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Updated: 50 min 41 sec ago

No hard feelings, says principal of Jeffco middle school set to close

2 hours 49 min ago

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

LAKEWOOD — O’Connell Middle School Principal Jennifer Kirksey, left, hated breaking the news to her teachers and staff about a possible merger between their school and Alameda High School.

As a first-year principal at a school the state has identified as failing, where the staff has been working hard to improve student outcomes, the last thing Kirksey wanted to do was give her staff a reason to quit, she said.

The Jefferson County board of education will vote tonight whether to shutter O’Connell and send the schools seventh and eighth graders to nearby Alameda High School.

Kirksey said that when she arrived, staff morale was low, as were expectations for students. In fact, an independent review of the school, commissioned by the state, described the campus as joyless.

But things have improved over the course of this year, Kirksey said: Attendance is up, office referrals are down, and the principal is betting on an uptick in student test scores. That’s why it was so hard to level with the staff about the potential school closure.

“As far as I’m concerned, my teachers walk on water,” she said. “The staff has already shown in one semester that great things can happen.”

“But we’re caught in the middle of a facilities problem,” she said.

So, was all the staff’s hard work this year for naught?

“Absolutely not,” Kirksey said. “When a teacher ups her game, and the students feel great — it’s worth it.”

Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco school board to vote on changes for struggling, crowded schools

2 hours 49 min ago

JEFFERSON COUNTY — Principal Warren Blair has a teacher problem: He has to keep hiring them.

In the five years his school, Wheat Ridge 5-8, has been open, teacher turnover has been a consistent challenge. Just last year, Blair had to replace about a quarter of his staff. The year before that, he said, a third of his staff left. One year, the teacher turnover rate Wheat Ridge was 48 percent.

Tonight, the Jeffco Public Schools board of education will vote on a plan that aims to reduce those high rates of teacher turnover and improve student achievement in the part of the county known as Jefferson, where Wheat Ridge 5-8 is located. As part of the plan, the district will close Wheat Ridge 5-8 and send seventh and eighth graders to Jefferson High School, create specific professional development programs for teachers at all six schools, and develop a problem-based learning curriculum for each grade level.

At the same time, the board will decide whether the district should move forward with a similar set of changes in the Alameda neighborhood, which is suffering from extreme overcrowding in its elementary schools.

Both clusters of schools serve mostly poor and Latino students, unlike most of the rest of the majority-white, middle class suburban district.

If the board green-lights the proposals in their current form, many details, such as bell schedules and new incentives for teachers, will still need to be worked out. “All the unknowns need to be decided, fast,” Blair said.

The plans

The plan for the Jefferson neighborhood aims to address lower academic achievement, while the plan for the Alameda schools is designed to relieve overcrowding at elementary schools in Lakewood. But though the reasons for the proposed changes are different, the plans are similar.

In both neighborhoods, academically struggling middle schools will be merged with nearby high schools. In Alameda, next year’s seventh and eighth graders who would attend O’Connell Middle School will instead report to Alameda High School. In Jefferson, seventh and eighth graders who would attend Wheat Ridge 5-8 will instead report to Jefferson High School.

O’Connell Middle School will be converted to a new elementary school and draw students from nearby Stein Elementary, where enrollment is at 164 percent of the building’s capacity. Currently, O’Connell Middle School enrolls only seventh and eighth graders and uses just 60 percent of its building space.

Related: O’Connell principal says staff will continue to work hard for Jeffco 

The Wheat Ridge 5-8 building will also be used for a new school, but the district hasn’t said what sort of program or student population it will serve just yet.

The new district-run elementary school in the Alameda area will adopt an International Baccalaureate or IB model. It will complement the IB program that Alameda High already uses.

Meanwhile, all Jefferson schools will offer a dual language program for native Spanish speakers and will adopt problem-based curriculum. That means students will be asked to learn math and science concepts through real world problems.

The main difference between the school revamps in the two neighborhoods involves teachers. The Alameda plan does not include changes to teachers’ professional development, compensation, or schedules. But such changes are very much at the heart of the proposed Jefferson plan.

While details are still being worked out, teachers in the Jefferson neighborhood — which the district refers to as the Jefferson articulation area — can expect to have special professional development, more support in the classroom, time carved out to work with peers across the hall and at other schools, and a discussion about a different compensation model.

“We want to make teaching in the Jefferson articulation area a desired career path,” said Terry Elliott, Jeffco’s chief effectiveness officer.

Tara Scholten, an eighth grade teacher at Wheat Ridge 5-8, said she hopes the changes include more formal teacher collaboration, known as professional learning communities. But conditions need to be right for that to work, she said.

“Teachers need to be vulnerable” she said. “It takes extra time and you can’t close your door and just teach by yourself.”

Mandy Hayes, a dual language teacher at Molhom Elementary in the Jefferson area, is cautiously optimistic about the changes despite the unknowns, but has been critical of the plan’s rollout so far.

She said communication to teachers and parents has varied from school to school. “I’m pouring my heart and soul into my community every day,” she said. “The staff is going to be the ones living and breathing these changes. And there have been more questions raised than answered. That’s not creating a positive work environment.”

High teacher turnover plagues both neighborhoods

While curbing teacher turnover isn’t part of the Alameda area’s plan, turnover rates in the Lakewood schools are similar to those in the Jefferson neighborhood, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s data.

At Alameda High, for example, teacher turnover was 26 percent last year. That’s compared to 21 percent at Jefferson High.

For the 2013-14 school year, teacher turnover rates were also high in at least three Alameda area elementary schools: 28 percent in Kendrick Lakes Elementary, 23 percent at Patterson Elementary, and 20 percent at Stein Elementary.

In the Jefferson area, 42 percent of Stevens Elementary left their posts last year, compared to 28 percent at Edgewater Elementary, and 21 percent at Lumberg School.

Meanwhile, the district’s average teacher turnover rate — which includes teachers who have retired or moved into administration, as well as those who have switched schools, left the profession, or been fired — was 10 percent last year, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Education.

Student safety

The plans the board will vote on tonight have been pitched to the community at district board meetings and at the schools that would be affected by the changes.

Parents in both the Jefferson and Alameda neighborhoods have been most vocal about their concern about the safety of seventh and eighth graders who would share the same campus as high school juniors and seniors.

“They don’t feel like they’re safe in their elementary and middle schools now,” said Molhom Elementary teacher Hayes.

In fact, student incident rates, which include classroom suspensions, in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions reported to the Colorado Department of Education, are much higher in the Jefferson and Alameda areas than in the district as a whole, especially at the middle schools. During the 2012-13 school year, the student incident rate at O’Connell Middle School was 53 percent, compared to a district average of 8.6 percent. Meanwhile, the incident rate at Wheat Ridge 5-8 was 47 percent.

