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Updated: 31 min 49 sec ago

Rise & Shine: Boulder Valley district and three Colorado schools recognized for green practices

4 hours 36 min ago

working out the details

A showdown over the Student Success Act's education finance plan was delayed while key players continue to negotiate over amendments. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

classroom discipline

A new report faults Denver Public Schools for large racial disparities in its discipline policy enforcement. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

greening schools

Boulder Valley School District was one of nine in the country to receive a U.S. Department of Education sustainability award. ( Daily Camera )

A Fort Collins middle school and elementary schools in Larkspur and Cortez were also recognized as being particularly green. ( Coloradoan )

guns in schools

A new poll reports that about half of Colorado voters support allowing teachers and education officials to carry guns in schools. ( Denver Post )

the smallest students

Now that Boulder Valley has completed its preschool access expansion project, it is shifting its focus to ensuring consistency in early childhood instruction. ( Daily Camera )

top of the class

U.S. News and World Report released its annual high school rankings, and 88 Colorado schools made the top list. ( Denver Post )

And the magazine named Lafayette's Peak to Peak Charter School the top high school in the state. ( Daily Camera )

searching for a home

The Poudre School District Board of Education gave Fort Collins Montessori School more time to find permanent facilities. ( Coloradoan )

reaching out

Roughly 1,200 people came to a bone marrow drive to see if they could help a third-grader with leukemia in Falcon Valley School District 49. ( Gazette )

pot for schools

A new budget plan would use $23 million of Colorado's marijuana tax revenue on school nurses and drug treatment and outreach. ( 9News )

Categories: Urban School News

Success Act negotiations get more time

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 21:11

A showdown over contentious parts of the Student Success Act didn’t materialize Tuesday after Sen. Mike Johnston, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, delayed action on the bill, saying, “We have some work to do on amendments.”

The Denver Democrat, who’s also a prime sponsor of House Bill 14-1292, raised some hackles last Thursday when he successfully argued to have the Senate Education Committee send the measure to finance rather than directly to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Johnston was on the losing side of key amendment votes in education, and some school district lobbyists feared he would strip those amendments in finance, where he and two Democratic allies have a majority. (See this story for details of last week’s meeting and background on the long fight over the bill. And get details in this legislative staff summary.)

Johnston mentioned that he needs to work with Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who teamed up with three Republicans in Senate Education to pass the amendments Johnston opposed.

Those amendments increased to $120 million the funding that would be devoted to buying down the state’s $1.04 billion K-12 funding shortfall (the so-called negative factor), reduce a proposed $20 million increase for early literacy programs to $10 million, cut a proposed study of enrollment counting methods and eliminate funding for a proposed state website that would link users to information about district and school spending. Instead, districts would post that data on their own websites.

The hot-button issues are early literacy funding and financial transparency. Senate Finance next meets on Thursday morning, and people involved in the negotiations expect amendments to roll the negative factor reduction back to $110 million and to restore the early literacy funding.

The shape of a possible financial transparency compromise is less clear.

Henry Sobanet, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget director, made a rare appearance at the finance hearing, politely urging some sort of statewide financial reporting system.

“I think there is a cheaper way forward” to create a transparency website than was proposed in the original version of HB 14-1292. “Moving toward visibility we think is a good thing,” Sobanet said.

Transparency has become the surprise sticking point in the Student Success debate. School districts have opposed the mandate, arguing that they already provide substantial financial information for the public and that a new system would impose costs and administrative burdens they don’t need.

The sponsors, Hickenlooper and education reform interest groups have pushed for more transparency, especially at the school level, and for common data reporting among districts.

The dispute has been intense enough that it’s created hard feelings between sponsors and some district lobbyists.

(There are subtexts to the transparency debate as well. Reform interest groups think school-level data will shed light on whether schools with high at-risk populations get enough money. Charter interests want more detailed information on special education funding because they suspect districts don’t give them enough. And some Republican lawmakers hope more detailed financial information would highlight pension costs.)

Senate Finance did vote 3-2 to pass House Bill 14-1298, a companion measure known as the School Finance Act.

The committee left untouched Senate Education amendments that removed House restrictions on use of $17 million in at-risk early childhood funding and that modestly increased funding for full-day kindergarten. The bill still includes $30.5 million in additional funding for English language learner programs. Senate Education moved that funding to a separate account that won’t be subject to the automatic annual increases required by the constitution for some types of school funding.

Sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, indicated he may have amendments to HB 14-1298 in the appropriations committee or on the floor. (Get more details on other provisions of the bill in this legislative staff summary.)

Categories: Urban School News

Improving teacher quality through licensing

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 14:00

As Colorado considers policy improvements that will better ensure a quality teacher in every classroom, a necessary part of the conversation is determining how paths will be created into the classroom and rethinking teacher licensing.

