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Updated: 28 min 52 sec ago

Reformers, unions spending big on Democratic State Board candidates

2 hours 50 min ago

A political committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform has spent nearly $126,866 in two State Board of Education races, and the group’s state director indicates more such spending is planned.

That amount is more than five times the combined $22,560 spent as of Oct. 8 by Democratic candidates Henry Roman and Jane Goff from their own campaign treasuries.

Roman, running in the 3rd District and Goff, the 7th District incumbent, also have received smaller but still substantial direct contributions from committees affiliated with the Colorado Education Association.

Jen Walmer, Colorado director of DFER and the registered agent for Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with DFER, said the contributions are motivated by concern about the increasing politicization of education boards by Republicans, such as has happened in Jefferson County.

“We have seen the importance of board of education races,” she said.

Walmer said the spending has “less to do” with any effort to help Democrats gain a majority on the seven-member board, which currently has a 4-3 Republican majority.

Do your homework

Carrie Dallman, president of CEA, said the union’s interest is less with the political composition of the board than it is with candidates whose views match CEA priorities.

Other education sources tell Chalkbeat Colorado they believe the financial support is partly motivated by worry that continued Republican SBE control after the election could lead to GOP efforts to pull Colorado out of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC tests and possibly to replace education commissioner Robert Hammond.

“It’s because of Common Core and assessments,” said one source. “The board has made a lot of noise about getting out of PARCC.”

The spending indicates a level of intensity seldom seen in State Board races, which typically are low-profile affairs.

Here’s a look at the details of this year’s spending and the politics behind it.

The money

The Raising Colorado independent expenditure committee on Sept. 25 spent $70,500 in support of Roman. On Oct. 7 the committee spent $56,366 in support of Goff.

Walmer said the Roman spending was for radio ads and the Goff spending for direct mail. The media pieces were produced by out-of-state firms.

Roman’s own committee has raised $17,374 and spent $6,370. Goff has raised $31,010 and spent $16,190.

Some 52 percent of Roman’s contributions have come from teachers unions, while Goff has received 29 percent of her funding from such sources.

The Public Education Committee, a small donor group affiliated with CEA, has given $4,500 each to Roman and Goff. The Pueblo Education Association small donor committee also has given $4,500 to Roman, and the Jefferson County Education Association small donor committee has given the same amount to Goff.

Small donor committees, which are funded by member donations or dues deductions, can give a maximum of $4,500 to a candidate each election cycle. There’s no limit on spending by independent expenditure committees, but they can’t coordinate their spending with candidate campaign committees.

Republican board candidates have lagged behind in campaign fundraising. Marcia Neal, the 3rd District incumbent, has raised $12,895 and spent $10,881. (Neal had a primary opponent and spent $4,006 in that election.) Laura Boggs, GOP candidate in the 7th, has raised $4,312 and spent $1,220.

Raising Colorado has made two other interesting spending moves.

The committee made expenditures of $9,700 each against Republican state Senate candidates Laura Woods and Tony Sanchez. The two are challenging, respectively, Democratic Sens. Rachel Zenzinger and Andy Kerr of Jefferson County. Both Democrats have received direct contributions from unions and from DFER-related committees.

Asked how much additional spending Raising Colorado plans, Walmer said there will be more in board and legislative races but doesn’t yet know how much. That next reporting deadline for candidates and committees is Oct. 27, eight days before the election.

All the dollar figures listed above were from Oct. 14 reports, which covered activity through Oct. 8.

3rd District race Marcia Neal

Neal has represented the sprawling district, which covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo, for the last six years. She’s a retired teacher and former Mesa 51 school board member.

The last three SBE members from the District have been Republicans, including Neal. Republicans are 35 percent of the district’s registered voters, compared to 34 percent unaffiliated or minor party and 29 percent Democrats.

But Neal won her first election in 2008 by only about 3,000 votes out of 300,000 cast. In 2002 Republican Pam Suckla won by about 3,000 votes out of some 205,000 cast.

And Neal’s hometown newspaper, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, has endorsed Roman, an education consultant and former superintendent of the Pueblo 60 district. (The Sentinel endorsed Neal six years ago.) The district’s other two largest papers, the Pueblo Chieftain and the Durango Herald, also have endorsed Roman.

Neal said she’s “disappointed” with the Raising Colorado spending and was “very surprised” at the Sentinel endorsement.

Walmer said her group is supporting Roman partly because it believes Neal has become more partisan. “It’s not the same Marcia Neal who ran in 2008,” she said. She also said Raising Colorado felt Roman needed help reaching voters in such a large district.

Henry Roman

Neal has the same complaint, pointed in the opposite direction. “I haven’t run up against this kind of partisanship before.”

“In general I’m not discouraged, but I’m concerned that this negative advertising is out there,” she said. Neal won the June primary against a more conservative Republican opponent who also outspent her.

Roman said he was happy the Raising Colorado radio ad he heard and the mailer he saw praised him but that did feel a little ambivalent about something over which “I have no say.”

He added, “We were going to do some radio ads, but we don’t feel now we need to duplicate that effort.”

He said the ads and mailer criticize Neal for her stand on the controversial AP U.S. history course.

Roman also said he hopes the Sentinel’s endorsement will persuade some Grand Valley Republican voters to consider him. “It’s certainly not going to hurt me.”

7th District race Jane Goff

Although 7th District Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter is expected to win easy re-election, parts of the district, especially Jefferson County, are ground zero in tough partisan battles over legislative seats and other offices.

Jeffco, of course, also has been roiled by controversies over actions by the school board’s new conservative majority. (Walmer weighed in on those in a Sept. 25 posting on DFER’s website, call the board majority “these extremists.” Read the full post here.)

Based on voter registration, the district is 37.5 percent unaffiliated and other, 33.7 percent Democratic and 27.5 percent Republican. (A substantial part of Adams County also is in the district.)

Goff, a former teacher, administrator and union officer, is considered to be leading in her bid for reelection.

Laura Boggs

Walmer acknowledged Goff’s funding edge but said Raising Colorado got involved in helping her “partly because it’s noisy” in the district with all the other races and the schools controversy.

Boggs, a conservative former Jeffco board member, said, “Coloradans are getting used to groups from New York and D.C. trying to influence our elections. Clearly there is a fight for control of public education, and voters in CD 7 have a chance to vote for the local control, student-focused voice I will bring to the State Board or for a continuation of the over-testing, one-size-fits-all education system which is not focused on our students.”

Asked about the Raising Colorado effort, Goff said, “I had not idea about that going on. … Wow. That’s quite a bit of money.”

As the whether the outside spending will help her campaign, Goff said, “I’m ambivalent.”


To some people the idea of CEA-DFER political cooperation may seem odd, given the organizations’ policy differences on issues like teacher evaluation.

Walmer and Dallman acknowledge the differences but don’t see cooperation as strange.

The CEA itself gave $5,000 directly to Raising Colorado on Oct. 3. The bulk of Raising Colorado’s funding has come from another DFER-related committee, Education Reform Now Advocacy.

“I don’t it’s unusual to be aligned in some areas with the CEA,” said Walmer.

Dallman said that both groups feel the same way about Roman and Goff as the candidates with the best interests of public education at heart.

Walmer is a former top aide to both DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former Democratic Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll. CEA is traditionally a significant contributor to Democratic candidates at all levels.

State Board background

The board takes scores of votes every year, most of them on regulatory and oversight issues, and most of those votes are 7-0.

But there is a clear ideological divide on the board over major issues like PARCC testing, Common Core and the proper state and federal role in schools.

A conservative Republican bloc – chair Paul Lundeen of the 5th District, Pam Mazanec (4th) and Debra Scheffel (6th) are critical of Common Core, supportive of more district autonomy and critical of “reform” in general. Democrats Elaine Gantz Berman (1st) Angelika Schroeder (2nd) and Goff have different views.

Neal has been something of bridge between the two groups, depending on the issue.

Lundeen has tried to steer board attention to some more-contentious issues in recent months, but so far that’s mostly ended up in discussions, not votes.

See these Chalkbeat stories for background on the board and some hot-button issues:

Two other seats on the seven-member board will have new occupants after the Nov. 4 election.

Valentina Flores

In District 1 Democrat Valentina Flores is running unopposed. She won an upset victory in the June 24 primary over reform-backed candidate Taggart Hanson. Two independent expenditure committees connected to Stand for Children and DFER spent a total of $107,078 supporting Hansen.

Lundeen is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. His successor on the board will be appointed by a Republican Party vacancy committee.

So Roman and Goff victories would give Democrats a 4-3 board majority.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Coalition of advocates criticizes Denver’s school rating system

10 hours 40 min ago

churn churn churn

Nearly a quarter of Denver's schools have seen three or more principals in five years, and those schools are often ones where experts say steady leadership is needed most. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

listen up

Teachers at about 20 Colorado schools are using podcasts to let students listen to lessons as they get exercise around school grounds. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

close read

A coalition of education advocates criticized Denver's School Performance Framework, its way of evaluating schools, for giving a false impression of progress in schools where proficiency is persistently low and achievement gaps remain gaping. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

Election 2014

Developers and construction companies are throwing their financial weight behind a number of school bond issues on the ballot. ( Gazette )

Advocates on both sides of a proposal to allow racetrack gambling are paying prominent Colorado Springs citizens for their backing. ( Gazette )

eat your veggies

A Boulder-based healthy school lunch foundation is partnering with a local business to provide grants to increase produce in lunchrooms around the country. ( Daily Camera )

closer to home

The St. Vrain Valley School District says its new locally-managed high speed internet service is faster and cheaper than the previous outsourced service. ( Times-Call )

safety patrol

Hundreds of educators and police officers will spend two days talking about how to make Colorado's schools safer. ( KDVR )

Categories: Urban School News

Coalition: DPS sending parents wrong message on quality schools

20 hours 4 min ago
A quality school should truly live up to high expectations; that is, they should be places where most students are on grade level and are becoming prepared for postsecondary options. However, our blue and green schools are missing this mark. In setting the bar too low for schools, the current rating system gives parents the wrong message, indicating that schools are high quality when, in fact, most students have little chance of meeting the state’s standards.
– Coalition of Denver education advocacy organizations in a letter to Denver Public Schools

Those are the feelings a broad coalition expressed in a letter sent to the Denver Public Schools Board of Education Tuesday.

