On track

This bill could help Colorado foster youth keep their school – and graduate – even when home changes

When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma.

But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach. She was placed in a home in Greeley, separated from her brother and more than hour away from her school in Aurora. She changed homes and schools frequently. Each time, the credits and classes required to graduate changed.

“I was like, ‘OK, two or three more classes. Not a big deal.’ But then they move you again,” she said. “I needed two more credits, and I got to Denver, and they told me I needed three more years. I was already 18.”

At that point, she said, social workers and school counselors began to pressure her to get a GED instead. She told them: “I don’t want a GED. I want my high school diploma.”

Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. Last year, just 23.6 percent of youth in foster care graduated on time, down 10 points since 2016. The statewide graduation rate is 81 percent.

People who work in child welfare have taken notice, convening a group that included teens in foster care to brainstorm ways to preserve schools as places of stability for children whose families are in crisis.

Now, lawmakers are moving toward putting some of those ideas into practice. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled.

The bill would require county child welfare officials and schools to work out transportation plans so that children can stay in their home schools when they go into foster care. It would make funding available to counties to work out solutions that make sense in their area, whether that’s contracting with ride-share services or paying mileage to foster parents or creating shuttle routes.

When children can’t stay in their home school, the bill would allow them to enroll immediately in a new school, without waiting for immunization records or academic records to transfer.

The bill would also allow districts to waive certain requirements or create alternative ways to meet requirements so that youth in foster care aren’t penalized for changing schools.

The bill is part of a package of legislation to address problems with the foster system, including providing foster parents with more information about the children in their care and extending services beyond the age of 18 for more people. That package represents Colorado’s effort to comply with 2016 federal rules requiring states to take additional steps to keep children in their home schools and to pay for transportation when necessary.

Those rules, part of the federal education law, didn’t come with new money, and it’s unclear whether Colorado will step up to fund the transportation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, asked for $2.9 million in the state budget, but members of the Joint Budget Committee declined to include that money in their budget proposal. They said they were open to adding it in later if the bill passes, and state child welfare officials said they’ll look for other funding if they need to.

After the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.

For now, the state’s 6,600 youth in foster care continue to rack up experiences that set them back in school. While students who are removed from their homes usually see their academic performance even out after a few months, their growth is often slower than other students who aren’t dealing with the trauma of instability, according to Kristin Melton, youth services manager in the state’s Division of Child Welfare

“If you are in a low-interest rate saving account and everyone else is in the stock market, you will never catch up and you will fall further and further behind,” Melton said.

Sister Michael Delores Allegri has been a foster parent to more than 70 children over 20 years. She said it’s often a challenge to even get kids enrolled in school in a timely manner.

“Even if you miss two weeks of high school, you’ve missed a lot,” she said. And then curriculum often doesn’t line up, or they can’t participate in sports or drama or whatever activity was their lifesaver in their home school.

“They lose their high school life, and because of that, they don’t engage,” she said. “We put obstacles in the kid’s way.”

The ability to earn a diploma can be incredibly meaningful to those who persevere, she said.

“Those kids who graduate from high school have that sense about themselves that nothing can stop them,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility as adults to reach out and tell the kids, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m going to help you.’ It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just get so discouraged.”

Mendez said she was embarrassed at times to be legally an adult and still in the foster system, still in high school – but she did eventually get her high school diploma. She “stumbled into” the Emily Griffith Technical College and met with a counselor who, for the first time in her high school career, really listened to what she wanted for herself.

The Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver offers GED courses along with a wide range of technical and vocational programs for adult students, and it also offers a standard high school track for adult students.

Mendez graduated in 2015, three years later than she would have if her academic career had stayed on track, and walking across the stage was every bit the accomplishment she dreamed of.

“It felt like, I proved you wrong,” she said. “No matter how many times you doubted me or pushed me to get a GED, finally being able to graduate and walk across that stage and having your high school diploma … all my hard efforts paid off.”

Kristina Smith, now 20, did manage to graduate on time, despite spending most of high school in a group home, but she said transportation help would have transformed her school experience. She had to walk 45 minutes to school and 45 minutes back every day, regardless of weather. All those hours spent walking, in the cold, in the dark, in the snow, and in the rain, often made her want to give up and made her feel like no one cared if she succeeded or failed – or even if she was safe.

She returned to her home school and her family during her senior year. At first she was excited, but the academics were a lot more challenging. She had to stop doing sports, which she had loved, to make it to graduation. Things shouldn’t have been that hard, she said.

Smith said she wants policy makers to know: “There are not that many things holding these kids back that can’t be fixed.”

Nevermind

Sponsor pulls bill that would change how Colorado distributes money to schools

A student takes part in an after-school program at Ashley Elementary School in Denver last spring. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

There won’t be a change to Colorado’s school funding formula this year, at least not at the Capitol.

State Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat, killed his own bill Wednesday by asking that it be postponed indefinitely. The House Education Committee complied, though some Democrats were reluctant.