But principals at both Alameda and Jefferson high schools said they’re taking every precaution to keep students safe even if the changes are approved, by having different start times for younger and older students, funneling different grade levels to different parts of their building, and having locker room aides during gym class.

“There will be adult supervision at all times,” said Susie Van Scoyk, Alameda High’s principal.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Public contract negotiations begin in Westminster

9 hours 18 min ago

The tech of testing

For the most part Colorado school districts are confident about their technological readiness going into this year's exams, which started in many of the state's 178 districts Monday. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Still more testing

State officials reported that testing went fairly smoothy on the third day of PARCC exams. But there apparently were widespread student test boycotts at three Boulder Valley high schools. ( 9News )

Students in the Pikes Peak region are giving mixed reviews to the new state tests. ( Gazette )

The kickoff of the PARCC tests has increased the debate over parents pulling their kids out of exams. ( Chieftain )

Contract talks

The Westminster district has started negotiations with its teachers union, this year in public because of a measure passed by state voters last year. ( Northglenn-Thornton Sentinel )

Bus battle

The Pueblo 60 schools have barred buses from Pueblo 70 from using stops within district 60's boundaries. ( Chieftain )

Early education

Money, both the cost for parents and public funding, is a crucial part of the effort to increase preschool participation. ( Vail Daily )


The rollout of St. Vrain's technology program is drawing good reviews. ( Daily Camera )

Keeping kids in school

A long-standing state grant program that provides services for expelled and at-risk kids seems to get good results. ( KUNC )


Kelli O'Neil, principal of Soaring Eagles Elementary in the Harrison district, is a Colorado finalist for national distinguished principal of the year. ( KKTV )

New supe

John McCleary, superintendent of the rural Liberty district, has been named to lead the Holyoke district. ( Holyoke Enterprise )

Farm to lunchroom

A bill pending in the legislature seeks $5 million to help small farmers get their products into Colorado schools. ( 9News )

Categories: Urban School News

Testing technology was big lift for some districts

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 18:46

Are Colorado school districts ready for the state’s new online tests?

There are 178 different answers to that question (one for every school district in the state), but for the most part districts are confident in their technological readiness going into this spring’s exams.

For 76 districts, their preparedness now is being “tested” in real time, as they began giving the online language arts and math exams on Monday.

There have been glitches and problems in some districts and schools but no major technical issues, according to the Department of Education and a sampling of district officials around the state. In Adams 12-Five Star, for instance, problems were reported at only two of 36 schools, and those were issues like pop-up screens interfering with tests.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been stressful moments in classrooms and administrative offices.

Mapleton had to stop testing for five hours on Monday to reconfigure Windows computers being used for tests.

Superintendent Michael Clough said that in the Sheridan schools the situation is “a little better each day but still plagued by nagging issues – just like every time you rely on technology, you’re going to have problems.”

Testing also got off to a rocky start Monday in Montrose. On Wednesday, Superintendent Mark MacHale said, “Today was a better day. Reports from the field are that we are not experiencing the volume of issues we had in the first couple of days. We have our fingers crossed.”

See this Chalkbeat story for an overview of what’s involved in Colorado’s testing season

CDE reported that 119,500 students were tested Wednesday. A total of 86,110 tests have been completed since Monday. (The exams are given in multiple sessions.)

District leaders interviewed before testing started were generally comfortable with their readiness.

Comments by Douglas Bissonette, superintendent of the Elizabeth schools, echoed what several others said and highlighted the checklist of what districts had to do to get ready.

“Our district is well prepared from a technology perspective…We believe we are fully ready to administer the PARCC tests.”

Stephen Clagg, chief information officer for the Aurora schools, has observed districts’ readiness in his role as president of the Colorado Association of Leaders in Education Technology.

Interviewed in August 2013, Clagg rated overall district preparedness then at C-minus.

He declined to give a letter grade this time, but he said, “I think we’re in better shape than we were two years ago, much better shape.” But, while he’s confident about his district’s readiness, he added, “I know that isn’t the case for every district.”

District hardware challenges

Preparing for online testing forced districts to face a long list of questions about their networks, inventories of laptops and tablets, and even the need to acquire more external keyboards and computer mice.

Some districts were farsighted or lucky, in that network improvements and hardware purchases intended to expand instructional use of computers coincided with the demands of testing.

Clagg said a multiyear district initiative to provide every classroom with a wifi hotspot “supports the testing. It was just a lucky break. … We can test in any classroom.”

More than 200 miles away at the tiny Center district in the San Luis Valley, Superintendent George Welsh said, “Our district has been investing in a one-to-one device program for the past eight years and finally achieved that last year, so in many ways we are in a good spot to implement such online assessments.”

Other districts faced different challenges and choices.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the small Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said the district was saving up to replace eight-year-old computers, “When the PARCC and CMAS assessments came into play we had to hurry that purchase. We ended up spending approximately $40,000 which we did not have to purchase refurbished machines so that students could take the assessments.”

In Montrose, MacHale said the district had to take old desktop machines out of storage to use for testing.

In any event, the advent of online testing was good news for computer salesmen. In Cherry Creek, thanks to money provided by 2008 and 2012 tax elections, “We purchased about 25,000 Chromebooks over the last two years,” said spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

It takes more than hardware to test

Acquiring new hardware wasn’t the only hurdle districts faced.

“The challenge has been time and logistics,” said Cheyenne Mountain Superintendent Walt Cooper. “We are having to consolidate technology from several buildings to those that are testing, and our IT staff have had little time to do anything else but prep for testing for a number of weeks.”

Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger explained, “Every machine has to be touched by a technician to make sure it has the right software, secure tests. … There’s significant work that goes to getting ready for this.”

In Colorado Springs, “Depending on the size of school and amount of computers to prep, school library technology staff in District 11 has reported from 13 hours to 200 hours prepping for PARCC,” said district Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson.

The work requires more than the skills of computer techies. Many districts are using computer carts that have to be shuttled from classroom to classroom by teachers and other staff. In Montrose the carts will have to be moved school to school by warehouse workers, MacHale said.

Districts got a head start

Last spring districts had to give online science and social studies tests in selected grades, and many school gave sample PARCC tests in language arts and math.

District leaders and others agree that was a big help.

State testing director Joyce Zurkowski said “many” districts last year asked for visits by CDE and Pearson (the company that produced the tests) staff to check out their devices and systems. “The number of requests this year has greatly decreased.”

But this year some districts complain that the Pearson administrative system for language arts and math is different than the one used for social studies and science.

Both CDE and Pearson provided extensive pre-test training and advice for districts, and the testing company is available by phone and text for district questions and problems.

District leaders have varying opinions of how helpful the giant testing company is.

