running out of time

These five Jeffco elementary schools face possible closure. Here’s why.

Five Jefferson County elementary schools in three different areas of the state’s second largest school district would be closed after this school year as part of $20.4 million in budget cuts proposed Thursday.

Jeffco Public Schools is facing a squeeze in local and state funding while it also seeks to better pay teachers and staff, which the school board has made a top priority.

In hearing staff budget recommendations Thursday night, the board kicked off what is sure to be a difficult, contentious process. Few issues are as gut-wrenching and politically fraught as closing schools that are woven into the fabric of communities.

The five schools facing possible closure after this school year are: Peck Elementary and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge, Stober Elementary in Lakewood and Pleasant View Elementary in Golden.

In total, the schools have 850 students in their enrollment boundaries, district officials say. All five are in buildings that are at least 50 years old. All but one — Pennington — saw enrollment declines this year.

Four of the five schools share another characteristic — their student populations are poorer than the district average. At both Pennington and Pleasant View, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches, an indicator of poverty. At Swanson, the rate is 66 percent and at Peck, it is 58 percent. The district average is 33 percent.

Closing the schools and sending the children to neighboring elementaries would save the district $3.5 million a year, staff said.

“We need to get the process right as we go down this trail,” said board president Ron Mitchell. “Part of the reason I believe that is because this is not the end of this process. This is the beginning. We are going to be in this business (of closing schools) in the years to come … We need to do it well, do it right.”

The board was asked to vote on the closures and other budget cuts on Feb. 9 — a quick turnaround that illustrates the difficult position the district is in after November’s failure of two tax measures that would have gone to buildings and teacher salaries.

Other Denver-area school districts passed their tax measures, putting Jeffco at a disadvantage when economic forecasts and limitations from the state’s complicated tax laws mean “there is no life raft coming from the state,” as one staff member put it. 

With 13,000 seats sitting unused, enrollment projected to continue declining in certain areas, and the edict that teachers be paid more to keep the district competitive, district staff said the time to act is now.

“It will be a disruption to some families short-term,” Superintendent Dan McMinimee said. “But hopefully long-term, those families will see the benefits of having high-quality educators in classrooms their kids can access.”

District staff chose the schools based on a number of criteria, including enrollment trends, the condition of the building and the capacity of nearby schools to absorb more students. Academic performance was not taken into account.

District staff is also recommending another significant, long-discussed change: that Jeffco middle schools add sixth grade in addition to the existing seventh and eighth grades, to make better use of space and save money. The majority of districts in metro Denver and the nation follow that structure. Some Jeffco middle schools would get additions to make room for the additional grade.

Other budget cuts that district staff recommended include:

  • Eliminating all social and emotional learning specialists and a coordinator. Schools nationwide are investing in this work, which helps students develop skills to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts and make responsible decisions. Denver Public Schools in November passed a tax increase that will bolster efforts to help students’ social and emotional needs.
  • Cutting by half the number of specialists who teach literacy to students who are below grade level. District research shows literacy interventionists are “closing the gap for our most highly impacted populations.”
  • Cutting four of 16 “resource teachers” who help support teachers of students determined to be gifted and talented.

Other proposed cuts include increased athletics fees, elimination of a quarterly audit and a reduction in how often schools are cleaned at night by custodians.

Only a handful of the proposed cuts — including the school closures and fee increases — require board approval.

Several school board members expressed reservations about the proposals Thursday, voicing concerns about a “very squeezed timeline,” that three of the schools slated for closure were not previously identified as candidates for closure, and a possible erosion in community trust in the board. Some questioned whether school performance should be a factor in closing schools.

Board member Ali Lasell said the board had told the community that steps such as moving sixth grade into middle school wouldn’t happen until 2018. The response from district staff: Circumstances have changed and so must the plan.

Said Mitchell: “We’ve got in my mind a little bit of an integrity issue here.”

McMinimee said fewer than 120 teachers and staff would be impacted by the closures, and most would likely be offered other positions in the district, in part because of expected turnover.