Young said he didn’t think the bill, which had already been postponed twice, could garner bipartisan support in a form that the superintendents who conceived of the proposal could accept, but he said lawmakers need to come back to the issue.

“There is a sense of urgency that is greater right now and will continue to escalate if we don’t show that we are doing something,” he said of the eve of massive teacher rallies calling for more school funding.

The proposal called for a “student-centered” distribution model to replace the state’s school finance formula created in 1994. At its most basic, this approach gives districts and schools more money for students who have more needs, whether that’s learning English or being gifted and talented or having a disability. A working group of Colorado superintendents came up with the new formula, and eventually 171 of the state’s 178 district leaders signed onto it.

The new formula would have gone into effect only if voters passed a $1.6 billion tax increase. Without the additional money, the change would have cost some districts millions.

Superintendents felt so strongly about this formula that they held a rally to unveil it.

After the committee vote, Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper, who led the effort to change the formula, said his group would keep working on the idea until they could find bipartisan support.

I think I speak for all of my colleagues that we understood the political realities going in,” Cooper said, describing himself as “disappointed but not discouraged.”

“It’s very seldom is a bill’s first attempt its last attempt.”

However, an interim school finance committee that expects to propose legislation for the 2019 session will not be taking up the superintendents’ proposal.

Republicans and Democrats both raised concerns about the bill. While proponents of the formula change argued it’s much more equitable, Republicans said it seemed to them that the tax increase was the real change, with its potential for a big cash infusion to schools. Democrats wondered about the wisdom of tackling the distribution formula in isolation from other problems related to how Colorado funds its schools.

The effort to put that tax increase on the ballot continues, and the initiative itself would compel changes to the funding formula if it passes.

“Great Schools, Thriving Communities is moving forward full speed ahead,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group. “Our ballot measure has a more equitable distribution embedded in it, and it also shows the voter intent that our school finance system be very equitable and student-focused. The legislature will have another chance to pick up this issue.”

Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, but Weil said she believes this time will be different.

“There has been cut after cut, year after year, a few more kids in each classroom, pay freezes, shave away some extracurricular activities, or more fees appear,” she said. “People are getting it. Our current school funding levels are not the path forward we want for Colorado.”

Day without a Teacher

These Colorado school districts are canceling classes for teacher protests

Empty Chairs And Desks In Classroom (Getty Images)

Thousands of Colorado teachers are expected to descend on the state Capitol Thursday and Friday to call on lawmakers to make a long-term commitment to increasing K-12 education funding.

These Colorado districts have announced they’re canceling classes because they won’t have enough teachers and other staff on hand to safely have students in their buildings. They include the state’s 10 largest districts, serving more than 500,000 students. Denver Public Schools, which had planned for an early dismissal on Friday, announced late Monday that classes would be canceled for the entire day.

Some charter schools, including DSST and STRIVE Prep, are joining the teacher demonstrations, and others are not. Parents whose children attend charter schools in these districts should check with the school.

Unless otherwise noted, classes are canceled for the entire day on Friday, April 27.

    • Denver Public Schools, serving 92,600 students
    • Jeffco Public Schools, serving 86,100 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Douglas County School District, serving 67,500 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Cherry Creek School District, serving 55,600 students
    • Aurora Public Schools, serving 40,900 students
    • Adams 12 Five Star Schools, serving 38,900 students
    • St. Vrain Valley School District, serving 32,400 students
    • Boulder Valley School District, serving 31,300 students
    • Poudre School District, serving 30,000 students
    • Colorado Springs School District 11, serving 27,400 students
    • Academy District 20, serving 25,800 students
    • Falcon 49, serving 21,400 students
    • Brighton 27J, serving 17,800 students
    • Thompson School District, serving 16,200 students
    • Littleton Public Schools, serving 15,600 students
    • Adams County School District 14, serving 7,400 students
    • Lewis-Palmer School District 38, serving 6,700 students
    • Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, serving 5,200 students
    • Johnstown-Milliken Re-5J, serving 3,900 students
    • Summit School District, serving 3,600 students
    • Cañon City School District, serving 3,500 students
    • Weld County School District Re-8, serving 2,400 students
    • Valley Re-1 School District in Sterling, serving 2,300 students
    • Manitou Springs School District, serving 1,400 students
    • Sheridan School District, serving 1,400 students
    • Lake County School District, serving 1,000 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Clear Creek Re-1, serving 800 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)

Some districts already don’t have classes Thursday or Friday, either for professional development or spring break. Those include Westminster Public Schools, Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, Eagle County Schools, Widefield School District, and Harrison School District.

Teachers in Sterling are planning a regional rally at the Logan County Courthouse instead of traveling to Denver.

Teachers who miss work to engage in political activity generally have to take a personal day to do so.

This list will be updated as we hear from more districts.

The list has been corrected to reflect that Douglas County will not hold classes on Thursday.