Future of Schools

Trio of bills raises hot topics

Updated 10 p.m. – New bills on sex education, tuition tax credits and science teaching could enliven education debates at the Capitol this year.

Colorado CapitolIntroduced Wednesday were a measure that proposes creation of a “comprehensive human sexuality education” grant program, a bill to allow tax credits for private school tuition and a proposal that would create an “Academic Freedom Act” affecting teaching of evolution, global warming and other scientific subjects.

The sex-ed bill is proposed by Democratic lawmakers; the other two are proposed by Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses.

House Bill 13-1081 would add language to state law defining standards for human sexuality education and create a program of grants for school districts that want to implement such programs.

The program would be run the Department of Public Health and Environment, and the grants would be funded by non-tax sources.

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The bill defines comprehensive human sexuality education as “medically accurate information about all methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, including HIV and AIDS, hepatitis C, and the link between human papillomavirus and cancer. Methods must include information about the correct and consistent use of abstinence, contraception, condoms, and other barrier methods.”

Money from the grant program “must only be used for the purpose of providing comprehensive human sexuality education programs that are evidence-based, culturally sensitive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, reflective of positive youth development approaches, and that comply with statutory content standards,” according to the bill.

The measure also requires that schools that receive grant money “are required to implement an opt-out policy rather than an opt-in policy for comprehensive health and sexuality education programs.”

The state constitution gives school boards authority over school curriculum, but the state can set requirements for grant programs.

The bill has been assigned to the House Health, Insurance and Environment committee. The prime sponsors are Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, along with six other House Democrats.

Tuition tax credits

Sex education hasn’t been an issue during recent legislative sessions, but the tax credits proposal is a familiar topic at the statehouse.

A group of 23 Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 13-069, which would allow taxpayers to receive credits for private school tuition and for home schooling. The credit also would apply to people who contribute scholarship funds to private schools.

The bill is similar to proposals that have failed in recent legislative sessions.

Starting in 2014, the credit for a full-time student would be equal to the amount of the child’s scholarship or half of average statewide per pupil funding for public schools, whichever is less.

The credit for home schooling would be $1,000 for a full-time student and $500 for a half-time student.

Corporations and other entities that contributed to scholarships would be eligible for the credit.

The prime sponsors of what’s titled the “Quality Education and Budget Reduction Act” are freshman Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, and Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. The measure will have its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee at a date to be scheduled.

Variations on the tax-credit idea were proposed in 2011, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats ran the Senate, and in 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses, as they do now. All of those bills died.

In 1998 voters defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed taxpayers to claim credits of up to $2,500 for private school tuition.

In 2011 the Douglas County school board approved a voucher program that would allow students to spend district-provided vouchers for private school tuition. The program is on hold and a challenge is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In 2003 the Colorado Supreme Court invalidated a pilot voucher program that had been approved by the legislature.

Academic freedom proposal

The legislative declaration of House Bill 13-1089 says that the measure is intended to “direct teachers to create an environment that encourages students to intelligently and respectfully explore scientific questions and learn about scientific evidence related to biological and chemical evolution, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill continues, “The General Assembly further finds that the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they may present information on such subjects.”

The bill appears to be intended to protect teachers who raise questions about generally accepted scientific teaching on such topics as evolution and global warming.

The bill states that schools districts and administrators “must not prohibit any public school teacher in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in a given course.”

The prime sponsors are freshman Rep. Steve Humphrey and Sen. Scott Renfroe, both Greeley Republicans. The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee.

Other new bills

Also introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 13-055, which would change how the actuarial soundness of the Public Employee’s Retirement Association (PERA) is calculated.

Republican lawmakers have criticized PERA for what they feel are overly optimistic projections of the pension system’s future soundness. The pension plan was overhauled by bipartisan legislation passed in 2010. All subsequent efforts to change that law have failed.

The PERA system covers all teachers in Colorado and many higher education employees.

This bill’s sponsors are Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and freshman Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono. It will be heard by the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Senate Bill 13-065 would allow local governments to use “approval voting” in non-partisan elections. Under such a system voters cast votes for as many candidates as they want. The winner is the candidate with the most votes, or the top vote getters in elections to fill multiple seats on a board. The bill would apply to school districts.

The bill has bipartisan sponsors, freshman Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont. It goes to State Affairs.

Also introduced Wednesday was Senate Bill 13-053, which would formalize current practices for exchange of student data between K-12 school districts and state colleges and universities. Sponsors are Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. It will be heard first by the Senate Education Committee.

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”