“It’s very difficult to rely on Pearson,” said Jessica Beller, instructional services coordinator in Montrose.

But Center’s Welsh said, “CDE and Pearson have been very helpful.”

What it all costs

It’s hard for districts to put firm dollar figures on the costs of preparing for and giving the new tests. A key reason for that is that districts, especially larger ones, spent the money for other reasons as well.

“This past year, our district invested more than $14 million in our IT infrastructure and devices to support blended learning in all of our classrooms as well as to prepare for online testing,” said Joe Ferdani, spokesman for Adams 12-Five Star.

Other, smaller districts are harder pressed. Eagle Superintendent Jason Glass said testing “will consume all of the district’s technology capacity in terms of devices, labs, IT staff to pull this off. As there have been no additional resources provided to build tech capacity to deliver the PARCC assessment, our district has diverted general fund dollars to get ready for this over the past few years.”

Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Jaclyn Zubrzychki conducted some interviews for this article.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Half of one Monument charter school won’t take PARCC tests

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 09:54

Testing time is now

Thousands of Colorado students began taking the state's new standardized assessment this week. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

There were some technical problems in Sheridan and Aurora schools. ( Denver Post )

More than half of the students at a Monument charter school will not take the test after their parents opted them out. ( KOAA )

Meanwhile, nearly 500 high school students and dozens of middle school students walked out of their New Mexico classrooms as their schools began to proctor the same PARCC test. ( The Las Cruces Sun-News )

Second opinion

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has decided to seek its own opinion from the attorney general’s office about whether parents must give written consent before students can take the biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Keeping them in their seats

Flexibility is the key to lowering the state's dropout rate to zero, argues an education advocate. ( KUNC )

Smart classrooms

The St. Vrain Valley School District is a little more than halfway through its first year of a four-year technology upgrade. So far, all systems are go. ( Daily Camera )

Healthy schools

The program credited with helping drive down the state's teen pregnancy rate by 40 percent since 2007 is at risk of running out of cash. Here's what it could mean for schools. ( CRP )

safe schools

An Aurora fifth grade classroom has a message about bullying, and they shared it on YouTube. ( 9News )

A matter of time

The Cherry Creek School District has approved a new academic calendar that is more akin to neighboring school districts'. ( 9News )

Two cents

The State Board of Education should not undermine the state's survey of teenagers and their habits, writes Alicia Caldwell. ( Denver Post )

As American students lag behind their peers in other countries, how can the U.S. ensure and improve the quality of school instruction? A few experts debate that question for The New York Times. ( New York Times )

Categories: Urban School News

Colorado crosses its fingers and starts taking the tests

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 23:08

With computer mouse in hand, hundreds of thousands of Colorado students will click through new online language arts and math tests this month. Just the prospect of the new exams has fueled unprecedented levels of anxiety and controversy for more than a year, but now it’s game time.

Testing began Monday for about half the state’s students, in districts that began their assessments a week early.

The Department of Education reported Tuesday evening that 130,800 students started tests on Tuesday. A total of 40,730 tests were completed Monday and Tuesday. Language arts tests are given in three sessions, and math in two, and students don’t necessarily take a whole test in one day, accounting for the difference between tests started and tests finished.

“While there have been isolated issues that districts have experienced, the testing technology overall has been meeting the demands of Colorado and the multiple states currently testing,” said Janelle Asmus, CDE’s spokeswoman.

Do your homework

Legislators, policymakers, parents, teachers, and students have been debating for months whether to change the new testing system, known as CMAS, before it fully launched. That wasn’t a realistic prospect, and it didn’t happen.

So the testing experience this spring for students and adults, and the ultimate test results (not available until late this year or early 2016), will provide fresh grist for debate well into next year.

As schools and families brace themselves for the new tests, here’s a refresher on what the new assessment system looks like and what may happen as the testing debate continues beyond this school year.

This spring’s tests

Districts got a taste of online testing last spring with social studies and science tests in some grades, plus sample language arts and math tests in some schools.

“The addition of the English language arts and mathematics assessments to the CMAS assessment system will stretch districts in terms of their ability to assess online this spring,” said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s executive director of assessment.

Language arts and math tests were developed by PARCC, one of two multi-state testing groups, and are based on the Common Core State Standards. Science and social studies tests are Colorado-only exams. All the tests were developed by Pearson, the multinational testing company.

The first part – The initial section of the language arts and math tests emphasize essay questions and other “constructed response” items that take longer to score because they aren’t machine gradable.  Those are the tests that started this week. Starting in eighth grade, students are assigned different math tests depending on which classes they’ve taken.

The first “window” – Some districts started giving the first parts of language arts and math tests in grades three through 11 Monday. The so-called “testing window” remains open until April 3. An individual district has four weeks within which to schedule tests to accommodate computer availability and other scheduling and administrative needs.

The second part – Called “end of year” assessments, these tests are intended to assess student knowledge of what they’ve learned through the year and are mostly multiple-choice items that can be scored quickly. The ultimate goal of the new tests is to have results available before the school year ends, but that won’t happen this year.

The second “window” – Districts may test between April 20 and May 22.

Other tests – Social studies tests will be given to fourth and seventh graders, and eighth graders will take science tests, between April 13 and May 1. High school juniors will take the ACT test on April 28. There are a variety of other, special tests given to some English language learners and to students with special needs. (See the full testing schedule here, and get more details on state-required tests here.)

Time on task – CDE estimates the two sets of language arts and math tests will take a combined 9¾ hours for third graders, 10 hours in grades four and five, a little under 11 hours for middle school students and about 11 hours in high school. The system allows for accommodations for students who may need extra help.

Costs – The cost to the state is estimated at $36.8 million for all of this spring’s tests, not just PARCC, or about $42 per student. Some $7.7 million is covered by federal funds. There’s an additional $8.1 million in local costs to administer state tests, but that doesn’t count such things as redirected staff time. (The cost estimates come from a study done last November for the Standards and Assessments Task Force.)

Technology – Paper-and-pencil tests are available for math tests in all grades and for third grade language arts. CDE estimates about 15 percent of Colorado students will take paper tests this spring. Some districts are using a combination of paper and online tests.

There’s been a high level of district anxiety about technology over the past two years as the new tests loomed. Districts have responded in different ways, but most seem ready for online testing.

Opting out

The expansion of state tests into the 11th and 12th grade, fears about the new online tests, and worries about tests eating into instructional time have sparked a testing backlash among some parents and teachers.

Discontent bubbled to the surface last fall, when some high school seniors boycotted science and social studies tests. The boycotts were concentrated in a few districts, but those actions drove statewide student participation in the tests to 83 percent. (Districts that drop below 95 percent participation on two tests can have their accreditation ratings lowered.)

