage by and for Newark has been unsettlingly scarce, especially for a city that is so often in the national headlines.

Community leaders in Chicago and Newark asked us to launch Chalkbeat coverage in their cities because they want to change that. So do we. As we expand our coverage, our goal is to scrutinize and explain what’s changing, what’s working, and what’s at stake as the cities’ schools transform. Readers in Chicago and Newark also deserve to hear — and share — firsthand accounts of the parents, students, and teachers who are living through the changes.

For Chalkbeat’s readers in our five existing locations and across the country, the expansion means that we’ll be connecting even more local dots through our national coverage. Our new national newsletter — sign up now!— will be a great place to read the highlights from Chicago and Newark and learn how how they fit into the unfolding national story of efforts to improve education for poor children.

The growth also means that we’re hiring. We’re already looking to fill two new positions, story editor and Detroit reporter, and have some other roles open, too. Now, we’re opening searches for someone to lead our team in Chicago and a senior reporter in Newark, where we’re launching a one-year pilot as we explore more permanent coverage. If you or someone you know is a fit for any of these positions, let us know now. We are lucky to work with some of the most talented journalists in the country, and we can’t wait to expand our team.

And for our future readers in Chicago and Newark — we won’t be able to do this without you. If you have ideas for us, feel free to reach out now. You can also sign up here to to get updates about our launches in Chicago, Newark, or both.

This post has been updated to more accurately describe the findings of a recent study of Newark school reforms.

Student count

Aurora school enrollment continues sharp decline, but budget woes not expected

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The number of students enrolled in Aurora schools this fall dropped by almost twice as much as last year, part of a trend district officials have blamed in part on gentrification as housing prices in Aurora climb.

This year, as of Oct. 2, the district has enrolled 41,294 students from preschool through 12th grade. That’s 867 fewer students than last year — and almost twice the number of students lost between 2015 and 2016.

Last October, staff told the board that district enrollment had dropped by a historic amount. At the time, enrollment was 41,926, down 643 from 2015. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district had enrolled almost 200 more students.

But in Colorado, school districts are given money on a per-student count that’s based on the number of students enrolled on count day, which this year was Oct. 2.

The district expects to see a similar decline in students again next school year, but expects that new developments start bringing more children to the district in the future.

The good news, provided in the update given to the Aurora school board Tuesday night, is that district officials saw it coming this time.

“The magnitude of the impact is not the same as last year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “This kind of decline is now something we will predict and budget to.”

Because enrollment numbers are higher than what officials predicted, the budget that the board approved over the summer should not need adjustments for the current year.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools had to cut more than $3 million in the middle of the year. District officials also worked on gathering input and finding ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by up to $31 million, but better than expected funding from the state meant the district didn’t end up cutting the full $31 million.

The district may look for ways to trim the budget again next year in anticipation of another anticipated enrollment decline.

Board members asked about other factors that may be contributing to enrollment declines, such as school reputations, and asked about how staff predict future enrollment.

Superintendent Munn told the board that the enrollment decreases are changing several conversations in the district.

“APS was not in the business of marketing our schools,” Munn said. But this year, the district launched an interactive map with school information on the district website to help feature all schools, their programs and their performance measures, and has been doing outreach to the approximately 4,000 Aurora students who leave to attend neighboring districts.

Three schools also received district-level help in creating targeted marketing.

One of those three schools was South Middle School, a low-performing school in the northwest part of the district where enrollment declines are especially drastic.

This year, after receiving some marketing assistance, South was one of few schools in the district that saw enrollment increased. The school’s Oct. 2 enrollment was 825, up from 734 last year.