The two-page letter takes aim at how DPS evaluates its schools. Known as the School Performance Framework, or SPF, Denver uses a variety of data to determine which schools are making the grade and which aren’t. Schools are rated from red, probation, to blue, distinguished.

As part of its new strategic plan, Denver hopes to have 80 percent of its schools rates as blue or green by 2020. Currently, about 60 percent of schools meet that threshold.

But, the coalition said, the way DPS is determining those ratings is flawed. Among the coalition’s concerns is how DPS officials over-value data that shows much students learn year-to-year rather than how proficient they are.

“Growth gives the public a false impression that things are moving in the right direction,” said Kristi Butkovich, executive director of the Denver Alliance for Public Schools, in an interview. “Things are not moving in the right direction. The district has been stagnant.”

The coalition also highlights how not all high-performing schools are equal, nor are they closing a stubborn achievement gap between their white students and their students of color.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg has long defended the district’s use of student growth as a major factor in determining a quality school.

“This is a very important issue for our school community and we look forward to having a series of robust community conversations about it,” Boasberg said in a statement.

Last spring the district’s school board heard a presentation on the possible changes to the SPF. It’s unclear what the district’s next steps are, but the coalition, in the letter, said they want the conversation to start by November’s end.

Letter DV.load('', { width: 620, height: 600, sidebar: false, text: true, pdf: true, container: '#DV-viewer-1342044-dps-board-spf-letter-version-final' });
Categories: Urban School News

The revolving schoolhouse door: Principal turnover in Denver, investigated

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 17:23

When Exaviah Watson was a freshman in high school, her principal was focused on college prep. She took ACT classes and went on college tours and was getting excited about heading to college herself.

But that was four years and three principals ago. When that principal left, after just two years, the college focus “just stopped,” she said.

Exaviah left the school the year after, departing for a different school nearby that has been plagued by similar turnover issues.

Her experience with principal turnover — and the resulting upheaval in her education — is not exceptional in Denver.

A Chalkbeat analysis of state records reveals that although Denver’s overall principal turnover rate has fallen by almost half, turnover has not slowed at nearly a quarter of Denver schools, where three or more principals have come and gone since 2008. That churn is concentrated in schools where the district has pushed its most intense improvement efforts, schools that researchers say are most in need of high quality and steady leadership.

For example, the high-profile improvement efforts that kicked off five years ago in Denver’s far northeast corner have been accompanied by a nearly constant changeover in school leadership. Seven of the eight schools in whose turnaround Denver invested significant resources have seen at least three leaders since the district’s efforts kicked off in 2010.

The fact that those schools are disproportionately attended by underserved students has riled community members, who say their students need a consistent school more than most.

Where do Denver schools see disproportionate principal churn?

At least 34 of Denver’s 185 schools have had three or more principals since 2008. These schools are highlighted with a gold ring on the map below and clustered in the district’s highest need areas. In the Northeast board district, seven of the eight schools targeted for intense improvement and given additional support are among those with high turnover.

The schools on the map are sized by the number of principals they’ve had in the last five years and colored by the percent of students who receive free or reduced lunch. So, larger circles represent schools with higher turnover, and darker circles represent schools with more students receiving subsidized lunch, which is a measurement that districts use for low-income students. But incomplete data from the district means that this map can’t tell the whole story. Hover over the dots below to learn more about each school and comment on this data set to share your story and help us create a more accurate picture of principal churn in the district.

Denver is not alone in its struggle to hold on to school leaders. Nationally, the average tenure for urban principals is shorter than five years.

But interviews with dozens of national figures, local educators, and district administrators suggest that Denver’s difficulties stretch along every step of the leadership process. Principals are thrust into struggling schools with little training, given support that feels more like being watched, and held to expectations that some describe as impossibly high. As schools lose principals to burnout or officials move them out, rocky transitions disrupt students’ classrooms and leave communities feeling isolated from their schools.

District officials acknowledge the challenge. “The notion that great systems can exist without great principals is ridiculous,” said Denver schools leader Tom Boasberg.

Disrupted schools, disrupted classrooms, disrupted students

Rilla Ervin has seen three principals take over her daughter’s school in four years. And though she understands the rationale behind replacing a principal who isn’t driving improvement in a school, she’s also learned to be wary of the handoff from one principal to another.

“Change can always be good,” said Ervin, whose daughter attends Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello, in the Far Northeast. “It’s the way change happens. When new principals come in, instead of helping them, [the district] says do it your way. Blow it up.”

Transitions have not always gone smoothly at DCIS at Montbello. Ervin’s daughter Octavia, who is entering her senior year, said she and other students were buffeted by rapid changes as the school changed hands.

“It messes kids up,” said Octavia Ervin. For example, in the transition from the school’s founding principal to its new leader, the school’s grading system changed. Teachers struggled with the new system and many students ended up with failing grades or say they failed to get the help they needed. Octavia, previously a straight A student, struggled to make the grade in her classes and her mother became frustrated at a lack of information about Octavia’s progress.

That sort of disruption is not unusual as new principals institute systems they feel work best. And the impacts of those changes can be traced straight to students’ scores, for better or for worse.

Estimates of what percent of student test scores can be traced to a principal’s leadership are still fuzzy but likely hover somewhere in the low to mid teens. That effect is less than a classroom teacher. But, said Jason Grissom, who has studied the impact of principals at Vanderbilt University, principals affect many more kids.

And they do much to set the tone of a school and ensure it’s a safe environment for students and teachers to learn and work.

“They’re really the linchpin,” said Christine Campbell, who has studied principal practices in districts around the country.

District officials in Denver and around the country recognize the importance of principals and have used the urgent need for strong leadership as the justification for replacing principals after just a year or two, often ushering in big changes to the school.

“The thinking in education seem to be, when you have a leadership change, ‘Out with the old, in with the new,’” said Jane Shirley, who coaches and trains principals in Denver.

But paradoxically, the churn itself could also be interfering with a school’s ability to improve, with constant changes preventing consistent growth.

“Studies suggest student achievement dips following a transition period,” said Grissom. “It recovers after two to three years. But that’s real impact on those kids that are in the school at that time.”

There’s evidence in Denver’s own schools that Grissom’s predictions may be playing out.

For example, after a lackluster first year under new principal Beth Yates, Columbine Elementary School’s students grew by one of the fastest rates in the district on state tests in Yates’ second year. But by the time those scores were reported, the district had already replaced Yates, bringing in the school’s fourth principal in five years.

The change left Melissa Skrbic-Huss, whose son attends the school, with a familiar feeling.

“The inconsistency they have provided to Columbine has made me unhopeful that Denver Public Schools understands what a kid needs,” said Skrbic-Huss. “It made me feel that Columbine is a school where they are trying different techniques to see what works.”

Skrbic-Huss said she worries Denver is willing to experiment at Columbine because almost all students there are poor.

“A lot of times our students come from families where the only consistency is the school,” she said.

So many vacancies, so few principals who are prepared

As a first-year assistant principal at Oakland Elementary, Candice Reese was surprised when a district administrator urged her to accept Denver’s offer that she run her own building.

“I didn’t think I was ready,” Reese said. “Why they put new administrators in [low-performing] buildings, that’s very odd to me.”

The pathway that Reese found odd is actually well worn in Denver. The district must fill between 20 and 30 principal positions (out of 162) each year. And the district must sometimes scramble to find enough candidates with the experience and qualifications to head up schools, especially those that struggle the most.

“There’s no one on the bench,” said Jane Shirley, who coaches and trains principals through an outside program, Catapult (formerly Get Smart Schools).

But the district’s problem, Shirley said, isn’t that it doesn’t have enough people with the capacity to lead schools.

“It’s not that we don’t have the talent,” she said. But many who could or would want to don’t have the necessary training or qualifications.

In the past, educators often rose slowly through the ranks at their schools, taking on more responsibility over the course of decades. But the way people think about the work has changed — and so has Denver, with rapid changes to the district disrupting many of its traditional patterns.

“Gone are the days of someone being in a building for 25 years,” said Shirley.

Without enough trained and qualified candidates, the district is sometimes left playing a game of musical chairs, pulling qualified candidates from schools that are thriving to take over at others that are foundering — leaving a leadership void at the schools they vacated.

For example, when the district removed Columbine Elementary School’s principal from her post last year, they pulled in Jason Krause from Smith Renaissance School, where he was in the midst of working to pull up that school’s performance.

A student leaves Columbine Elementary School (left) and the school’s new leader Jason Krause meets parents (right)

The district also relies on veterans to take over struggling schools on a short-term basis to hold the course until a permanent leader can be found, as happened at Manual High School and several schools in the Far Northeast. And the district must still sometimes resort to pulling up an assistant principal like Reese who doesn’t feel ready to take the reins.

The district doesn’t always do a good job of matching schools and principals, said Kim Knous-Dolan, who works for the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a local education research and advocacy organization.

“They could probably get a lot more sophisticated and nuanced around hiring the right kind of leaders for the right kind of schools,” she said. She suggested the district could write and publish profiles for the different kinds of leaders it needs, from someone to run a school for at risk students to a leader of an autonomous innovation school.

District administrators say they have tried to be more thoughtful at making sure the right leader ends up at a school. But they often have a short timeline to find a candidates and do not consistently use tools like observing interactions with staff and community members to determine if a potential principal will be a match.

When it came time to find a new principal at DCIS at Montbello when the school’s founding principal left, parents say they only met a single candidate and did not participate substantially in the hiring process.

The result, Rilla Ervin says, was conflict between the school community and the school’s leader. Octavia Ervin and other students, used to a personable leadership style from founding principal Trent Sharpe, were offended that new leader Suzanne Morey didn’t spend time in the halls or getting to know students.

