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.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26th? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.