Some parent activists are predicting a significant increase in opt outs this spring, and that concern prompted the State Board of Education to pass a resolution that seeks to protect districts from the impact of parents opting out. The resolution means students whose parents take them out of tests won’t be counted when the participation rate is calculated. (That exemption apparently doesn’t apply to students who boycott tests on their own.)

What’s next

Scores on the language arts and math tests won’t be available until late in the year of early in 2016. That’s because cut scores need to be set to determine students where students fall into the new proficiency categories of “distinguished command,” “strong command,” “moderate command” and “limited command.” (Those replace the old CSAP/TCAP categories of “advanced,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “unsatisfactory.”)

The percentages of students scoring as distinguished or strong will be lower than those who were proficient or advanced under the old system. Why? The new tests are unfamiliar, and they are intended to be harder. (See this Chalkbeat Colorado story about scores on last spring’s science and social studies test scores.)

At the Colorado General Assembly, lawmakers still are dancing around what to do about testing. The best guess is that the legislature will pass a bill that cuts the amount of testing, most likely by eliminating current tests in ninth, 11th and 12th grades.

Testing also is in play in Washington, D.C., where various proposals circulating Congress would ease requirements for annual testing, allow more flexibility in use of district tests to meet state requirements, and make other changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

If Congress ultimately loosens current federal requirements, the 2016 legislature could have more flexibility to change Colorado’s testing system.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports on the roll out of Colorado’s testing system. Check back for more coverage through the spring. 

Categories: Urban School News

State health department seeks separate AG opinion on student health survey

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 17:54

After the State Board of Education received an assistant attorney general’s opinion last Friday stating that parents must give written consent before students can take the biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment decided to seek its own opinion from the attorney general’s office on the subject.

It will likely be a couple of weeks before that opinion is ready, said Mark Salley, communications director for the state health department.

Until now, health department officials said, it has been up to districts to decide which of two methods of parent consent to use.

The vast majority of schools use “passive consent” to notify parents about the survey. That means parents must sign and return a form to opt their children out of the survey.

Active consent, which is what last Friday’s informal opinion said is necessary, means that parents must sign and return a form before their children can be given the survey. In 2013, only 8 percent of schools that administered the survey required active consent.

The opinion requested by the health department will come from a different assistant attorney general, but like the opinion provided to the state board by Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl, is expected to be an “informal opinion.”

In other words, it will represent the legal opinion of the lawyer who wrote it and is not a formal ruling of the attorney general.

This tale of two opinions erupted after recent criticism from some parents and state board members about the survey’s parent notification methods and the explicit nature of some questions.

The high school version of the survey asks questions about sexual orientation, sexual behavior, suicide, smoking, alcohol, drugs, bullying, exercise, nutrition, grades, and school involvement. The middle school version of the survey doesn’t ask questions about sexual orientation or sexual behavior, but does ask about the other topics.

In 2013, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey was given to more than 40,000 middle and high school students at more than 220 schools.

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Health department proposes tougher vaccination exemption policies

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 10:06

Toughening Up

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has proposed that parents who opt their children out of vaccines would have to submit exemptions more regularly. ( 9 News )

parent engagement

A bill that would expand a law that gives parents time off for certain school activities passed the House Education Committee—and revived a years-old debate about whether the law improves parent engagement. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, 9 News )

Youth-led Change

At the second Aspen Challenge, teens from 21 Denver schools pitched solutions to social problems ranging from racism to mental health. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Seuss Effect

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock proclaimed that yesterday, March 2—also Dr. Seuss's birthday—is Read Across Denver Day. ( 9 News )

Students In Charge

The Daily Camera profiles a student who is leading a workshop on sexual health and policy. ( Daily Camera )

Personal Narrative

A Colorado student's story about dropping out of school—and then getting back in. ( KUNC )

Building Blocks

The humble building block turns out to have an important role in children's learning and development. ( KUNC )

Defining Competency

Colleges adjust to competency-based standards, but questions remain. ( Hechinger Reports )

Categories: Urban School News

Parent time-off bill starts down rocky and familiar road

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 21:24

The House Education Committee passed a bill Monday that expands and extends a current law allowing parents unpaid time off from work for certain school activities.

But the 6-5 vote was party line, with Democrats in the majority, and the two hours of debate revived old arguments that flared six years ago when the original time-off law was passed.

“When the parents are involved in their kids’ education, the kids are more likely to succeed,” argued prime sponsor Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. She repeatedly characterized House Bell 15-1221 as all about getting parents more involved in their children’s education.

Republican committee members questioned the bill, primarily because there’s no data about whether the 2009 law has had any impact or whether  parents are being denied time off for school events.

“We all value parent engagement,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. “But the data is exceptionally thin.”

Fields and co-sponsor Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, acknowledged that problem but defended the bill.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to get answers to how many people are being denied” time off, Fields said.

Buckner, recalling his 40 years as an educator, said, “I know there were parents who couldn’t get to school because of their work schedules.”

The bill was supported by witnesses representing 9to5 Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos, STRIVE Prep, Clayton Early Learning, and the American Federation of Teachers and Colorado Education Association.

But lobbyist Loren Furman opposed the bill on behalf of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business.

“There is no data showing employers are denying leave,” she said. “More than 90 percent of employers have some sort of alternative leave arrangement.”

The 2009 law

A measure named House Bill 09-1057 required businesses with 50 or more employees to give employees up to 18 hours a year in unpaid leave for parent-teacher conferences or meetings related to special education services, interventions, dropout prevention, attendance, truancy, or disciplinary issues.

The requirement didn’t apply to businesses with existing leave policies, and the law contains no enforcement provisions or penalties for non-compliance.

Most important, the law was scheduled to expire in 2015, creating the need for a bill this session.

The issue was controversial in 2009, and the original version of the bill was diluted substantially. “In 2009 it took quite a bit of energy to come to the compromise,” lobbyist Furman recalled. (See this story from the Chalkbeat Colorado archives for more background.)

The 2015 bill

HB 15-1221 proposes to extend the law indefinitely and also add meetings with school counselors and “academic achievement ceremonies” to the list of school events for which parents can claim time off.

Fields and Buckner said they wanted to add “positive” school events to the original list. But the committee passed an amendment to eliminate a catch-all phrase that would have allowed time off for “other activities in which the child is directly participating and that contribute to the child’s academic progress.”

The bill also would extend the law to parents of preschool students and require school districts to inform parents about the time-off law.

What’s next

Wilson proposed an unsuccessful amendment to put a five-year sunset clause in the bill, HB 15-1221, and he also was unsuccessful in having the bill sent to the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee.

So the 6-5 vote sent the bill to preliminary consideration on the House floor, where Monday’s debate is likely to be repeated.