“She didn’t know your name unless you were in trouble,” said Octavia Ervin. The Ervins described discovering after running into Morey in the school that Morey was unaware Octavia was a student. Octavia Ervin’s younger sister struggled with the lack of guidance. She attended DCIS for middle school but after the disruptions of last year, she moved to another school.

And Morey left at the end of last year for a different principal job she says is a better fit, continuing the pattern of churn at the school.

While district officials would not discuss individual cases, principal and administrator descriptions of the general process of transitioning between leaders suggest that inconsistency is common across the district, with more involved conversations with the staff and community at one school and unilateral decisions at another.

And once the cycle of turnover begins, it can be hard to stop. High quality candidates may be driven away from schools who have a long track record of chewing up and spitting out leaders.

“What’s the inducement to do the job when there’s a line of people who haven’t succeeded?” said Barbara O’Brien, a Denver Public Schools board member who also works at Catapult, a principal coaching and training program.

Denver has tried to end the game of musical chairs, building up a base of qualified leaders to take over schools. Like some other cities, it has established its own internal training program, placing principals-in-training in Denver schools as assistant principals while working on getting an alternate principal license.

“We’re able to ensure our candidates are getting the right kind of training and preparation,” said Shannon Hagerman, who runs the training program.

But the city program lasts only a year, a duration that the city’s charter sector recently determined was too short to mint principals ready for the challenges of leading high-need schools. DSST, a high-performing charter network in the city, recently upped its training program from one year to two.

“We do think it takes that amount of time to really prepare our leaders,” said Bill Kurtz, the network’s CEO.

And the program isn’t yet producing enough principals to meet the need. “If you need principals right away, you need lots of strategies,” said Knous-Dolan.

Meanwhile, principals like Reese find themselves stuck in an impossibly hard situation. Reese ended up taking the job but was removed two years later as the district overhauled her new school. She took another principal job in Denver but eventually left the district for Brighton. Now, her old school is on its second principal in three years.

Pressure to make unrealistic gains, with little help

More and more, principals are expected to implement new standards, run new testing systems and improve student scores, all while still addressing the basic needs of keeping a building clean, safe, and orderly.

“The principal is responsible for so much,” said Billy Husher, Jr, a union representative at Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

But the consequences for not successfully navigating the district’s systems are heavy. Principals around the district reported being told they had a two year timeline to dramatically raise students’ test scores — or potentially lose their job.

That timeline appears to have come into play in the decision to replace Yates at Columbine. In a letter home to parents, Yates’ supervisor Erin McMahon told parents that the school had made “modest improvements,” but that “this work must be deepened and accelerated.”

Another principal cited instructions from his supervisors to jump a tier on school rankings within two years, or else.

Current district administrators say no hard and fast timeline for school improvement exists. Still, just one of the schools in the Far Northeast’s turnaround network has had fewer than three principals in five years.

“I wonder if we pull the trigger a little too quickly,” said Shirley.

While there can be good reasons to pull a principal out of a school, districts like Denver often fail to take into account the magnitude of the negative impacts that can result.

“Principal change has a big enough negative impact that districts should think seriously about the costs,” said Grissom. “They’re not thinking about the costs side of it.”

The decision to pull principals after just two years is also part of a misconception about what it takes for a school to make progress and an underestimation of all the elements that must be in line, many observers said.

“They think it’s a magic trick, to bring kids up two or three years to grade level,” said Mary Sam, a former Denver Public Schools teacher who is now a vocal opponent of the district’s reform strategy.

To begin to make a dent in student test scores, principals must do everything from having a healthy school environment to getting the right academic supports in place

“To really change a culture, it takes five to seven years,”  said Mel Riddile, the associate director of high school service at the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a former principal himself. “To implement initiatives, it takes two to five years.”

For long-struggling schools, it may be a question of building systems from scratch. Riddile and others estimated that it could take upwards of three years to see a substantial change in test scores. In the meantime, he said, district officials should pay attention to other indicators, including teacher satisfaction and turnover.

In their desperate bid to raise scores faster than some would say is reasonable, district officials also saddle principals of low-performing schools with often competing support systems that leave the school leaders feeling pulled in too many directions.

Most principals juggle the demands of multiple branches of the district bureaucracy. That’s especially true at the district’s turnaround schools, like DCIS at Montbello. Started in 2011 as part of a turnaround program for the entire Far Northeast region, the combined middle school and high school were among the eight schools originally selected to participate in a district experiment in how to run struggling schools. All eight were placed in the Denver Summit School Network, which was supposed to support schools as they implemented a series of district initiatives from longer school days and years to intensive math tutoring.

But the principal of the school was also expected to participate in a multitude of other initiatives, from the network of other DCIS schools to a so-called “data group” for discussing student results. All told, Dan Lutz, the founder of the DCIS network, estimates that a school leader at DCIS at Montbello had to answer to the concerns of as many as five separate organizations.

“It was a mindbender to step into and make sense of,” said Lutz.

Even the district’s systems that are intended to support principals appear to sometimes turn against them. One structure in particular — instructional superintendents — drew harsh critiques. The city’s schools are divided into eleven networks, overseen by teams led by instructional superintendents who are supposed to conduct frequent school visits, provide coaching and help principals coordinate the myriad systems that keep a school up and running.

But even local school board members have questioned how well exactly that structure is supporting school leaders.

“The instructional superintendent should be an advocate for the school,” said O’Brien.  “I have a healthy dose of skepticism with how well that layer of the district is working.”

Reese, who helmed a number of struggling schools, described a relationship that was more about catching mistakes than figuring out how to address them.

“In DPS, a lot of the time I felt like it was very punitive,” said Reese. “There’s a fear when district administrators are coming in. Schools that are red [the lowest tier on the district’s ranking system] and schools that are orange [the second lowest tier], there’s an uncomfortable feeling and a feeling like they’re there to get you.”

When the intended support is replaced with accountability, the result, Reese said, can be a sense of steering a sinking ship.

“When you’re doing all that you can, you just feel you’re drowning more and more and there aren’t life preservers being thrown your way,” said Reese.

Other principals who spoke to Chalkbeat described more helpful interactions with their supervisors.

Still, the result is often a job that no one wants and no one wants to keep.

“It is a job that is going to burn people out,” said Sonja Semion, the executive director of Stand For Children Colorado, the local branch of a national education advocacy organization. “You have to rely on finding this superhero.”’

Efforts to end churn proceed, but haltingly

District leaders say that they are beginning to take steps to understand Denver’s principal churn in order to figure out what to fix.

“It is concerning,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer. She now oversees school operations and support, the product of a recent shift in how the district manages schools. “It is one of the places we are trying to dig into the root causes.”

The issue may be getting a higher profile within the district, since school board members made leadership one of five key strategies called out in the Denver Plan 2020, which sets out the district’s targets for the next six years.

As a result, Cordova and her staff have spent the fall trying to sort out what is pushing leaders to leave and what schools need from their leaders. The result is at least the beginning of a look at what’s working and what’s not in the district’s efforts to hire and support school leaders.

For example, some in the district say structures intended to get principals the help they need are beginning to work.

“I didn’t have coaching when I was a principal,” said Hagerman, who used to be the principal at Montclair Elementary. She now heads the district’s teacher and principal training programs. “The vast majority of principals now have coaches.”

But, Cordova said, the district is still a long way from figuring out how to meet principals’ different needs for support.

“I think we’ve had a lot of effort in differentiation for leaders but I don’t know that we’ve gotten it right,” she said.

And some initiatives, including the training pipeline, could take time to reach their potential.

“It’s going to take a few years before the district’s developmental programs are lining people up with the right fit,” said John Youngquist, Hagerman’s predecessor. He moved to Aurora Public Schools last fall.

The district has also kicked off initiatives intended to lighten principals’ loads, from training teachers to take on more responsibilities to dividing up a single principal position into several.

The goal, Cordova said, is narrowing principals’ sphere of focus to instruction and school climate and “then pushing everything out the principal’s way to be able to do that.”

At DCIS at Montbello, the single principal position for the 6-12th grade school has now been split in two: one leader for the middle school and one for the high school. And the school’s former leader, Suzanne Morey, is now splitting the principal role at a nearby school with another veteran principal. One oversees instruction, the other operations.

“The role of the principal is changing,” said O’Brien. “The idea of a knight in shining armor just doesn’t work anymore.”

There are signs on the ground, beginning last spring, that schools may be having more luck finding and keeping principals.

At DCIS at Montbello, whose last principal stayed only a year, parents and district administrators say that the transition to a new pair of principals has been largely smooth for the school.

“This year, we were very apprehensive,” said Eurzila Lowe, whose daughter attends the school. In spite of that, she said parents and students “have all committed to supporting this new principal.”

The founder of the local network of international schools to which DCIS belongs said that this transition, which is the second since the school opened in 2011, has been the smoothest to date.

“It was the best ever,” said Lutz. “The district has learned a lot about school leaders.”

But the success of those efforts remain patchy and inconsistent across the district, a fact that district leaders acknowledge.

“Human beings are complicated,” said Boasberg, the district’s superintendent. “Sometimes the reason it works in school A and not in school B is the the people doing it.”

And there are some signs that turnover will continue at some long-time hotspots. At George Washington High School, where a series of high-profile fights over the school’s exclusive IB program have soured relations between the district and parents, yet another principal left after just two years in the chair. District officials announced that they are launching a search for a new leader at Manual High School, to oversee the school’s next overhaul and Valverde’s leader has already promised to leave at the end of the year, over her school’s performance on state tests.

Students embrace at Manual High School (left). Above right, the front of Denver’s George Washington High School, and, below right, a community meeting at Valverde Elementary School.

The problem, according to at least one observer, is that the district’s disjointed efforts haven’t materialized into a comprehensive strategy.

“They’re doing something,” said Knous-Dolan, a local education researcher and advocate. “It’s just not a full blown and thoughtful solution.”

Until district officials acknowledge the scale of the problem, she said, nothing is going to change for good.

