changing times

The four-day week, once a tool of rural districts, is coming to a Denver metro school district

Tom Ritter holds up a globe as he teaches his students during a Political Science class in August of 2017 at Brighton High School. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

The Brighton-based school district is likely to become the first district in the Denver metro area to move to a four-day school week.

The announcement comes after voters turned down a request this November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for the fast-growing district north of Denver.

Brighton is hardly the first district in Colorado or the country to consider taking this step, but it would be the largest and most urban. More than 100 districts in states including Wyoming, Florida, and Montana have already gone to a four-day school week. According to the Colorado Department of Education, 87 districts in Colorado have four-day school weeks, but until recently, the phenomenon was confined to rural districts.

Right now, the Garfield Re-2 School District in western Colorado, where 4,898 students are enrolled, is the largest district in the state where all schools are on a short week. In contrast, the Brighton school district has more than 17,800 students, with 37 percent of those qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The district has grown rapidly as new housing developments pop up, often more affordable than those closer to Denver.

Changing the school calendar to four-day weeks is expected to save the district $1 million in the first year, but it’s not only a financial consideration. It’s also a way to try to retain teachers who won’t be getting the raises they would have if the tax increase had passed.

“The primary benefit is to attract and retain teachers,” said Chris Fiedler, superintendent of the Brighton-based School District 27J.

The average salary for teachers in the school district is one of the lowest in the metro area, but teacher turnover, which was about 12 percent last year, is one of the lowest.

Teachers will continue to make the same amount of money, but may have a more “professional” schedule with planning days built into the calendar on some Monday’s when schools won’t be in session, officials said.

The calendar change was first discussed by the superintendent with the school board in December. Wednesday night, the district launched a round of community meetings to inform the public and gather feedback. About 175 people showed up to the first meeting, a district spokeswoman said.

District leaders are negotiating with the teachers union to plan out the details. So far, Fiedler said the plan is to create a calendar for school Tuesday through Friday. Teachers would work at least one Monday a month for training and planning.

Fiedler said he believes creating a calendar where teachers “can be professionals” will be attractive. He said the district is already tracking an increase in calls from teachers wanting to know how much they would make if they were to transfer to work in the district.

Kathey Ruybal, the president of the Brighton Education Association, said the union surveyed members and found “overwhelming support” for the change.

“Teachers are already working a long day,” Ruybal said. “This will give teachers more time for planning but also to spend with our families.”

The school year won’t be longer, but classes on the four days that students are in school would run longer. For example, the day would be about 40 minutes longer for elementary students. The proposed calendar removes other interruptions in the school week such as planning days.

“One of the things we like most about this calendar is how pristine it is,” Fiedler said. “Right now there are already relatively few weeks where kids are there five days a week.”

A final decision will be announced in March. The change will not require a school board vote, Fiedler said.

Some parents say that process feels like their opinions won’t be taken into account.

“It just feels like this whole conversation is a smack in the face because the school district didn’t get the money they wanted,” said Salina O’Connor, the mother of a first-grader in the district. “There has to be another way. Why couldn’t the community choose?”

The district asked voters to increase local funding 16 times between 2000 and 2017. A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved since 2000, and once again failed in November.

Tax increases in the form of bond requests, which is money slated for buildings, have been approved about half of the time. The latest bond program was approved in 2015, just after the district moved its high schools to a split schedule, saying it was not possible to accommodate the larger number of students in the existing buildings at the same time. That change was also met with many parent concerns.

With this year’s calendar changes, many parents are concerned about finding or paying for child care on the fifth day, or about athletics suffering because of one day less for practice.

And others, like O’Connor, whose daughter has learning disabilities, worry children won’t do well with a longer school day.

The district is exploring the idea of providing child care for Mondays when school would be closed, and Fiedler said sports teams will have the opportunity, if they choose, to practice Mondays just like they do on Saturdays. He also said schools will have the flexibility to plan the use of their longer day, including offering extra recess or another type of break if that’s what their students need.

According to a report from the state, surveys done in school districts that already have four-day school weeks show broad support for keeping the calendar that way once it’s in use. Research done nationally on the effect that a shorter week has on students is limited. Studies in Colorado haven’t found a negative impact on school performance, but that’s also still a concern for some parents.

Adding time to the days might mean the student time in class is about the same, but Kayla Cook, the mother of two students in the district, asks: “Is that learning the same quality?”

Most districts that make the change cite budget strains as the reason for cutting the school week. The 27J district expects to save money in part by needing fewer substitute teachers and spending less on utilities.

The $1 million won’t be enough to give teachers a raise, but Fiedler said he would like to be able to use it to add staff so that every elementary school has a counselor. The decision will be part of budget discussions.

Although the city of Brighton is growing rapidly, the tax base remains low. That means to generate the amount of money the district says it needs — to update curriculum, pay teachers more, and add school counselors — the tax increase that residents have to approve is larger than it would be in other districts.

In fact, some recent bond requests in the metro area didn’t actually require an increase in the tax rate, in part because increased property values were already generating more revenue. But for the 27J district, the latest tax measure voters rejected would have raised their property taxes by more than $73 for every $100,000 of home value. The average homeowner would have had to pay almost $300 more in taxes per year.

Fiedler says he’s now heard the community “loud and clear” that it’s too much to ask.

“We’re never going to tax our way to equal,” Fiedler said. “We want to provide our own solutions, solve our own problems.”

Fiedler said that for the next few years, he has no intention of recommending the school district pursue another mill levy override. He expects, however, that the district will have to ask voters to approve another bond in the near future to build more schools as the district continues to grow.

This story has been updated to correct the number of people estimated to have attended the district’s first community meeting. A spokeswoman said there were about 175 people.

study says...

Can charter operators turn around district schools? In Atlanta, two are trying and finding extra challenges

A UNICEF Kid Power Event at Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for UNICEF)

When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.

In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.

The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.

“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”

“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.

A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.

The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.

At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.

The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.

Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.

“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”

The challenge: Two external groups, four struggling schools

Two local groups won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing: Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school.

They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.

The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.

The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.

The results were all over the place.

After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.

But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.

Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.

“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”

The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.

The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.

In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.

Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools

Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.

“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”

In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.

Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.

Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.

Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.

“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”

That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.

Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements

Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.

Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.

Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.

Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.

“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”

Code of conduct

Tennessee’s ‘parent dress code’ bill clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson

“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.

“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.

The bill passed 4-3, but not before several lawmakers questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.

“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.

Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what’s appropriate attire or behavior when they enter a school building.

The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.

“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.

“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.

Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.