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.”

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”