“If they made it a priority, it could change,” she said. “Someone just has to have the will to do it.”

Reporting contributed by Monique Collins.

Categories: Urban School News

Fresh air, exercise and a dose of learning

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 15:32

There wasn’t a whisper of conversation among Kari Burkett’s fifth-graders as they walked a mile around the grounds of Aurora’s Kenton Elementary School on a recent sunny morning. Just the sound of footfalls and the caw of birds flying overhead.

The students, all equipped with small black listening devices and earphones, were absorbed in a recording about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit. The walk-and-listen routine happens once or twice a week in Burkett’s classroom.

Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. At first, she bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded Internet content.

It’s part of The Walking Classroom, a four-year-old program based in Chapel Hill, NC, that allows students to get exercise while they listen to standards-aligned podcasts on language arts, history and science. In an era when many teachers feel overwhelmed by the push for better test scores and health advocates regularly sound the alarm on childhood obesity, The Walking Classroom attempts to address both problems.

All told, more than 30 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in 20 Colorado schools, from the Denver area up to Loveland, participate in the program. Many of the schools have large populations of low-income students or English-language learners.

Normally, a classroom set of Walking Classroom materials, including listening devices called WalkKits, costs $3,000, but sponsors like Kaiser Permanente Colorado allow many schools to participate for free. Burkett said the audio lesson, which correlate particularly well with her writing lessons, give students new ways to learn and reinforce academic content.

“I have a variety of learners, a variety of different language-learners…it’s an opportunity to do something different instead of just listening to me,” she said. “[They’re] able to connect a little bit more to what we’re learning in class.”

Program co-founder Laura Fenn, who visited Kenton and other participating Colorado schools last week, emphasized the link between exercise and attention.

The Walking Classroom

  • Launched: 2011
  • Used in: 46 states, including in more than 30 Colorado classrooms in 20 schools
  • Not to be used during: Physical education class or recess
  • 2014-15 Kaiser Permanente Colorado sponsorship: $95,000 for 21 classroom sets
  • More information:

“We hear over and over again that the kids come back [from Walking Classroom sessions] and they’re more focused, they’re more productive and they’ve gotten some exercise,” she said.

The positive effect of exercise on the brain is something Carla Witt, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who also visited Kenton last week, said is clearly visible in magnetoencephalagrams, or pictures of the brain.

“When you have someone who’s been sitting…they’re recruiting just a fraction of their brain,” she said. “When you have them walk like this and now you take a picture of their brain…they’re recruiting substantially more.”

Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.

In their own way, students also seem to notice a difference.

Ten-year-old Katherine Sanchez said she likes The Walking Classroom “because I get to exercise and when I come to learn I get the questions that the teacher asks right.”

Burkett and another teacher at Kenton adopted The Walking Classroom last year after the school got two classroom sets of the WalkKits through a Kaiser sponsorship. At first, she wasn’t sure how the program would work.

“There’s so many assessments and we have a pretty rigorous schedule.”

Nevertheless, she set aside 15-20 minutes for The Walking Classroom every Friday, and sometimes other days of the week. She assigned a leader and a caboose and students soon got used to strolling around the playground while listening to lessons on everything from similes to famous poems.

“If we don’t get to do it every week they get pretty disappointed,” said Burkett.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Women- and minority-owned business underrepresented in DPS contracts, report says

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 10:04

Transparency talks

A Jeffco board member who has encouraged constituents to text or call her to avoid open records rules says that the board needs more guidance on the law. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

finding gaps

The draft findings of a district-commissioned report found that businesses owned by women and minorities were not well represented among companies that received contracts from Denver Public Schools. ( Denver Post )

pension pensiveness

The Colorado Supreme Court upheld a reduction in the cost-of-living adjustments that retirees receive under the PERA pension system. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

The Denver Post editorial board argued that the Supreme Court's ruling was an obvious judgment. ( Denver Post )

cops in schools

As school discipline has increasingly begun to be handled by police instead of educators, some districts around the country -- including Denver -- have tried to clarify or limit the role of law enforcement in disciplinary matters. ( Wall Street Journal )

Election 2014

Operations in Poudre's school district won't change if voters approve a measure that would require teachers contract negotiations to happen in public. ( Coloradoan )

testing testing one two three

A poll conducted by the state's largest teachers union found large support for less testing and schools and voters about evenly split on the Common Core. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

And the head of the PARCC consortium, which is developing new exams, argued that good testing helps learning. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

School safety

Three students were injured after another shot a pellet gun on a school bus in Aurora. ( 9News )

bringing in the harvest

As part of Farm-to-School Month, the Boulder Valley School District is hosting a Harvest Festival this weekend. ( Daily Camera )

ripple effects?

The former head of Oakland's schools argued that the sentiments that drove the ouster of John Deasey in Los Angeles could soon affect other similarly-minded superintendents, including Denver's Tom Boasberg. ( Los Angeles Times )

Categories: Urban School News

Union poll finds negative public attitudes on testing

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 21:59

Coloradans are concerned about the amount of testing in the state’s schools, according to a poll commissioned by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“The survey confirms the actual experience parents and teachers are having all over Colorado – there is simply too much testing and not enough funding,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman. The CEA supports trimming back the state’s testing system.

Here are some key results from the poll:

  • Level of testing: Less testing was supported by 63 percent, same amount 28 percent, more 5 percent.
  • Primary purpose of testing: Assessing student progress was listed by58 percent, assessing of district and school performance 24 percent, assessing teacher effectiveness 13 percent.
  • Effectiveness of testing in measuring student progress: Somewhat effective 52 percent, not effective 34 percent, strongly effective 11 percent.
  • Appropriate amount of class time on testing: 0-10 percent – 45 percent of respondents, 10-20 percent – 38 percent, 20-30 percent – 12 percent, more than 30 percent – 2 percent.
  • Parental opt out: Under special circumstances 43 percent support this, never 28 percent, support for any reason 25 percent.

Asked how familiar they were with the standardized tests in their school districts, 34 percent of respondents said they were very familiar, 45 percent somewhat familiar and 21 not very familiar.

On the question of how many standardized tests their children take each year, 50 percent of parent respondents said two to five and 10 percent said six to 10. Asked if they felt their children were adequately supported by technology in their schools, 71 percent said yes and 20 percent said no.

Other issues

The CEA’s poll also asked respondents to choose the “top problem” facing education and about their opinions on the Common Core State Standards.

Some 29 percent identified school funding as the single most important problem facing public schools, with standardized testing and parental involvement tied at 13 percent for the next most-cited problem. Teachers unions and administrators each were mentioned as the top problem by 12 percent each.

On Common Core, 32 percent of respondents supported the language arts and math standards, 34 percent opposed them and 34 percent weren’t sure of their opinions. The survey also asked respondents if they were aware of the state’s Colorado-only standards in other subjects – 59 percent didn’t know about them.

The poll surveyed 706 adults, including 600 registered voters and 219 parents of school-aged children. Interviews were done Sept. 12-16, primarily by telephone. The poll was done by SurveyUSA. See questions, demographic tabulations and full results here.

Testing task force chips away at issues

Monday also was the fourth meeting of the Standards and Assessments Task Force, a 15-member appointed group that is studying state and local testing systems and that is supposed to make recommendations to the 2015 legislative session.

Up to now the group has been heavily involved in information-gathering and organizational issues, and it has only three more meetings scheduled before it’s supposed to complete its report.

The task force represents a broad spectrum of education interests, from cut-it-back parent representatives to education reform group leaders who want to preserve key elements of the current system. Some of those divisions started to surface during discussion at the group’s September meeting (see story).

One exercise the task force did on Monday was to start narrowing down issues it wants to research and discuss further. Those issues include:

  • Shortening the time taken by tests
  • Cutting back state testing to the minimums required by the federal government
  • Aligning and combining local, state and federally required tests
  • Excusing students who are performing at top levels from testing
  • Allowing districts to continue giving paper-and-pencil tests
  • Letting districts choose from a state-approved menu of tests
  • Delaying the use of results from new tests for accountability and educator evaluationuntil those tests have been fully validated
  • Changing the timing of the new science and social studies tests to reduce the crush of testing every spring

The group also was briefed on a recent memo from the U.S. Department of Education that detailed the fairly limited options that state has in changing the testing system. (See this story for background.) But that report prompted little significant discussion.

On Monday evening four members of the task force held the first in series of public meetings on testing. About two-dozen people showed up at Denver’s North High School, some raising familiar concerns about testing distracting from classroom instruction, the costs of testing and infringements on state and district autonomy.

The task force plans a series of such meetings around the state – see the schedule here.

Categories: Urban School News

Supreme Court upholds cut in cost-of-living adjustment for PERA retirees

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 14:06

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld part of a 2010 law that made significant changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, including a reduction in the annual cost-of-living increase awarded to retirees.

Reduction in the COLA drew a lawsuit from retirees shortly after Senate Bill 10-001 was signed into law, and lower courts issued conflicting rulings on the issue. The PERA system covers all Colorado teachers and a wide variety of other state and local civil servants.

The law eliminated payments associated with cost of living in 2010 and cut retirees’ annual benefit increases from 3.5 percent to 2 percent starting in 2011. Future increases could drop below 2 percent under certain conditions. (While the increases are commonly referred to as cost of living raises, they aren’t pegged to inflation or consumer prices.)

Plaintiffs argued they had a constitutional, contractual right to the 3.5 percent annual increase.

The supreme court’s ruling said, “We hold that the PERA legislation providing for cost of living adjustments does not establish any contract between PERA and its members entitling them to perpetual receipt of the specific COLA formula in place on the date each became eligible for retirement or on the date each actually retires.”

Learn more

PERA doesn’t have an estimate for how much is saved every year by the COLA reduction. The law as a whole was projected to reduce PERA’s unfunded liability by $9 billion.

Observers of the case believed that overturning of the COLA reduction would significantly weaken the law’s ability to improve PERA’s financial health.

When the lawsuit was filed, plaintiffs estimated the COLA reduction could cost the typical retiree more than $165,000 over 20 years.

