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.