If the bill passes the House, it likely faces a tougher time in the Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature in 2009 when the original time-off law was passed.

Read text of bill here.

Categories: Urban School News

At competition, Denver teens pitch solutions to social challenges

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 18:42

More than 150 high schoolers from 21 schools gathered today in downtown Denver to present their solutions to challenges ranging from food deserts to racism to mental health as part of the Aspen Challenge, a competition that spotlights youth-driven solutions to social problems.

At the McNichols Civic Center Building, students from Strive Prep Excel passed out chocolate chip cookies made with garbanzo beans while a group from the Denver Center for International Studies recruited pen pals for a project focused on improving international diplomacy through communication. Across the hall, students from DSST: Green Valley Ranch asked passersby to examine about racial stereotypes.

Students from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle College’s Team Well Aware demonstrate an activity they used in a curriculum for children.

A team of high schoolers from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle College intermittently dropped to the ground to do sets of push-ups and sit-ups to demonstrate a wellness program. A giant orange die told them how many of each to do.

The projects started in January, when each school’s team wrote a practice grant application to the Aspen Challenge’s founders, the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation. Each team had a $500 grant to develop a sustainable solution to a social challenge.

This year, George Washington High School’s C.O.L.O.R. team walked away with first prize for a project focused on combatting racism through literature, music, arts, and conversations. That means they will be presenting their project at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. Last year, three Denver teams presented their projects at the festival.

Denver Center for International Studies’ team won second prize for its Planting Diplomacy project, and North High School won third for Nourish, a project focused on addressing food deserts.

Students from PUSH Academy’s Raising Our Own Fathers team proposed a mental health awareness day.

South High School’s team won the impact award for a project focused on addressing racial inequality and challenging stereotypes, while West High School’s team won best exhibit. The Martin Luther King Jr. Middle College group that spent most of the afternoon doing push-ups won an award for team spirit.

Bruce Randolph High School and Push Academy won the People’s Choice Award.

But many of the schools’ projects have already had concrete results. The team from North High School, for instance, has signed up more than 75 families for a fresh food delivery program.

The Aspen Challenge started in Los Angeles three years ago, expanded to Denver next year, started in Washington D.C., and will continue to add cities. Denver Public Schools spotlighted some of the projects on its Facebook page.
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Opting out is everywhere

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 09:10

Survey stakes

Parents have to approve their children’s participation in the controversial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, an assistant attorney general told the State Board of Education Friday. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Opt me out

Boulder Valley parents are engaged in a grassroots effort to encourage opting out of upcoming state tests in protest, saying testing is excessive and taking away too much class time. ( Daily Camera )

Backlash against standardized testing has strengthened a grassroots movement promoting the rights of parents to hold their children out of new assessments designed to measure readiness for college and career. ( Denver Post )

Opt me out, national edition

Almost every state has an “opt out” movement. Its true size is hard to gauge, but the protests on Facebook, at school board meetings and in more creative venues — including screenings of anti-testing documentaries — have caught the attention of education officials. ( New York Times )

Opt me out, teacher edition

An Aurora teacher has become a hero in the opt-out movement by announcing she'll refuse to give state tests to her students this month. District officials say she can't do that. ( Denver Post )


Just what are these new state tests anyway? ( Aspen Times )

Tick tock

A Colorado Springs magnet school has almost run out the accountability clock, and is trying several new approaches to save itself. ( Gazette )

The state's Turnaround Network helps a rural elementary school boost its performance ( Gazette )

All told, 30 schools across the state are feeling the hot breath of state accountability on the back of their necks. ( Daily Record )

Dual duel

Even as Denver ponders cutting some of its dual-language programs, the Thompson School District is poised to add a couple. ( Loveland Reporter-Herald )

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate

Utah vaccination rates are far higher than Colorado's, despite nearly identical regulatory environments. Why? ( Denver Post )


Fresh off a lobbying victory that brought a plastic bag fee to Boulder, Fairview High students are getting water bottle refilling stations installed at the school. ( Daily Camer )

Two cents

The president of the state teachers' union says education reformers are in denial about the burden testing is placing on classroom teachers. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

State Board told prior parent consent required for health survey

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 19:36

Parents have to approve their children’s participation in the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, and schools can’t merely offer parents the opportunity to opt out, an assistant attorney general told the State Board of Education Friday.

“I conclude that prior written parental consent is required before any Colorado public school students can be administered” the survey, Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl wrote in a memo to the board.

The survey has been criticized by some parents who are offended by questions on student drug use, sexual practices, drinking and other sensitive issues.

Board members started asking questions about the survey at their Feb. 19 meeting. They asked Dyl to write the memo, which he presented to them at Friday’s session.

“Merely affording parents notice and an opportunity to ‘opt-out’ of the [survey] is not sufficient to meet the requirements of the law,” Dyl wrote. “Read together, these two statutes are not ambiguous.”

Dyl concluded that consent is valid only if a school district has given written notice of the survey, made a copy of the survey available for viewing, and given parents two weeks to respond.

The way most schools currently administer the survey appears to be at odds with Dyl’s opinion. Some 92 percent of schools use a “passive consent” letter, which allows parents to opt out if they choose, according to Sarah Nickels, the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey lead at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Another 8 percent of schools use “active consent” letters, which require a parent signature for any student who participates in the survey.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is given every other year to students in randomly selected schools that agree to participate. More than 220 schools and 40,000 youth took the 2013 survey. Learn more here, and read the 99 questions on a past survey here.

Dyl cited federal and state law that say that parents must consent to any survey required of students that touches on certain topics. A recent version of the survey specifies that students’ participation is voluntary.

Dyl’s memo is what’s known in state government as an “informal opinion,” meaning it represents the legal opinion of the lawyer who wrote it and is not a formal ruling of the attorney general. Such formal opinions have the force of law. (See full memo below.)

The board considered passing a motion directing education Commissioner Robert Hammond to distribute the memo to school districts and provide advice on the issue. But members decided to delay any action until the next regular meeting on March 11-12.

Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder, said it’s important that the board be able to hear public testimony on the issue.

While no action was taken, some board members made their views on the issue clear.

“The whole thing just seems really poorly handled. … Why is it so hidden?” said board member Deb Scheffel, a Republican from Douglas County. “I feel like I’m flat footed; I don’t have any information” when questioned by parents.

Schroeder questioned whether parents are in the dark about the survey. “We’re generalizing that parents were the last to know, and that’s not true.” Schroeder is a former Boulder Valley school board member and said, “Parents certainly in my school district were notified.”

Pam Mazanec, a Republican from Douglas County, said the survey “strikes me as exploitive of children. … I think it’s inappropriate. It’s repulsive to me.”