Here are the highlights of reaction to the ruling.

Rich Allen, president of Save PERA COLA, said, “Needless to say we are disappointed in the decision. It seems to us to be a major departure from the rule of law to allow a public entity to unilaterally abrogate an agreement to which they willingly and legally entered merely because they don’t feel like paying the costs anymore.” Read the full statement here.

The Coalition for Retirement Security, which represents several employee groups and which backed SB 10-001, said, “We are very thankful to the Colorado Supreme Court in upholding the changes we advocated for in Senate Bill 1. Senate Bill 1 represents shared sacrifice by retirees, employees and employers. This shared sacrifice put PERA on the track to being fully funded and today the Supreme Court upheld that sacrifice as legal.”

“Through the shared sacrifice approach recommended by the PERA board, the Colorado General Assembly responded after the Great Recession, and the Colorado Supreme Court agreed with our collaborative approach,” said Gregory W. Smith, PERA executive director.

A Denver District judge dismissed the lawsuit in June 2011, but the Colorado Court of Appeals reinstated it in October 2012 in a mixed ruling, saying PERA retirees have a contractual right to a cost-of-living adjustment but that they are not guaranteed the fixed 3.5 percent.

The state and PERA appealed that second ruling in November 2012, and the high court agreed to take the case in August 2013.

Teachers and school administrators dominate the system with more than half of the membership. There are 58,986 education retirees who received about $2 billion in benefits in 2012, an average of about $3,000 a month. The average retirement age for both School and DPS retirees is a little above 58 years old. The entire system has about 106,000 retirees.

Supreme court Justices Allison Eid and Monica Marquez didn’t participate in the case.

Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco board member: we need more guidance on open records

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:28

Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams believes some things should be kept private.

That includes some written correspondence with constituents who pull double duty as advisers and friends.

So, on Sept. 17 she emailed Loren Sheets, a Jefferson County mother and Tea Party activist who was interested in serving on a controversial curriculum review committee, “My email is under CORA so it is best to call or text me or talk through Donna Jack.”

Williams gave the same advice to at least two other individuals, according to email records. Jack is a confidant of Williams’ and has regularly addressed the school board during public comment.

“A lot of my friends and people I have been talking to, they’d like their emails kept confidential,” Williams told Chalkbeat after a recent school board meeting. “They have expressed that our communications are to be strictly confidential. That’s why I wanted them to know, if you email me, even if it’s a simple question, it’s open to CORA. I think they have a right to know that.”

Chalkbeat learned of Williams’ suggestion after obtaining dozens of emails she sent during the month of September through an open records request.

The problem with Williams’ advice is that text messages pertaining to district business sent or received by elected officials are subject to the state’s open records laws too.

But Williams didn’t know that.

That’s because she’s received no training on what’s in Colorado’s open records laws and she hasn’t independently sought legal advice on how to keep some of her records private.

But she said, “it’s something I’d like to pursue.”

Williams, along with board members Ken Witt and John Newkirk were elected in November. They ran on a platform of, among other things, expanding school choice, merit-based pay for teachers, and transparency. But since being sworn in, the three who make up the board majority have been under scrutiny by a vocal group of parents and teachers.

“I want there to be transparency, but I also sometimes need help with things,” Williams said. “Even President Obama has people help him with speech writing and messaging and standing up in front of crowds. Some of my friends, they’re my friends and they provide me feedback. And I don’t think everything we talk about should be subject to CORA.”

On Friday, Chalkbeat reported that board chairman Witt claimed he had no records of any correspondence he might have sent or received from a private email account. That’s despite Chalkbeat knowing of at least five instances he used that account.

Government agencies, including school districts, are supposed to have a policy on how to maintain and destroy public records, including those records that are only kept digitally, like email, said Steve Zansberg, a lawyer and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Jeffco Public Schools has no such explicit policy. A lawyer for the school system said she believes the district is compliant with all records laws.

Williams said board members need more training on the state’s open records laws and other district policies.

“We’re not given much information,” she said. “We’re not given any training. We’re learning as we go.”

Categories: Urban School News

Listen: PARCC executive discusses the future of standardized tests

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:23

On Friday, testing executive Laura McGiffert Slover spoke with Denver education reporters about the status and future of the PARCC exams.

Next spring, students across Colorado and a dozen other states and Washington D.C., will be the first to take the PARCC, short for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, exams.

The assessments are supposed to test for proficiency in English and math. The data will also be used to determine school rankings and teacher ratings.

The tests and the standards they are aligned too, the Common Core State Standards, have been under political fire for months in Colorado and around the nation. As sort of a compromise, the Colorado General Assembly established a task force to study the issue.

We asked McGiffert Slover to defend her exams. Here’s what she had to say about “testing madness” and much more:

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Feds reach agreement with Falcon School District 49 over racial harassment complaints

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 11:17

Transparency talks

The disappearance of a number of district-related correspondence from Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt's email raises questions about holes in transparency laws. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

moving forward

The federal justice department announced that it has reached an agreement with Falcon School District 49 to resolve complaints about the district's handling of racial harassment and discrimination in its schools. ( Gazette )

A difficult path forward

Federally-run schools for American Indian students are plagued by decrepit facilities and intense poverty. ( Denver Post )

And an Obama administration effort to improve federally-owned schools on American Indian reservations by giving tribes more control is complicated by the disrepair of many of the facilities and a long history of poor treatment of the tribes and their students. ( AP via Denver Post )

Election 2014

The Boulder Valley School District is seeking the largest K-12 capital construction bond issue in the history of the state. ( Denver Post )

privacy vs the public's right to know

The Denver Post Editorial Board cites the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition's argument that federal privacy laws do not apply to the Arapahoe High School shooter, since he is deceased and was an adult when he died. ( Denver Post )

to test or not to test

The head of the testing consortium PARCC argues that testing is an important part of learning. ( Gazette )

staying in school

The U.S. high school drop-out rate is falling, especially among Latinos -- here's a deep dive into why. ( Five Thirty Eight )

Categories: Urban School News

Weekend reads: In favor of testing, but against reading tests

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 16:55
  • “Accountability is essential and non-negotiable, and testing works. Just not in reading.” (Flypaper)
  • Pop quiz! Assess your knowledge of the two legislators who could soon head the Senate’s ed committee. (Politics K-12)
  • A new study concludes that schools are spending 2 percent of instructional time on testing. (Curriculum Matters)
  • Boyz II Men told Philadelphia students to push back against the budget cuts facing their schools. (Notebook)
  • Don’t tell teachers unions that this year’s elections are boring, because they’re spending more than ever. (TIME)
  • The latest in a series chronicling an urban classroom in Ohio highlights the challenges of tardiness. (Larry Cuban)
  • Pearson apologized for an error in one of its products that a mother publicized. (Answer Sheet)
  • On the history of the blackboard, an old-school educational tool that still works. (Slate)
  • An investigation found that a North Carolina businessman is profiting mightily from charter schools. (ProPublica)
  • An excerpt from Bob Herbert’s new book looks back at Bill Gates’ involvement in education. (Politico Mag)
  • An argument for prediction markets, instead of backwards-looking school grades, in education. (Relinquishment)
  • A new journal aims to fill education research gaps by publishing papers that detail failures. (Inside School Research)
  • Here’s a primer on John Deasy’s long-expected but still surprising resignation as L.A.’s schools chief. (Atlantic)
  • To replace Deasy for now, Los Angeles recruited twice-retired, 82-year-old Ramon Cortines. (L.A. School Report)
  • The College Board’s efforts to improve scores on exams that it designs raises big questions. (Shanker)
Categories: Urban School News

Witt’s missing emails point to possible flaws in Jeffco policy, state open records laws

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 16:00

Call it “the case of Ken Witt’s disappearing emails.”

Jefferson County school board president Witt has no official record of district-related messages that he sent or received from a private email address during the last half of September, a time when the suburban county was embroiled in a heated debate about how teachers should be paid and how U.S. history should be taught.

But a Chalkbeat investigation found several instances of official business that Witt conducted during that time using that email address.

The discrepancy was discovered after Chalkbeat submitted an open records request asking for Witt’s emails from Sept. 15 through Sept. 30 and was told by district officials and board lawyer Brad Miller that there were none from his private account.

Additionally, Chalkbeat has learned Jeffco Public Schools might not be in compliance with state open records laws because it has no explicit policy for how its employees should maintain digital records, such as email.

That no records of email correspondence discussing school business exist in Witt’s private email account raises questions about the school board president’s commitment to transparency, a value to which he has repeatedly expressed his dedication.

In total, Chalkbeat has identified five email conversations pertaining to Jeffco business that Witt participated in through his private account but that were not included in the response to the records request. It’s unclear if more official emails were exchanged during that time that should have been issued to our request.

For example, Witt has no official record, according to the results of the records request filed by Chalkbeat, of an email he received at 8:20 p.m., Sept. 20 from a constituent encouraging him and board member Julie Williams to “keep up the good and hard work.”

Nor did Chalkbeat’s request turn up an email Witt sent his fellow board members from his private account at 9:06 a.m., on Sept. 16, asking how members of the board’s advisory committee is appointed. (Witt later forwarded that email to his colleagues from his Jeffco account.)

The request also failed to yield a copy of an email sent by one of Witt’s major campaign supporters discussing how to refocus the board on achievement goals and not on a controversial proposal to establish a curriculum review committee, even though Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, told us she sent such correspondence.

“I’ve been emailing with him,” Atwell told Chalkbeat last month.

(Atwell, on Friday, told Chalkbeat she does not recall either that statement or emailing Witt during that time period. Atwell was unable to immediately review her email because she was on vacation with her family in Florida.)

And finally, the request should have yielded several exchanges with a Chalkbeat reporter discussing the future of an advanced history class offered by Jeffco Public Schools.

But Witt’s lawyer, Brad Miller, told the Jeffco official fulfilling Chalkbeat’s open records request that the board president — who has faced criticism for obscuring the board’s operations from public view — has no emails in his private accounts discussing the public’s business between Sept. 15 and Sept. 30.

