choice and competition

School choice, Jeffco style: District considering new school models, centralized enrollment

Students practicing ukulele during band practice at Montessori Peaks Academy in 2015 in Jeffco. (Photo by Denver Post)

Jeffco Public Schools is considering significant changes to make its schools more desirable and accessible, including adopting a centralized school choice system, launching new specialized programs in district-run schools and improving student transportation options.

Officials in Colorado’s second largest school district are seeking answers as enrollment declines at some schools, threatening their long-term sustainability.

A district-run centralized school enrollment system, similar to one in neighboring Denver, is still at least a year away. Right now, families in Jeffco who are interested in enrolling in schools that aren’t their boundary schools must contact each school individually to seek a seat.

District officials are moving more quickly on other fronts. At a meeting this month, new Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass suggested the district create a new district-run option school for the arts. He also presented plans to revamp an existing program at a school that has declining enrollment and has already faced threats of closure.

Glass wants the district to provide more choices among district-run schools as a way of retaining more students and attracting new ones.

“Choice and competition are here to stay,” Glass said. “All school organizations have to find ways to provide what families and students are desiring. That’s just the reality of our policy landscape now.”

School board members, all of whom were elected with teachers union support, have said they would like district-run schools to provide offerings charter schools specialize in. But now, with the possibility of new district-run schools aiming to do just that, the board seemed nervous about the idea of market forces hurting existing district schools.

“I think we do want to do it if the need is real,” said board president Ron Mitchell. “Would I like to get some students back in Jeffco? Yes, but I wouldn’t call that an urgent need. I think we have to keep our eyes open and find out, ‘Did we somehow fail to meet the needs of our students or families?’”

Mitchell said he wants to have more discussions about the issue and gather community feedback.

When district leaders asked the board for thoughts on the arts school plans at the meeting this month, board members questioned and criticized the idea but didn’t kill it.

Since 2014-15, a growing number of Jeffco students are attending schools outside the district, according the Colorado Department of Education. In 2016-17, 3,916 Jeffco students attended schools elsewhere.

More students are coming into Jeffco schools from other districts than those who are leaving to attend school elsewhere, however. That number spiked in 2014-15 with 6,795 students, declined the next year and was at 6,470 in 2016-17.

Jeffco officials cited 186 Jeffco students leaving the district to attend schools that specialize in arts, including 90 going to the Denver School of the Arts.

Board member Brad Rupert, who said he graduated from Denver Public Schools, said he wanted assurances that Jeffco isn’t following that district’s lead. The Denver district has created a “portfolio model” of independently-run charter schools and traditional district-run neighborhood schools as well as innovation schools, which have quasi-autonomy, and magnet school programs. Several schools invest in marketing to compete for students and avoid drops in enrollment, which lead to decreased funding.

“I want to make sure that we aren’t going down the road of DPS,” Rupert said at the meeting.

Glass said there would be no reason existing arts programs in Jeffco would suffer. He said the district estimates that, on average, each existing school would only lose one or two students to the new arts academy.

Jeffco officials said they expect it would cost about $500,000 to restore the vacant building that used to house Sobesky Academy on 20th Avenue and Hoyt Street in Lakewood to open the arts school.

District officials also want the board to consider creating an innovation fund to give grants to schools that want to do something new. Glass said that if the fund is created, the arts school could potentially get a startup grant from that fund. But in the long run, Glass said the school would need to operate on the same amount of per-student dollars other Jeffco schools get, and would not be entitled to extra.

Board members also expressed concern about equality. Many board members wondered if new school options, such as the possible arts academy, would only be accessible to some students such as those with transportation and savvy parents.

School board members said if the school opened, they would like the district to be able to use it as a resource to provide something of value to all district schools so that it can be a resource for them.

Glass said that since admission to the art school would be based on student talent, “talent is equal opportunity.” He added that the district would take steps to ensure talent isn’t confused with skills that some students could pay to develop.

Researcher Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said research has found school choice often perpetuates inequalities because not everyone has the means or transportation to fully take advantage of it.

But because school choice has existed in Colorado for years, districts need to acknowledge that some parents will exercise choice, he said.

“School boards might say we want to respond to demonstrated parental interest but we don’t want to go overboard and create a great deal of churn and uncertainty, with churn meaning schools closing and reopening,” Welner said. “It’s just a matter of finding the right balance for that given community, but you can’t ignore that competitive environment.”

After the board feedback, Glass said Jeffco leadership is looking at updating a 2014 survey that asked parents what kind of programs they would like to see in Jeffco, and will also spend time looking at how to support existing programs so they can continue to attract students.

“I’m in support of an arts academy that is careful to open well in the right timeline and work to be a value-add to arts programming, not a competing drain on resources and other programs,” board member Amanda Stevens said at the meeting.

Jeffco officials had floated the idea of asking the board to vote on the arts school in January — for a possible opening next fall — but Glass said that timeline is likely to change.

Glass said Jeffco also is reexamining the district’s transportation options to see if the district can expand services to more schools or students who aren’t attending their neighborhood schools.

In other school districts, transportation is a barrier to having all students access school options.

Another common barrier to choice is in the process families face selecting schools. Jeffco officials started the work of improving the website of the district and of each school more than a year ago, with the goal of eventually creating a centralized school choice system.

Officials said they want to have a searchable site where families can enter a program-type they are interested in to find all the Jeffco schools where it is available. Diana Wilson, the district’s communications chief, said officials would like to include charter schools, but said each charter would likely have to opt in to the system.

The project has been delayed by not having enough money and time to create a request for proposals for someone to help develop the system. Right now, Wilson said the district is considering a grant to fund the startup costs for the system. The board would also have to approve the costs and the system.

Glass said the goal would be to have the common school choice system in place January 2019 for the 2019-20 school choice process.

The Denver and New Orleans school districts launched the nation’s first common enrollment systems in 2012, allowing for families to choose from among district-run and charter schools. School districts in Newark, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere have followed suit.

In another, more direct step to help a school that is losing funding as enrollment has declined, Glass presented to the school board is a new program model for an existing school, Pennington Elementary. The school would become an expeditionary learning school — a model that focuses on projects to give students realistic learning scenarios.

The school would continue to be a neighborhood school with an attendance boundary. Glass called it a “neighborhood-Plus” model, meant to help attract more families to the school.

Pennington was one of five schools that faced possible closure last spring, but the school board voted to close just one school. Pennington has a high population of low-income students, hosts a center program for students with autism and has had declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to do something different there to stabilize the enrollment,” Glass said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be expeditionary learning, but the school seems excited about it.”

Students in the boundary not interested in the model would have to choice out to go to another school, but Glass points out that the model fits with the district’s vision to make learning everywhere in Jeffco more hands-on.

The board applauded the proposal and asked few questions. Mitchell said the arts school, or future school options, may also be created as programs to operate in existing schools, like the expeditionary learning model possibly going into Pennington.

“We have to embrace choice and competition and find ways that all of our schools can succeed,” Glass said. “There’s no reason that all of our schools can’t be great.”

Correction: A sentence in this story has been edited to make clear that putting an expeditionary learning program into Pennington is at this point a proposal. 

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”



outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”