Both Scheffel and Mazanec said they believe the survey has become more intrusive in recent years.

Rebecca Holmes, a Department of Education associate commissioner, said the origins of the survey go back to 1991 and while questions have been added over time, sensitive questions “have been asked for most of the 24 years of the survey.”

The survey is the Colorado version of a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey and is supervised by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Department of Human Services and CDE. The public health school at the University of Colorado Denver does the survey work.

Questions about the survey have come up frequently in recent committee hearings on parent rights and student data privacy measures being considered in the legislature.

There’s clearly some misinformation circulating on the issue.

On Thursday, State Board members took questions from local board members during a Colorado Association of School Boards conference.

One member of the audience said parents had told her that the health survey was given as part of the PARCC language arts and math tests.

“It’s not part of the PARCC test,” SBE member Steve Durham told the questioner.

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Categories: Urban School News

Weekend Reads: What we learned from education research last year

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 18:40
  • The Brooklyn principal who became famous when her school was featured in “Humans of New York” explains what makes a good school leader. (The Atlantic)
  • The lessons learned from education research last year include insights on social-emotional learning, math teaching, new standards, and more. (NPR Ed)
  • Unable to generate the political will to ditch Common Core standards in many states, some lawmakers are now trying to sabotage the implementation by targeting funding and new tests. (Politico)
  • Twitter has allowed a new type of education activist — mostly non-educators and mostly opposed to the Common Core — rising influence in policy debates, a new study has found. (Hechinger)
  • Silicon Valley has had a hard time breaking into the education sector, and it’s because adults are willing to let the tech industry’s wild-west culture into their own lives but are still nervous about their children. (Wired)
  • A study of images showing historical conceptions of the future of education reveals a lot about our current anxieties over the role of technology in schools. (Medium)
  • Can schools have an effect on American family composition? Michael Petrilli argues that schools can support stable families by better preparing students for careers. (Education Next)
  • With Lena Dunham’s “Girls” character headed into teaching, we may be hitting “Peak Education” on television. (This Week in Education)
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: To close or not – snow days spark debate

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 09:50

Student Protests

The Colorado teenagers who organized their peers in student protests last fall are still pursuing the causes that led them to activism. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Contested health survey

The State Board of Education on Friday is expected to discuss the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which has come under increasing fire from some parent groups. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Snow Days

Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMininee says lots of factors go into the decision to close schools because of snow. ( CBS Denver )

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg apologized for the last-minute call to close schools. ( KDVR )

The decision not to close schools drew parent ire in Boulder Valley. ( Daily Camera )

Common Core

Traditional curriculum sources haven’t been meeting the demands of the new set of math and English standards. More and more teachers are scrapping off-the-shelf lessons and searching for replacements on the Internet or writing new curriculum themselves. ( Hechinger Report )

That bad smell

The hydrogen sulfide problem at Boulder's Casey Middle School is complicated as well as puzzling. ( Boulder Weekly )

Dads in class

Fathers are becoming more common as classroom volunteers in Aurora. ( Aurora Sentinel )


Thompson district students hand-make leather books at the Loveland museum. ( Loveland Reporter-Herald )

Sweet music

Three Denver kids beat the odds to sing with the National Honor Choir. ( CPR )

Categories: Urban School News

Student protest leaders in Colorado see ripple effects, aim for bigger changes

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 07:30

Months after the series of student-led protests that rippled through Colorado in late 2014, the teenagers who organized their peers are still pursuing the causes that led them to activism and searching for evidence that their activism has had an effect.

The first protests this fall started in September, when students in Jefferson County raised concerns about potential changes to the district’s curriculum and other policies.

In November, Boulder students staged a walk-out to protest the amount of time spent on standardized tests, especially a new science and social studies assessment for seniors, while seniors across the state, including in nearby Douglas County and the tiny Mancos school district, refused to take their tests.

And in December, students at nearly 30 Denver schools joined protesters around the country who were concerned about police brutality and racial disparities in the wake of the deaths of two unarmed African-American citizens at the hands of police by organizing a variety of walk-outs and rallies.

All in all, hundreds of students at dozens of schools were involved in some form of activism.

Denver Public Schools, law enforcement, and the city’s mayor responded by holding conversations focused on the Denver students’ concerns. Debates about the role of testing have continued to percolate through the state legislature and board as well as through local districts. And Jefferson County’s students have formed a formal group, Jeffco Students for Change, that continues to protest their school board’s decisions.

Below, a few student organizers talk about why protesting seemed like the best approach; whether they think the protests were effective; and what comes next.

If you’d like to hear more from some of the many student activists, come to Chalkbeat’s event at the University of Denver next Wednesday. RSVP here.

Miles Holland, senior, Denver School of the Arts, Denver Public Schools

Issue: Police brutality, racial disparities in school

Action: Helped organize a walk-out at Denver School of the Arts and a multi-school rally at City Park, Denver

What inspired you to protest?

It was really just a bunch of emotion at first. The walk-out was a way that I thought my school was going to stand behind me in expressing this emotion.

The consistency of police inflicting violence on African Americans was mainly what inspired me and what drew me to speak on these things, along with the events of Michael Brown. I was 17 when I led the walk out. And at that time you’re sort of orienting yourself to the world. You get off that leash and start thinking about going into the world, at a time when, being an African-American, it felt like we were going backwards.

Were there conversations about these issues in your school?

That was the thing. There were not conversations, there was not talk about it.

Why did you feel it was important to have a follow-up event that brought goether students from multiple schools?

We wanted to be not so much speaking as a voice from one school, but as different individuals coming together, as a unified voice, as the youth of Denver.

Do you feel the protests were effective? 

I feel like it’s been a little brushed aside. I feel like the government, and especially the media, has a way of obscuring it. It’s relevant for a little bit and then it’s done. They look at you, they acknowledge your presence, but they don’t put forward any ideas to really address the issues.

 What comes next?

At DSA we’re putting on a play about black history on March 25. There’s also a group in the district that’s talking about what comes next.

Rachel Perley, senior, Fairview High School, Boulder Valley School District

Issue: Too much standardized testing, especially for seniors

Action: Co-organized student walk out

Why protest?

First we wrote an open letter and we thought, people will just say, oh their parents wrote that, they’ll just kind of disregard it.

When we met with Superintendent [Bruce] Messinger, we were talking to him about, what is the feasiblility of having a protest, what risk do students run by participating? Could that be damaging to our district, funding, etc. He said, oh you guys should try a diplomatic approach. He recommended we speak at meetings with the task force.

But we found there was no real avenue and no desire for student input until we said we’re going to take a drastic measure and protest.

Did you feel the protests were effective? 

We didn’t want to just protest once and then our point goes away. The intent was to start a conversation, and I think we were successful.