“Frankly, I don’t recall what your request included,” Miller told a Chalkbeat reporter when he was asked why an email exchange with a journalist might not be disclosed as part of a Colorado Open Records Act request, or CORA. “We’ve had dozens upon dozens of requests. I’ve found Ken to be very diligent to respond every time I can tell.”

Any written correspondence to conduct public business sent or received by an elected official in Colorado, regardless of its medium or whether the device used is personal or state property, is subject to the state’s open records laws, a fact Miller said all board members know.

“I have advised the board they have an equal obligation [to disclose emails] contained in personal accounts as it pertains to district business,” Miller said Thursday by phone. “I’ve made it very clear with all five, they don’t have an excuse or an expectation of privacy.”

Witt did not return repeated requests for comment. He also declined to discuss our investigation in person at Thursday’s board meeting.

It is unclear why Witt did not turn over the email conversations Chalkbeat learned about or obtained, or if they still exist on his personal email server.

Witt’s response to Chalkbeat’s request points to what experts say is a critical flaw in the state’s open records laws: There are no statewide guidelines that dictate how an elected official is to maintain public correspondence using personal email accounts.

“It could be that the [district's] policy allows them to delete these emails very quickly,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “But it doesn’t seem very transparent.”

Witt should be following Jeffco Public School’s policy on record-keeping, said Steve Zansberg, a lawyer for the Colorado Press Association.

Witt’s response also raises questions around whether he’s fulfilling his campaign promise of transparency.

Witt, Williams, and fellow board member John Newkirk, who make up the board’s majority, ran on a platform of transparency. And in an extensive interview with Chalkbeat earlier this year, Witt used the word “transparency” more than half a dozen times.

“We have worked very hard with this board to increase transparency and to increase dialogue,” Witt said in February.

Roberts argues that if an elected official truly believes in transparency, he or she shouldn’t be conducting public business outside of official channels.

“If a public official says they’re all about transparency, why are they conducting the public’s business on a private email account in the first place?” he said. “And why are [the emails] not available for the public to review for at least some reasonable time period?”

As part of its investigation, Chalkbeat asked for all emails sent or received by Witt and fellow board members Julie Williams and Lesley Dahlkemper from both their official Jeffco Public Schools account and their private email addresses between Sept. 15 and Sept. 30.

In response, the district provided hundreds of emails sent to and received by the three board members at their official Jeffco schools account. Miller also released dozens of district-related emails — that included notes from constituents, the media, and researchers — from Williams’ private account.

No emails from Dahlkemper’s personal email address were originally provided to Chalkbeat, either.

After receiving the open records request, forwarded to her from Miller, Dahlkemper scanned her personal email account for what she thought was considered “board business,” she said during an interview.

“When I think of board business, I think of conversations with other board members, about a vote or an issue,” she said.

When given other examples of what might constitute as a public document, including conversations with constituents, conducting research, or discussing political strategy with personal advisers, Dahlkemper revisited her email box and released to Chalkbeat five emails including a notice from Facebook that she had been tagged in a status update about school business and a newsletter from a Jeffco parent.

The law
Colorado law requires government agencies to establish a policy regarding digital records. The statue, 24-72-203(1)(b) reads, in part, “Where public records are kept only in miniaturized or digital form, whether on magnetic or optical disks, tapes, microfilm, microfiche, or otherwise, the official custodian shall: (I) Adopt a policy regarding the retention, archiving, and destruction of such records.”Here’s Poudre Valley’s policy, Denver’s policy,  and the Colorado Association of School Boards authored a generic policy members can adopt.

According to lawyers Chalkbeat consulted, Colorado law requires government agencies to adopt policies regarding the retention, archiving, and destruction of digital records, including emails. But the statute provides no further guidance on what those policies should be.

The state’s archive department does provided optional guidelines to different government bodies on how long to keep documents that agencies can adopt. For example, school districts should keep routine correspondence, including email, for two years.

Only about a third of the state’s school district’s have adopted the state’s guidance. Jeffco is not one of them.

Jeffco does have some written record-keeping policies, including for personnel and student files.

But the district does not have a written policy directing staff or its board when to delete emails, said district spokeswoman Melissa Reeves. And Miller said he’s never provided counsel to any of the five board members about how to either retain or destroy emails.

Kristin Edgar, outside counsel for Jeffco Public Schools, said that while she is not familiar with all of the policies Jeffco does or does not have, she believes the district is in accordance with the law regarding how the district maintains, releases, and destroys digital records — like email — because some of the district’s records are not digital.

Zansberg said Edgar’s position is “laughable.”

The district has been without a general counsel for nearly a year.

This lack of clarity and statewide expectations has created a de facto patchwork of policies, Roberts said.

“The retention issue is problematic,” Roberts said. “There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in the law, which I think is unfortunate. There needs to be some kind of system for retaining these records — whatever that is.”

Roberts said he hopes the state’s legislature takes up the issue of records — especially electronic correspondence — retention.

The state’s archive department is working to recruit more school districts and other government agencies to adopt their guidelines, said Sabrina D’Agosta, a spokeswoman for the department.

“We’re very interested in getting as many government entities to adopt our guidelines,” she said. “It creates a solid standards from one entity to the next.”

Shawna Fritzler, a Jeffco Public Schools parent and critic of the board majority that Witt leads, said she hopes the board considers adopting the state’s archivists guidelines and complies with the law.

“You want to be more transparent than less transparent,” she said. “Clearly there are a lot of us in the district screaming about this — and we can’t get them to take it seriously.”

Witt’s disappearing emails

These are a few of the emails Chalkbeat learned about that were either sent by or received by Ken Witt via his private email account. He did not provide these documents to Chalkbeat. 

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Jury rules that Denver must pay some teachers for training time

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 08:29

the ruling is in

A jury ruled that Denver Public Schools will have to pay some teachers for time they spent in training to become certified to teach English language learners. ( Denver Post )

working out all the kinks

The results of the state's new science and social studies tests, which were supposed to be released today, will be delayed due to what state officials describe as a "small" error in the science scores. ( Gazette, 9News )

Welcome wagon

Denver Public Schools has hired Cleveland mayor's communications chief, a veteran of crisis management, for the same role for the school system. ( Denver Post )

stay in school

Local Durango community groups are joining forces to cut down on truancy. ( Durango Herald )

Election 2014

Here's a guide to the bond issue that is on the ballot in Boulder. ( Colorado Hometown Weekly )

Marcia Neal, who is running for a second term on the State Board of Education, explains her opposition to the Common Core standards and her interest in representing the state's rural schools. ( Steamboat Today )

Neal's opponent, Henry Roman, argues that policies like better early childhood education and increased school district autonomy will help schools improve access to education for everyone. ( Steamboat Today )

history lessons

A Wheat Ridge machine operator says the lesson of the uproar in Jeffco schools is that more citizens should become engaged in the political process. ( Denver Post )

looking forward, looking back

The Roaring Fork school district did slightly better than the state's average on a measure of how college-ready its 2012 graduates were. ( Post-Independent )

on track to graduate

A student service center at the Community College of Aurora is helping students make sure that they take courses that they'll be able to transfer to a four-year institution. ( Aurora Sentinel )

pera pensiveness

Conservative advocates argued that Colorado's pension program doesn't provide the incentives to attract and retain younger teachers. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )


A Colorado Springs charter school will be closed on Friday due to a problem with its pipes. ( Gazette )

Denver's North High School was placed on lockdown on Thursday after a perceived threat. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

Advocates: Pension systems a disincentive for many teachers

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 16:34

Current public employee pension systems don’t provide the right incentives to attract and retain younger teachers and need serious reform, a trio of advocates argued Thursday.

“It’s not working,” said Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners. And school district pension costs are “crowding out programs,” said Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

They joined Amanda Kocon of The New Teacher Project to speak at an event Thursday evening sponsored by the Colorado Pension Project, an advocacy effort that seeks to focus attention on what it sees as problems with teacher pensions. Chalkbeat Colorado sat down with the three earlier in the day.

Colorado’s PERA system serves not only teachers but also state employees and many higher education and local government workers. Despite a comprehensive 2010 law designed to shore up PERA by changing eligibility requirements for new employees, the pension system has remained a partisan issue.

Republican efforts to make further changes have been stopped by legislative Democrats, who want the effects of the 2010 law to play out undisturbed. The 2014 legislative session did authorize a series of new PERA studies (see story). While PERA continues to have a significant unfunded liability, its investment returns have been healthy in recent years (see story).

The group sees two key problems in the way pension systems currently are structured.

First, in most states it can take five years or more for teachers to “vest,” or become fully eligible, for pensions, meaning teachers can lose money if they leave the system before that. Colorado’s Public Employees’ Retirement Association has a five-year vesting time. Teachers who leave before that can recoup the money they put in, but money contributed by their employers stays with the system.

Some 64 percent of Colorado teachers leave within five years, according to the Pension Project.

Second, systems like PERA are structured so that the size of future benefits doesn’t begin to grow substantially until well into a teacher’s second decade of service.

Rotherham said only about 13 percent of Colorado teachers reach their full pensions.

Pension-reform advocates argue that vesting and benefit-growth methods should be changed so that teachers can receive full value from what they put into the system, earn benefits on a faster timeline and be able to carry it with them when they move on.

The three suggested a system under which current benefits for members nearing retirement would be protected, teachers in their middle years would be incentivized to sign up for different retirement products and new teachers would be under a new system.

“You simply have to find a way to honor benefits” for longer-term members of pension systems, Rotherham stressed.

The group agreed that it would take many years for pension systems to change under that scenario and for most teachers to receive what they see as better benefits. Rotherham also noted to political challenges of persuading elected officials to change pension systems.

They also acknowledged it’s hard to predict whether changing pension systems actually would incentivize more people to enter and stay in teaching.

Rotherham said research shows younger teachers are relatively indifferent to pensions as an incentive. “You’re not going to get people up in arms about pensions,” added Kocon.