As a result, the district will save money not on personnel but on not having to keep open and maintain under-utilized buildings that also are in need of repair. The district can also sell the property, taking earnings from that.

In an interview before Thursday’s meeting, McMinimee said the district is watching enrollment along the county’s eastern boundary with Denver, where some longtime families no longer have children in school and others are being priced out or kept out by skyrocketing housing costs.

Both Denver Public Schools, which is seeing its enrollment growth slow, and Aurora Public Schools, which saw a record enrollment decline this year, also are feeling the impacts of rising costs and gentrification.

“Growth in a metro area is a lot like throwing a rock in a pond,” McMinimee said. “What happens in Denver just has this ripple effect you see going out into the suburbs now. Obviously, that stops when you get out into an area where there are high-priced homes already.”

The district and community groups have poured resources into lifting student achievement in clusters of schools with large numbers of students who live in poverty. Just last week, the district celebrated graduation rate gains at one such school, Jefferson High.

McMinimee acknowledged he was concerned about the impact the closures could have on the district’s efforts to serve traditionally underserved communities, but he urged a broader view.

“I am concerned about that, but I also recognize our responsibility is to 86,000 kids,” he said. “It’s not just one specific area. Those efforts that we put into those schools, those can be replicated in other areas.”

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

The Indiana State Board of Education is hitting the brakes on a plan to overhaul A-F school grades

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

The Indiana State Board of Education is pressing pause on a proposed overhaul of how schools are graded that drew criticism from educators and some education advocates.

Board members said they wanted more time to consider how the A-F proposal — initially created to address new federal accountability law — would work alongside new graduation requirements and to incorporate feedback from educators about how the school grades are calculated, especially for high schools.

That means for this year, the 2018-19 school year, and possibly longer, Indiana schools will be measured according to two different yardsticks — a state model introduced in 2016 and a federal system that complies with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year

The board met Wednesday to continue hammering out the new process for calculating state grades, a draft of which was approved in January. But just as the meeting started, board member Byron Ernest suggested pausing process, aiming instead for a new A-F grading model for the 2019-20 school year at the earliest.

“I would like for us to take a step back and do some research,” Ernest said. Four of the state board members were absent, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. The seven present board members quickly reached a consensus that they should postpone a decision on the A-F rules, though no official vote happened.

As it stands now, the state and federal grading methods for calculating school ratings have important differences. The federal grade calculation, for example, would include school attendance rates and language proficiency of English-learners, whereas the state calculation would mainly rely on state test scores and test score growth. Because Indiana’s calculation also excludes certain students that the federal plan includes, such as those receiving credit recovery services, the final ratings could differ significantly for the same school. Although state and federal accountability metrics have differed in the past, the differences going forward would be more significant.

The differences ultimately add a lot of confusion to a state accountability system designed to be simpler to understand for teachers, parents, and the community.

Cari Whicker, a board member and principal, said the changes Indiana has made to testing and accountability have been exhausting and frustrating for schools.

“Either A-F accountability or testing has changed every year since 2011,” Whicker said. “That’s a lot for schools. What you consider tweaking is truly moving the target for people in the field.”

The pause is also an about-face from a meeting just a couple months ago, where board members shot down a similar proposal from Gordon Hendry to slow down. On Wednesday, Hendry said he was glad to hear Ernest’s proposal.

“That’s what I advocated for in January — wouldn’t it behoove us to take our time,” Hendry said.

In January, educators and education advocates came forward with concerns over the process for creating the new school grades, which they said was far too fast and not transparent. They also took issue with the substance of the state plan, which would have made test scores more important and limited how much test score improvement could have factored into high school grades.

It’s not yet clear exactly what changes the board wants to make in the state A-F grading model that haven’t already been discussed or considered. The Indiana Department of Education released its federal ESSA plan over the summer, and the board has had multiple opportunities to examine that plan and give feedback.

Further discussion is expected at the state board’s April meeting.