What’s happened since?

There was a panel of students and adults from Dougco, Jeffco, and a few others to discuss what we want to happen. We met with Congressman Jonathan Singer and others to talk about our concerns.

What comes next?

Well, with PARCC coming up, it still messes with our class time, right before Advanced Placement tests. I mean, there’s a certain amount required by federal law, but adding testing on top of that pushes it to the breaking point.

Do you see connections between your protests and other student activism?

We were afraid that some of the protests in Jeffco came across as, oh, their teachers put them up to that. It was important that we didn’t have the reaction, and that people not think that we’re not being lazy, we’re not just opting out.

With Ferguson, it’s maybe the idea of student voice, and how students should have a voice in the way our world works.

Ashlyn Maher, senior, Chatfield High School, Jeffco Public Schools 

Issue: Changes to Advanced Placement U.S.. History Curriculum, concerns about school board management

Action: Organized student walk-outs, created blog, staged events at board meetings

What inspired you to protest?

I have been paying attention to the board for a while. As a student I didn’t know what I could do about it until the teacher sick out, and then other students were talking about walk outs. I realized other students cared about this, too. We started a Facebook page, tried to get as many followers as possible – it was pretty fast.

It’s important for our voices to be heard. I know myself and other people at my school have taken AP U.S. History. We learned about the 60s, civil disobedience and how that impacted history. It was in the back of our minds, how it’s important to stand up even if you’re standing alone.

Do you feel your protests were effective?

The board is still making all kinds of changes. It’s clear that we weren’t heard, and we have to continue to find ways to make ourselves heard.

What’s happened since? What comes next?

We have a group called Jeffco Students For Change. There’s also been discussion of getting a recall election going.

…Later this month, we’re having a panel and we invited the board members to join.

Do you feel like there are misconceptions about teenagers and protests?

I do. I feel like when you hear about a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds walking out of school you think, they just want to ditch class. But if you listen to what they’re saying, a lot are walking out for good reasons and they know what they’re doing.


Categories: Urban School News

State Board turns to another touchy topic

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 19:01

The State Board of Education, fresh off action on testing waivers and opting out of tests, on Friday is expected to discuss the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial health study of students that has come under increasing fire from some parent groups.

Board members brought up the issue late in their Feb. 19 meeting, when member Deb Scheffel noted, “a lot of parents are upset by it. … Is there anything we can do to alert parents?”

Some survey questions are very specific about drug use, sexual activity, and other risky behaviors.

Member Steve Durham said, “I hate to be a prude about this, but this [the survey] isn’t age appropriate.”

Durham asked if the attorney general’s office would look into whether the board could require school districts to standardize how parents are notified about the survey. Some board members would prefer that parents have to opt in to the survey.

Member Pam Mazanec said opting out is “a practice that is really annoying to parents.”

The board is expecting to hear back from the attorney general’s office at its meeting Friday, when it also will be briefed on education bills in the legislature.

Durham told Chalkbeat Colorado Thursday that he didn’t know if he would propose a motion on this issue until after he’d seen the attorney general’s memo.

The health survey conducted periodically by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Department of Human Services and Department of Education has come up frequently in recent committee hearings on parent rights and student data privacy measures being considered in the legislature.

Parents have complained the survey is intrusive, asks inappropriate questions, and that that they sometimes weren’t properly notified that the survey was being given.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is given every other year to students in randomly selected schools. More than 220 schools and 40,000 youth took the 2013 survey. Learn more here, and read the 99 questions on a past survey here.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Unable to repeal Common Core, foes try sabotage

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 09:00

Tech too

The House Education Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would tweak the state’s school and district rating system to give credit for high school graduates who move into career training programs, as well as those who attend college. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Sound familiar?

Republican lawmakers in state houses around the country are hitting roadblocks as they try to repeal Common Core State Standards. So, aided at times by unlikely allies in the teachers unions, they're trying a new tactic: sabotaging, in incremental steps, the academic guidelines and new exams rolling out this spring. ( Politico )

Know your rights

A Colorado Springs mom who served on the state testing task force wants parents to be better informed of their rights. ( The Gazette )

s'no big deal

Some practical tips for avoiding cabin fever when your kids have a snow day (which many do today). ( The Gazette )

getting testy

More parents in Boulder Valley seem poised to opt their kids out of state tests being administered in March. ( 9News )

Down from the ivory tower

NPR compiles a list of useful education research that emerged in 2014. ( KUNC/NPR )

meet and greet

Three final candidates for the Superintendent of Cañon City Schools position were named Wednesday during a special board meeting. they will meet the community March 12 ( Cañon City Daily Record )


Palmer High School in downtown Colorado Springs was on lockdown briefly Wednesday after a student brandished a BB gun. ( The Gazette )

Categories: Urban School News

Bill to encourage tech careers advances in House

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 18:55

The House Education Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would tweak the state’s school and district rating system to give credit for high school graduates who move into career training programs, as well as those who attend college.

The measure, House Bill 15-1170, is one of several bills related to “workforce development,” a hot topic for both parties in the 2015 legislative session.

The bill also reflects a growing interest among some lawmakers and policymakers to broaden the definition of student success to more than just attending and finishing college.

“This bill redefines the meaning of success after high school and fills Colorado top jobs with skilled workers,” said sponsor Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada. “We’ve incentivized our schools to send kids to four-year colleges.” Under HB 15-1170, “Schools get credit if kids are going into any of these viable careers.”

Since passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids in 2008, the focus of state education policy has been assuring that students are “postsecondary and workforce ready” by the time they leave high school. But many advocates feel workforce readiness has taken a back seat to preparing students for college.

The current state accountability system rates high schools’ postsecondary and workforce readiness performance using student ACT scores, dropout rates and graduation rates.

HB 15-1170 would add these indicators: The percentages of graduates who enroll in career and technical education programs, community college or four-year colleges in the school year immediately following graduation. Each enrollment option would be given equal weight in calculating school performance.

Witnesses representing community colleges, vocational schools and business groups supported the bill during testimony.

Luke Ragland, lobbyist for Colorado Succeeds, a business-oriented advocacy group, said, “The current system doesn’t adequately prepare students for the modern workforce. … Aligning our accountability system is an important change.”

The bill also would strengthen business representation on district and school accountability committees.

The measure passed 10-1, with only Rep. Justin Everett, R-Jefferson County, voting no. It goes next to the House Appropriations Committee because of its $232,848 price tag. That would cover the staffing costs of a new office in the Department of Labor and Employment to coordinate efforts to expand career and technical education.