The Colorado Pension Project supports many of the steps advocated by Jacobs, Kocon and Rotherham. The project is supported by the Anschutz, Donnell-Kay, Laura and John Arnold and Telluride foundations, and its membership include several organizations active in Denver education reform work.

Learn more
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Big bucks raised in preschool tax campaign

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 09:44

A new IB

Northfield High School, which will open next August in Stapleton, will offer a rare mix - an International Baccalaureate program for all students, up to half of whom may hail from low-income families. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Campaign cash

Well over a quarter of a million dollars has been raised by the campaign to pass an increase in the sales tax that supports Denver Preschool Program scholarships. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Campaign committees supporting proposed school district tax increases around the state have raised nearly $340,000, according to reports filed with the secretary of state this week. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Today's Jeffco Interrupted

Who's writing what you're reading online about the endless Jeffco schools mess? We decided to take a look at the who's who of the online players in the debate as it's unfolding. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Test anxiety

A group of top state education officials said Wednesday it aims to whittle down the number of tests students take in elementary and secondary schools by identifying and eliminating unnecessary ones. ( NPR )

Clock is ticking

Checking on progress, the Greeley school board tours a middle school that is in the fourth year of the five-year accountability clock. ( Greeley Tribune )

Progress report

Pueblo 60's new superintendent updates reporters on her first 100 days on the job. ( Pueblo Chieftain )

Education divide

Candidates in a battleground state House race displayed sharply divergent views on education during a debate. ( Durango Herald )


A consortium of Colorado leaders and educators who believe in the critical importance of early learning are using an important and provocative television broadcast to launch a movement, writes RMPBS chief Doug Price. ( Gazette )

Another A68 naysayer

Another newspaper joins the list of editorial pages urging voters to reject Amendment 68, the slots-for-schools constitutional amendment. ( Steamboat Today )

Categories: Urban School News

Big bucks raised in campaign for Denver preschool tax

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 23:17

Well over a quarter of a million dollars has been raised by the campaign to pass an increase in the sales tax that supports Denver Preschool Program scholarships.

The $277,900 dwarfs the amounts raised by even the largest-contribution campaigns for school district tax increases – see this Chalkbeat Colorado story for details on those efforts.

The Denver campaign war chest also is reminiscent of the hefty amounts donated in recent elections to pro-administration Denver Public Schools board candidates and to the effort to pass a DPS bond issue in 2010.

The list of donors to Preschool Matters also includes a lot of familiar names – corporate, philanthropic and individual – from those prior donation lists and from a variety of education reform initiatives.

For instance, the Gary Community Investment Co. kicked in $100,000 to pass the proposal, which is measure 2A on Denver ballots. (See the chart to the right and below for a full list of donors who’ve given $5,000 or more to the effort.)

The campaign’s income is expected to grow. A fundraiser was held Wednesday evening at Denver’s latest hot public space, the Great Hall at Union Station. Suggested contributions ran from $100 for a “guest” to $5,000 for a “host.”

The amount raised by Preschool Matters is a fraction of the $1 million raised – and $992,355 spent – in 2006, when the tax was approved on the third try. For all that campaign effort, the measure passed with only 50.6 percent of the vote.

The campaign so far has spent $136,822, primarily on mailers and online ads, according to Lynea Hansen of Strategies 360, the political consulting firm that has handling the campaign and that has received the bulk of committee spending.

This year’s 2A proposes to increase and extend the sales tax that funds tuition credits for families participating in the program. The measure would increase the tax from .12 to .15 percent and extend it until 2026.

Since 2007, the program has provided about $55 million in tuition credits to 31,816 four-year-olds. The credit is determined by family need and the quality of the preschool provider. The average tuition credit during the 2013-14 school year was $290. The program also conducts quality reviews and professional development for its partnered-preschool providers.

Curious about who else has contributed – and who hasn’t – to Preschool Matters? Peruse the September, August and July lists of contributors.

Categories: Urban School News

Developers, contractors, teachers union big donors in district tax campaigns

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 18:18

Campaign committees supporting proposed school district tax increases around the state have raised nearly $340,000, according to reports filed with the secretary of state this week.

The biggest donors were construction companies, bond advisors, real estate developers and education unions, who contributed more than half the $338,888 given to campaign committees in 20 districts.

Some two-dozen districts are seeking about $1.5 billion in property tax increases for construction projects and increased operating funds. (Get full details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.)

The biggest war chests have been raised by committees supporting multi-million bond issues in two rapidly growing districts, Falcon in El Paso County and Brighton in Adams County.

Significant sums also have been raised by committees backing tax proposals in the Adams 12-Five Star, Boulder Valley and Mapleton districts.

In Falcon, Citizens for District 49 has raised $85,000 and spent $62,130. About half the contributions – $40,000 – has come from an independent expenditure committee named the Committee for Colorado Education Reform. That group, in turn, has been funded by MREC Oakwood CO Ranch LLC, a partnership that is developing the Banning Lewis Ranch, a large development in the district.

The committee also has received $25,000 from Falcon Community Builders for Classrooms, a construction-industry related group, and $20,000 from Stifel Nicholaus, an investment banking company that works with school districts.

Falcon is seeking voter approval for a $107.4 million bond issue to build new schools.

In Brighton, the IAM27J committee has raised $66,668 and spent $50,173. Large contributions include $3,500 from the Brighton Education Association, $4,000 from JHL Constructors and $10,000 from Oakwood Homes. (Oakwood is a partner in the Banning Lewis Ranch development referenced above.)

The district is proposing a $148 million bond issue for new schools and other projects.

Residential development in the two districts has sparked significant enrollment growth. Falcon grew from 8,660 students in 2003 to 18,880 in 2013, rising from 19th to 14th on the list of districts as ranked by enrollment. Brighton ballooned from 8,265 to 16,698 students in the same period, rising from 21st to 16th.

Both districts have a mixed history of persuading voters to pay for new buildings to hold all those students. A $125 million Falcon bond issue failed in 2010, and the last bond to pass was $28 million in 2001.

Over the last 14 years Brighton has passed three bond issues totaling $167.4 million but lost three others totaling $241.5 million.

Fundraising in other districts

The third largest amount of money, $58,020, has been raised by Citizens for Adams 12 Schools, which is backing the district’s $220 million bond and $15 million override. The largest contributions include $20,000 from real estate company WS-ACB Development, $17,000 from Stifel Nicolaus, $10,000 from Adophson & Petersen construction company, $5,000 from the district classified employees association and $4,000 from the Colorado Education Association.

In addition to Adams 12 and Brighton, three other districts in western Adams County have tax measures on the ballot. (Get details on those and all district tax proposals in the spreadsheet at the bottom on this story.)

In Adams 14 the We Believe committee has raised $10,259 and spent $5,451. RBC Capital Markets gave $2,500.

In Mapleton the Yes for Mapleton group has raised $17,415 and spent $14,279. Major contributions include $10,000 from Mountain States Toyota, which is in the district, and a combined $4,500 from construction firm Neenan Co. and three executives.

There’s no campaign committee in Westminster, where the district is requesting a $20 million bond. (State laws bars districts from spending public money in support of ballot issues, so independent campaign committees are formed in some, but not all, districts.)

The Boulder Valley school district is proposing this year’s largest tax measure, a $576.4 million bond issue. District enrollment — 30,546 in 2013 — has grown only about 10 percent in the last decade. But district leaders say years of budget cuts and deferred maintenance require the large bond issue.

The Yes on 3A committee has raised $33,623, including donations of $4,000 from CEA, $2,000 each from two executives of Adolphson & Peterson and $1,500 from the Boulder Valley Education Association, along with a large number of smaller individual donations. The committee has spent $24,021.

Cheyenne Mountain is the only other district where a campaign committee has raised more than $10,000. All of that money has come from relatively small individual and business contributions.

Overall contributions to district campaigns fluctuate election-to-election depending mostly on how many big districts have measures on the ballot. In 2012, the most recent election with a large number of districts on the ballot, nearly $1 million had been raised by mid-October. Aurora, Cherry Creek, Denver and Jefferson County all had proposals before voters. There also were a large number of district ballot issues in 2011, but the only big district was Douglas County, and mid-October fundraising totaled only about $263,000.

The next reporting deadline is Oct. 31.

This spreadsheet includes information gathered by the Colorado School Finance Project as of Oct. 6.

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Categories: Urban School News

Northfield’s “IB for All” a dramatically new model for Denver high schools

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 17:58

On the surface, the new Northfield High School slated to open in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood next year might seem as traditional as can be — a large, comprehensive high school drawing students from the surrounding neighborhood.

But the school’s new principal, Avi Tropper, also has an audacious and unusual ambition for the school: to prove that all students — no matter their prior academic history — can thrive under the demanding International Baccalaureate course of study that’s typically targeted only to high-achievers.

Many other high schools have “de-tracked,” meaning they’ve placed all students in higher-level courses instead of tracking them into classes of varying difficulty based on their past academic performance. A few have implemented “IB for all,” in which every student spends ninth and tenth grades in rigorous preparatory classes and then transitions into the IB Diploma Program as a junior.

But Northfield may be the first school in the country to try “IB for all” with so high a proportion of low-income students.

Tropper, 34, plans to recruit at least a third of his student body from the lower-income neighborhoods of Far Northeast Denver, and an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the school’s students will likely be from low-income families, as measured by eligibility for federally subsidized school lunches.

“What Avi is trying to do will be challenging, and to be blunt it should be,” said Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who has studied de-tracking efforts nationwide. “It should be hard.”

But, said Welner, there may be a moral imperative to try.

“The reason we have so much tracking is that people say, ‘de-tracking looks too hard. I am not going de-track,’” Welner said. “But when you put kids in low track classes you give up on them.”

Northfield High School Principal Avi Tropper will be holding a series of informational meetings for parents over the next several weeks, including one Thursday Oct. 16 in Stapleton. Here are the dates, times and locations.Visit Northfield High’s Facebook page

Denver has already seen its share of resistance to the idea of making selective academic programs more inclusive. Last year, the district signaled its intention to open its well-known, 30-year-old IB program at George Washington High School, to students in its general-track program who have historically been barred from taking the more demanding courses. The move drew fierce protests from some parents, who fear that opening the program to a broader pool of students will dilute its rigor. Changes take effect next school year.

