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.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”