Jeffco contract draft: big on site-based decisions, short on teacher evaluation specifics

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Jeffco Public Schools officials Friday released a 25-page draft contract for its teachers union that puts more decision-making in the hands of school leaders and teams of teachers, lacks details on some of the district’s most important efforts, limits some of the historic privileges of the union, and lasts for less than a year.

The document, which was sent to the Jefferson County Education Association and reporters Friday morning, is meant to focus the work of the committee tasked with creating a new contract, the district’s lawyer stressed. The bargaining teams have until Aug. 31 before the current contract expires.

But the document, which lawyer and lead negotiator for Jeffco Jim Branum has been working on for months behind the scenes, is the most comprehensive work to date to come out of negotiations. JCEA agreed to discuss the document’s contents at 4 p.m., Monday. The association might also bring specific language of its own.

We spent today comparing and contrasting Branum’s document to the current master agreement between Jeffco and JCEA. Here are a few of the noteworthy items we found:

The proposed document is one-fifth the size of the current contract.

A priority for the district is to streamline the contract. Officials suggested early in the process that some provisions were out-of-date and could be struck all together while others could be moved to an employee handbook.

This draft accomplishes that goal.

A side-by-side comparison found 27 different sections of the current contract either no longer exist or have been collapsed into broader sections. Some of those sections include topics on academic freedom and what happens if classroom materials are challenged.

While the contract is a quicker read, many of the sections are short on specifics. For example, the current contract spells classroom limits and how extra unpaid hours teachers may be required to work are to be used. The proposed contract leaves those decisions to individual school committees.

Jeffco removes specific language about evaluation process.

While the details about how teachers are evaluated exist in a policy that’s separate from both the current contract and the new draft, the current contract does include some specific language about how many observations a teacher is to receive and by when.

That’s not the case in Branum’s draft. Instead, the contract says the evaluation system and process will be “clearly defined and communicated to” teachers.

This point is likely going to be a huge rallying cry for the JCEA, maybe even more so than pay increases. Armed with an independent report that found the district’s evaluation system isn’t applied equally across the district, the union has been pushing for evaluation reform. They want stricter guidelines and more training for observers — not less.

While it’s completely possible for both stricter guidelines and more training to co-exist outside of a contract, JCEA is looking to codify as much as it can to provide its teachers with assurances and predictability given the increasing stakes of evaluations.

The contract would expire on June 30, 2016.

Since 1992, the district’s contract with its teachers has ended on Aug. 31, well after the start of the school year. (In earlier years, the contract ran from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31.)

The end of summer deadline gave teachers and the district time to workout their issues over a few months without the stress of the classroom.

It’s unclear why the district has proposed this change, other than maybe it wanted to align its contract to its fiscal year that ends June 30.

It’s also unusual for the district to propose only a one year extension of the agreement. Contracts have also historically have been multiyear agreements for many cycles.

District officials declined to explain this change saying, “we’ll be discussing the contract at the bargaining table.”

The union gets a win — for now — in seniority rights for displaced teachers.

One of the earliest signs of tension during this year’s negotiations was around how schools should decide which teachers to fire if their student population decreases.

The union believes teachers with more years in the classroom should get to stay. The district team believed these kinds of personnel decisions should be based on evaluations, not years in the classroom. The two sides dropped the topic in an effort to find common ground on less contentious issues.

For the moment, JCEA’s preferred method of choosing which teachers stay and which go when a school has to cut staff — seniority — remains in the contract. But that’s likely not going to sit well with the district’s conservative school board majority that has pushed evaluations as a decision making tool.

The union’s rights have been scaled back.

Many of the historic rights the union has been given in its teachers contract don’t exist in Branum’s draft.

For example, the union’s right to use school buildings, free of charge is gone. The union’s right to post information on employee bulletin boards? That’s gone too. Also, JCEA is going to have make more trips to Office Depot. The proposed contract doesn’t allow JCEA to order office supplies from the district’s vendors.

What is preserved? one of the first sections in the district’s proposed contract is the recognition of JCEA as the exclusive representative of teachers. That might rub some of the board’s conservative majority the wrong way.

There are no new details on teacher raises.

Any hope for a more robust system to determine teacher raises remain unaddressed in this proposal.

Since the district abandoned the traditional salary schedule last fall, in lieu of a plan linked only to teacher evaluations, some have hoped for a different system. Earlier this spring, the union presented a plan that rewarded teachers with raises for a variety of things including advanced degrees, leadership roles, and time in the classroom.

Not only does none of that exist in Branum’s draft, but under today’s proposal, teacher salaries remain the same until a percentage increase linked to evaluations can be agreed to by the bargaining teams.

How big of a fight will a new system to determine teacher raises be for JCEA given the battles on other fronts? That’s hard to say.

Meet your new ‘professional problem solving committee’ (whatever that is).

Under the new contract language, schools will be required to establish a “professional problem solving committee.” This group will be made up of at least three teachers selected by the school’s staff and administration. The panel will be called upon to help mitigate conflict among staff.

It’s not clear what kind of disputes this group might be tasked with. What we do know is that this group won’t replace a formal human-resource grievance process because that’s outlined elsewhere.

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.