Beep Beep

Five ideas to help Denver students get to the schools they choose

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Denver gets national kudos for its robust school choice system, but the district has also been criticized for not doing enough to help some students get to their chosen schools.

Now, as families begin submitting their school choices for next year, one of the most persistent local critics has offered a set of recommendations to improve what it calls the district’s “antiquated transportation policies.” Among them: Make more high school students eligible for transportation by shortening the distance they must live from school to qualify.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg had not yet seen the recommendations on Friday. But he noted that expanding bus service presents financial challenges. Colorado has among the lowest per-pupil funding of any state, he said, which “creates significant pressure on everything from class sizes to professional compensation for teachers … to transportation.”

The district already spends $26 million of its $1 billion budget on transportation, and Boasberg has said spending more on buses would mean spending less on something else. Plus, the district reports having a hard time filling bus driver positions in the thriving economy.

Some of the recommendations released this week by the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation would cost the district money, while others would save money or even generate it.

The recommendations include:

  • Decrease the “walk zone” distance for high school students.

High school students now must live more than three and a half miles from school to qualify for transportation. Unlike for elementary and middle school students, they are not transported in  yellow buses. Instead, the district buys students Regional Transportation District passes.

But three and a half miles is too far to expect students to walk, said Donnell-Kay special projects director Matt Samelson, who wrote the recommendations. He’d like the district to change its policy to shorten that distance to two or two and a half miles. The recommendations do not include cost estimates, but this one would likely be expensive.

  • Remove a requirement that to be eligible for an RTD pass, high school students must attend the boundary schools that serve the neighborhoods where they live.

That policy doesn’t match the district’s position on school choice, Samelson said, adding that “school choice without transportation is not a choice at all.”

It also leaves out many charter schools, since boundary schools tend to be district-run. Denver has 59 charters that serve more than 21,000 of the district’s 92,600 students. Some charters spend their own money on transportation for their students. The result is an “unnecessarily complicated” system of who gets bus service and who doesn’t, Samelson said.

  • Take a hard look at whether ongoing attempts to expand transportation are working.

Since 2011, the district has run shuttle buses that make stops at several schools in certain areas of the city. The original goal of the Success Express shuttles was to provide more flexible transportation opportunities in neighborhoods where the school options were changing.

But ridership is low. For example, Samelson said, only about 11 percent of eligible students in far northeast Denver ride that region’s Success Express shuttle, which serves 24 campuses.

“The shuttle is certainly innovative, but it’s time to examine how the service can be improved, and that requires asking the community what mobility issues it is facing,” he wrote.

  • Hold a hack-a-thon to solicit ways to make the transportation system more efficient.

Boston Public Schools did this last year. The winning solution was developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suggested a computer-based system of establishing bus routes that is predicted to save millions of dollars.

“A DPS-sponsored hack-a-thon has the potential to improve transportation efficiencies and reduce costs, which would allow the district to focus on how to provide transportation services to students currently ineligible for, but in need of, transportation,” Samelson wrote.

  • Ask voters to approve a tax increase to fund transportation.

The district has heard this one before. A committee of community leaders tasked with suggesting ways to increase school integration recently made the same recommendation.

The tax increase could be small, Samelson said. Raising taxes by $28 per year for the typical homeowner would have netted $14.7 million in 2016, he figured.

The district has already put some tax revenue into transportation: $400,000 of a $56.6 million tax increase voters passed in 2016 was earmarked for that purpose. But $400,000 is not nearly enough money to fund the more costly recommendations Samelson is making.

The money was supposed to be spent on high school students. When the district allocated $127,000 of it for special education transportation instead, parents pushed back and the district changed course, promising to spend the full amount on RTD passes.

Boasberg has repeatedly emphasized that Denver Public Schools can’t solve its transportation issues alone. The district must work with the city and RTD on a solution, he said.

Discussions are underway. An RTD working group is exploring the creation of a youth pass that would be offered to teenagers at a deep discount. City officials have also expressed interest in a youth pass, and last summer ran a pilot program that provided 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver teens to gather data on how students might use public transit.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”