But Tropper is confident that his model will work, and he bristles at the suggestion that a student body with more low-income kids will be tougher to get over a high bar.

“I don’t believe that free- and reduced-lunch status determines whether a student can learn,” Tropper said during a recent interview. “At some level I just don’t accept the question. Underlying the question is a question I have thought a lot about, which is when you implement a program that is rigorous and challenging school-wide, how do you support every single student through it?”

PHOTO: Alan GottliebAvi Tropper

The answer, Tropper said, is relatively straightforward. Design a system where teams of teachers work closely with the same small group of students over four years. Use proven, engaging curriculum at ninth and tenth grades that ties seamlessly into the 11th and 12th IB Diploma Program. Provide a variety of extra supports for struggling students. And, perhaps most important, focus as much on the psychological well-being of students as on academics.

“Developing the ‘whole person’ is “an important part of high school, of working with adolescents,” Tropper said. “It is a time of exploration, a time of self-definition, a time to figure out who am I, what do I want to do with my life, what do I value, what’s important? Sometimes schools don’t do a good job of working with students as they explore these questions. We are focused on that.”

Will all that be enough to make Northfield work for all students?

Perhaps, but if the school truly intends to work with students at widely varying levels of academic preparation, then Tropper is taking on a huge challenge, said Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.

“If your reality is some kids doing math at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, and you are trying to run an IB program, it will take an enormous amount of energy to get those kids up to grade level, much less to an IB level,” Hess said. “That time and energy will come at expense of other kids, most likely the more prepared kids.”

Northfield will launch with some advantages, Hess said. First, the fact that the school will open with only ninth-graders makes it possible to establish a strong school culture with the founding class. Also, hiring Tropper a year before the school opens gives the principal a chance to plan, build a program, and recruit an aligned and fired-up teaching staff.

Given those advantages, Hess said, It seems likely Northfield will get off to a strong start.

Then, “as you add grades, add teachers, add kids, it just gets harder to keep the web as tightly wound,” he said. “It’s easy to imagine a story of one to two years of great success but then to see things starting to get more challenging.”

Despite Hess’ cautions, Tropper and his plans have fans among educators who have implemented “IB for all” in their schools.

“Avi’s is a wonderful experiment,”  said Carol Burris, who has gradually rolled out an “IB for all” program at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. over the past several years.

Although her school has a much lower proportion of low-income students than Northfield — about 14 percent — Burris said the way Denver Public Schools and Tropper are thinking about the school’s student composition gives it a real shot at succeeding.

“His school has a nice natural alignment of an attendance area that is predominantly upper-middle income, with lower-income kids choicing in because they have bought into the challenge and want the challenge,” Burris said. “I am so excited for him. He can count on me and the few other pioneers of ‘IB for all’ to give him support.”

Eric Hieser, who has run the Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, Mass. for 10 years, said one key to Northfield’s success will be in carefully defining what the principal, staff, and district consider success to be.

Hieser said his school (where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches) does not measure itself based on how many students pass IB exams or earn the prestigious IB diploma. Rather, he said, staff focuses on helping each student achieve at his or her highest potential. Passing IB exams and getting college credit is not nearly as important as challenging oneself and putting forth maximum effort, he said.

“You take IB (classes) so you can move on and be successful, develop analytical skills that prompt you to question everything,” he said. “If you hustle, you will be better served for having been in IB, whether you pass exams or not, than going through a 11th or 12th grade history class that has no accountability to it.”

Tropper plans to help develop these critical and analytical thinking skills in part by giving students a major say in how their school operates. Students will play key roles in designing many aspects of the school’s culture, including its dress code and discipline policies. He has enlisted the services of Project VOYCE, a Denver nonprofit, to train students in advocating for their own empowerment.

Empowering students comes with risks, but Tropper said the payoffs are potentially huge.

“Sometimes I get questions about this: ‘well, students might make mistakes.’ I like to point out that adult government makes plenty of mistakes as well,” he said. “What  happens in high school is there is a space and environment of support where yes, we might make some mistakes, but we can support each other and move beyond that. That  is critical to success for a high school.”


Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco interrupted: Who’s writing what you’re reading?

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 15:57

The first post on, a website created to track the efforts of a new school board majority who many fear will lead to radical change in their school district, was uploaded nearly a year ago on a January evening.

It reads, in part, “Specifically, we are worried about the ideological direction that they may try to take the district.”

Since then, hundreds of blog updates, links, videos, and comments have been posted on that website and several others that have sprung up. These websites, mostly critical of the Jefferson County Board of Education and its new majority, have served as part watchdog, part organizing tool, and part rumor mill.

While the motives driving the websites and their creators are clear, the identities of the individuals behind the sites and their financial backers are often not.

What’s happening in Jeffco is a smaller example of the phenomenon that’s happened all over the world of on-the-ground activism being spread and aided by online tools like WordPress and Twitter.

During a week’s worth of protests last month, students and adults panned a controversial proposal that would review an advanced history class. At the height of the protests, a hashtag “#JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory” was trending nationwide.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco interrupted 

“Social media has definitely become a player in how news is reported, but in some cases it also has a role in how news happens,” said Gil Asakawa, manager of student media at the University of Colorado-Boulder and an expert on social media. “Social media, because it gathers together all these voices of like mind, it can actually facilitate an event, like a protest. It happened in Iran during the elections there four years ago, and it has happened pretty much anywhere there’s a big policy protest.”

Both journalists and consumers of online media need to be wary.

“The accuracy of stuff that is out there in social media, well, you have to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt because of how easy it is to say whatever you want,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the consumer, public to question everything and decide what sources you can trust.”

With promise of more websites and advocacy organizations to come, Chalkbeat Colorado decided to take a look at the who’s who of the online players in the debate as it’s unfolding.

Support Jeffco Kids

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: February 2014
Founded by: Jeffco parents Shawna Fritzler and Jonna Levine. Fritzler has held many voluntary positions in the district, including serving as chair of the Strategic Planning and Advisory Council. Levine previously served on the district’s budget development committee.
Claim to fame: Support Jeffco Kids has a large library of videos, produced by another organization called Transparency Jeffco, from previous board meetings. The videos capture on film some of the board’s most controversial movements, giving viewers a sense of the tense atmosphere at board meetings. But, viewers should be aware, the videos are edited and are sometimes accompanied by commentary.
FYI: Support Jeffco Kids is a social welfare nonprofit that claims tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code. Unlike other nonprofits, these organizations are allowed to endorse candidates and donate to candidates.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @supportJeffkids, and is on Facebook.

Position: Anti-teachers union
Founded: September 2014
Founded by: Unknown
Claim to fame: JeffcoTruth launched during a week of student walkouts with two videos. The videos intend to blame the Jefferson County Education Association for the student walkouts. In one video, a compilation of student interviews, the organization tries to reclaim the narrative of the curriculum review committee by attempting to discredit the students’ motives and highlighting the school board’s duty to review curriculum. Like some of the Support Jeffco Kids videos, the JeffcoTruth reels have a clear agenda. Unlike the Support Jeffco Kids video, they have a killer soundtrack featuring the ominous attack-ad themed music.
FYI: Rumors have circled across Jefferson County about who exactly is behind the website. Some point to local conservatives. Others suggest out-of-state money is behind the effort.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @JeffcoTruths, and is on Facebook.

Stand Up For All Students

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: Spring 2014
Founded by: Jefferson County Education Association
Claim to fame: More than anything, Stand Up has been more of a social movement and brand than a just website. The organization has launched and maintained a successful hashtag on Twitter, #standup4kids,” and “IRL” will begin to sell T-shirts. Other organizations have adopted similar branding. Stand Up has also led the organizing behind three countywide protests, including two along Wadsworth Boulevard that stretches 30 miles.
FYI: Critics of the union claim that rather than basing their arguments on fact, they’re using their outsized might and “field-tested” talking points of secrecy, waste, and disrespect to win emotional support. A union spokesman told Chalkbeat the union hasn’t polled on any language.
Social media: No official Twitter of Facebook presence. Advocates are encouraged to tweet with the hashtag “#standup4kids.”

JeffCo School Board Watch

Position: Anti-board majority
Founded: January 2014
Founded by: Unknown
Claim to fame: No other website spooks supporters of the board majority like JCSBW, short for JeffCo School Board Watch. Some believe it’s backed by local Democrats. But sources close to the organization and those who claim to have interacted with the organization say that’s not true. Perhaps JCSBW’s signature post is this breakdown of all the elements of a recall effort.
FYI: If you’re looking for shortcuts to specific pages on the actual Jeffco Public Schools website, JSBW is a great place to start. It has links to meeting agendas, school ratings, and email addresses for board members.
Social media: The group has a Twitter handle, @JCSBW.

Other organizations and resources

Before there was a new board majority, there was already an active online ecosystem surrounding Jeffco Public Schools. Here is a look at a couple of additional players who have continued to play an active role as the politics have intensified.

Jeffco Students First

Founded in 2011, Jeffco Students First has been leading the charge for education reform ever since. In 2013, the nonprofit’s political arm Jeffco Students First Action supported the candidates who now make up the board majority and has continued to do so. Its website features talking points and blog posts that generally back up — and sometimes elaborates — the reasons board majority’s thinking. Jeffco Students First also distributes the Jeffco Observer, an education only publication. The organization has a Facebook page and Twitter handle, @JCStudentsFirst.

Jeffco PTA

This isn’t your mother’s PTA bake sale. One of the organizations most critical of the board majority has been the Jeffco Parents and Teachers Assocation. Led by Michele Patterson, the Jeffco PTA is a regular at board meetings and played a role in several of the countywide protests. When not acting like a watchdog, the organizations help recruit parents to volunteer on a number of school committees. It has a Facebook page and Twitter handle, @JeffcoPTA.

Categories: Urban School News

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