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. 

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.