Vox populi

Voices from turnaround hearings reflect on schools' qualities

Public hearings about the city’s plan to “turn around” dozens of struggling city schools have attracted vociferous protest. But behind the anger and frustration we found teachers and students who had carefully considered their schools’ need to improve and the potential effects of the turnaround plan.

At six hearings in four boroughs, teachers and students said their schools had not been given enough time to improve with the help of federal School Improvement Grants, and warned that turnaround would make improvement more difficult. Here’s what some of them told us when we asked them to delve deeper into their thoughts about their schools’ pasts, presents, and future.

Joe Puntino, social studies teacher at Automotive High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

“I don’t know where this money went. Last year, the one when we were [using the federal model called] transformation, it seemed to me that most of the money went to pizza. Every event we had, the students had, there were 20 pizza pies.

The only thing that I see that New Visions, [the non-profit that supervises Automotive,] has actually done, which is a good thing, is they brought in something called “Datacation,” which is a great tool. It’s the best thing they’ve done. It’s basically a one-stop store for teachers. Gradebook, anecdotal logs, contact information. It’s a great tool. The only thing I can positively say that they did well. Other than that, they walk around into our classrooms, they jot down notes and you hear nothing.”

In what areas do you think the school needs further improvement?

“For the students coming in here, there can’t be 40 percent with [Individualized Education Plans for special education students]. Any school’s going to fail with 40 percent IEPs. There had to be a better proportion of non-IEPS to IEPs. We’ll take them, we’ll teach them, we love them, but 40 percent? Any school isn’t going to make the benchmark that the state wants.”

Alona Geller, English teacher and Cheerleading coach at Sheepshead Bay High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

“I started here when I was 22 years old. And I’ve been teaching for seven [years]. I think a lot of improvements have taken place. Any money granted to us is used for trips and programs and supplies, the kids have everything tha they need, and I know friends of mine in other schools don’t have those things.

This year in particular, we have City Year in the building, the ninth graders have a lot of support, and they’re thriving in away I haven’t seen before. City Year greets the kids at the door, they provide tutoring services, they’re in our classrooms, they follow the kids all day long and see what subjects they’re struggling with. They really keep up the morale for the students and for the teachers.”

Tony Cipolla, a social studies teacher at Grover Cleveland High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

What we’re starting now are these Small Learning Communities, and that will really be starting in full force next year. Students will be able to chose which small learning community they want to go into, based on interest. There’s one for health, there’s one for hospitality and tourism. The goal with that is that the more interested they are in school the better their attendance would be, the better their participation would be, and everybody wins.

The new principal, [Denise Vittor]—She’s been a great benefit for all of us.  She spent many years at Queens Vocational High School, and she has a track record of turning schools around.

Robin Kovat, social studies teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School

What changes have the School Improvement Grants brought to your school so far?

“Well, they instituted [the “restart” reform model], and we started it, and then they threw this wrench into our works, so the morale now is really going down because part of it involves a buy-in for the staff but nobody knows if they’re going to be here next year. I think dividing it into academies would really be wonderful if we keep the people here who can actually make a difference, who have been shown to make a difference, who have already made a difference.”

Vashtee Ragoonanan, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School

Some teachers at your school may be replaced under the turnaround plan. How would that affect the school?

“If they replace 50 percent [of the teaching staff], student bonds are going to be lost and kids are going to be disconnected with their teachers. I’m afraid students will start losing interest in their class and stuff like that, that they’re not even going to try. Those bonds with teachers are very important.

In the plant science program with Mr. [Russell] Nitchman, we produce our own vegetables and we sell them. We have a greenhouse on the side of our building and we’re working right now to grow produce we can sell at our school, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, vegetables.”

In what areas do you think the school needs further improvement?

“The school does need to improve academically, but to get there, definitely not by firing 50 percent of the staff. Maybe more funding for our school, maybe if we get more funding we could possibly get more technology.”

Lakisha Innocent, a junior at Sheepshead Bay High School

In what areas do you think the school needs further improvement?

“The attendance is really bad, and the lateness. And just to increase the Regents [exam] grades because people really don’t study. Students just need to be motivated more, to have a reason to come to school.”

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.