Among other workforce bills involving education are House Bill 15-1190, which would provide state assistance to districts in focusing on workforce needs, and Senate Bill 15-082, which is designed to increase scholarship funding for career and technical students.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to detailed information about every 2015 bill related to education.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: DPS requests state review of school grade changing

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 09:48

Keeping Up Appearances

Denver Public Schools has requested a state review of a school where staff have verified that they changed students' grades. ( Denver Post )

Jeffco Public Schools

Jefferson County's school board will vote next week on a slew of changes for six of its struggling schools, which include combining 7th and 8th grades with high schools. ( Denver Post )

Honor Roll

A new school in Denver will be named for Colorado senator and conservationist Joe Shoemaker. The DPS board celebrated the decision last Thursday. ( Denver Post )

Tell Me More

Nick Dawkins, who will be Manual High School's principal next school year, talks about his path to school leadership and his hopes for the school. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Colossal Readers

In Greenwood Village, an entire school is reading a book about a wonder of the ancient world. ( 9 News )


Boulder parents showed up en masse to share concerns about toxic gas at a local middle school. ( Daily Camera )

Who's Who

Don Haddad, the superintendent at St. Vrain, was featured in Education Week's Leaders to Learn From report for his focus on STEM. ( Daily Camera )

On the Move

Deirdre Pilch, currently deputy superintendent in Boulder Valley, will become superintendent in Greeley-Evans in July. ( Daily Camera )

Around the network

Nearly 30,000 students in Indiana are now using the state's voucher program—and many of them never attended public school. ( Chalkbeat Indiana )

Digital Media

Colorado Springs honored a high school digital media team. ( Gazette )

Jeffco Public Schools

School reconfiguration in Jeffco is drawing attention and excitement. ( Arvada Press )

It's all about the buildings

Dougco is searching for ways to finance capital improvement projects. ( Douglas County News Press )

suicide prevention

On preventing suicide contagions in schools. ( KUNC )

Categories: Urban School News

Manual’s principal-to-be: “Changing the narrative” at a school that’s close to home

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 09:33

Nickolas Dawkins grew up six blocks away from Manual High School. This summer, he’ll be returning to his old neighborhood as the school’s principal.

Dawkins is stepping into the spotlight: Manual is the district’s lowest-performing high school and has been subject to a series of reforms and leadership changes in recent years. Dawkins’ appointment is part of the district’s newest effort to turn the school around.

Dawkins has been principal at southeast Denver’s Hamilton Middle School for two years. He was the Education Center’s principal of the year in 2014. Before that, he worked as a teacher at South High School, an administrative intern at Thomas Jefferson High School, and an assistant principal and principal-in-residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College.

Below, Dawkins talks with Chalkbeat about his path to a career in education, his plans for Manual, and building relationships with teachers and the community.

How did you get into education?

I’m a DPS graduate, I went to East High School. But this road for me was started by a really hard time in my own schooling. In my sophomore year I lost a parent. You can imagine my world was rocked. There were some key educators who became instrumental in my life, including one who is kind of like a godmother. She made sure I graduated—she actually drove me down to Metro [State University] to make sure I got to class….

Through that, I decided to go into teaching.

And through the process of teaching, and having successes, I was able to earn a scholarship to Oxford University. I really came back jazzed about the idea of providing a really high level education to students, because I hadn’t had any exposure to that kind of education at that level.

That’s when I began to think about school leadership.

PHOTO: via Nick DawkinsNick Dawkins, currently the principal at Hamilton Middle School, will be principal at Manual High starting next school year.

Why Manual in particular?

I’m not just a principal who wants to be at any school. I didn’t just want to be a principal to be a principal. I thought back to my own upbringing during those tough times, when there was certainly a sense for many of us who grew up with single mothers…we had a feeling of, does anyone care that we’re struggling down here? We often felt like, I wish you would come back and help us out here.

That certainly became a memory for me again when I began to see the student protests this winter. Here we are again where we see our youth feeling like they don’t matter very much.

A lot of that was on my mind. I was wanting to follow my heart and say, I feel confident that I can be a leader for these kids.

And what a story for them to know that we do come back for the community.

I’ve always been a believer in the restorative nature of education, the way it can restore communities and bring people together. What an opportunity it would be to go back and try to help.

Can you talk a bit about equity at Manual?

I want to make sure our kids know, stats don’t define who they are. They can write their own story. It comes through hard work,education and relationships. Making sure there’s something who’s willing to hold you accountable.

If you look at my resume, I talk about closing achievement gaps. That’s very important to me.

You’re coming into a school that’s been under a lot of scrutiny, and people have a lot of opinions about what happens to it. How do you as a leader build relationships with those stakeholders?

We have so many people who have so much vested interest. We can’t do everything at the same time, but we can focus on some key areas of common ground, and try to do it well from the outset.

The thought partners [a community group focused on Manual] have put forth some ideas that are very exciting, and I’m just getting into those. I can’t talk specifically about what emerges out of that work…

We’ll likely host a common grounds process, which was very successful for me at Hamilton, where we’re able to get a diverse group of opinions and thoughtful partners into the same room for a consistent amount of time.

What would you say to people who question whether you’ve had sufficient experience to become principal at this school?

I feel like my experiences have given me a very unique set of leadership skills and capabilities. While I appreciate the question of, hey, is he high-school ready, middle school was newer for me than high school. My background has been exclusively high school with the exception of Hamilton. So I certainly feel prepared in that regard.

I have also worked with a similar student population before. I’ve been in the neighborhood.

Also, as far as the size of the school, I run a school of 900 kids, that’s co-located so we’re closer to 1000. Manual’s about the size of one of my grade levels.

That isn’t to make light of the challenge at Manual. But I have had experiences with very large schools. And I feel up to the challenge.

What’s your philosophy about how the school will run, its model? Manual has seen a No Excuses philosophy, it’s seen a social justice bent… 

So my approach is simply one that every kid matters and that we come together to put our best work forward to make sure every kid succeeds. No Excuses is something I’m familiar with. I think social justice is important too. I think it’s really a combination. But really my philosophy is, we work relentlessly, we work our hardest, and we put kids first.

What about discipline?

A restorative approach is very important to schools—to get at restoring the community when harm is done. I’m a big believer in that, but I’m also a big believer that we need to have a safe learning environment, and students first means safety first.

Discipline is a really challenging thing. You’re often weighing the needs of one student against the whole community. That’s a hard balancing act.

We’re trying to fight this battle of keeping kids in schools, but at the same time, if you’re doing that and you don’t put the right layers of systems in place, it can be perceived as, kids aren’t being held accountable.

What else should we know about your plans for Manual?

I’m really excited and continue to think that we should dream big. I’m looking forward to enhancing a narrative from a school that’s been having hard times to a school that’s on an upward trajectory and where kids can be found being wildly successful.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Categories: Urban School News

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