As members of the Professional Association of Colorado Educator’s (PACE) Teacher Licensure Committee, we spent the last six months meeting with a diverse group of educators to explore possible recommendations to improve teacher quality through the licensure process in Colorado.

In addition, PACE surveyed classroom teachers and published a report that included both the recommendations of our committee, as well as the survey data from other experienced teachers. As stakeholders on the front lines, we believe that classroom teachers are uniquely equipped to provide invaluable input in education policy conversations. We want to see our profession advanced more than any outside stakeholders.

Currently, the dialogue about changing teacher licensure is usually focused on two seemingly opposite points of view. One side believes that the process for receiving a license should be loosened, allowing for a larger and more diverse pool of potential teachers. The other side argues that the bar should be raised, restricting access to the teaching profession by making it more difficult to gain a teaching license.

We know we all want an excellent teacher in front of every student in Colorado, but how do we ensure a process that both increases the talent in the teacher application pool and raises the bar for the teaching profession?

The unanimous response from the teachers on our committee was that doing both is possible. We must reduce any artificial, “box-checking” barriers for entry into the profession on the front end. This would open the teacher applicant pool to more potentially talented teachers who might be mid-career changers, retirees from other professions, or those that are new college graduates who majored in subjects other than education.

Currently, too many gifted professionals are discouraged from teaching because they can’t check the boxes needed for an initial teaching license.

This is not to say that anyone and everyone should simply be allowed to become a teacher without any accountability. You cannot identify teacher quality based on a teacher’s licensing application alone. Teaching quality can only be identified once that individual enters a class room and starts to teach.

Therefore, we recommend that every teaching candidate should be required to satisfactorily complete a paid apprenticeship or residency under the daily mentorship of a proven educator before they are granted a professional license to teach a classroom on their own. There is much more to teaching than a demonstration of content knowledge, or even a knowledge of pedagogy. Teacher quality must be demonstrated in a room full of students.

We wouldn’t drop our car off with a brand new mechanic, unless we knew there was someone more experienced working by his side, and we certainly wouldn’t agree to a surgery performed by a doctor who’d never done the operation before without guidance. Unless there is a proven mentor working closely with a new teacher, we should not expect Colorado’s parents to leave their kids in that new teacher’s classroom.

In addition to these recommendations for improving the way we license teachers on the front end, our committee also recommended developing a more automated process for great teachers to have their license renewed. The survey results showed that 88% of teachers support making it easier for effective teachers to renew their license. Renewing a license should not be cumbersome or considered a regulatory nightmare by teachers.

The final recommendation is to create a tiered system of licenses in which a teacher can attain different roles. There are many roles for a teacher to consider in the profession. Such licenses would allow teachers to develop in their profession and give them goals for which they could strive, including the role a mentor teacher for new teachers entering the field.

While there is much debate about finding ways to retain good teachers and remove bad teachers from classrooms, we encourage policymakers to consider a better system for attracting talented teachers and screening out poor-performing teachers before they are allowed to teach a class on their own. We can work together to create a system that balances the needs of our schools with advancing the professionalism of our educators.

Categories: Urban School News

Fewer expulsions but huge racial disparities in Denver’s discipline numbers

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 13:01

Denver Public School’s disciplinary actions overwhelming target students of color, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report was produced by Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a local advocacy organization focused on school reform and eliminating racial inequities in education. The group examined the district’s rates of expulsion, suspension and law enforcement referral, with an eye on strategies to end the school-to-jail pipeline.

The report gives DPS an overall grade of C for its disciplinary practices and a D- for the huge differences between the disciplinary actions taken against students of color as compared with their white peers.

Denver ranks last among the state’s 20 largest districts for racial disparities in disciplinary actions, the group reported. The report notes that that disparities stand even when disability and family income are accounted for.

The district fared better on other measures, including rates of expulsion. Still, black students were over seven times more likely to be expelled than their white peers and Latino students were almost twice as likely.

The district’s lowest grade on the report was an F for how well parents and students know their rights. Padres found that few parents were aware their students could receive school work during suspensions, or even that students and parents could appeal suspensions.

To see the full report in English, see here. The report is available in Spanish here.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Drilling plan near elementary school withdrawn

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 08:59

On the Capitol

A bill that would change regulations on online education received a chilly reception in the House yesterday. Lawmakers are rushing through a smorgasbord of bills before the end of the session on May 7th. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Meanwhile, the debate over the proposed education budget is still simmering. One lawmaker says it's a win for women and girls. ( Huffington Post )

And one writer says a higher education funding plan doesn't go far enough. ( Denver Post )

Like oil and water

An industry proposal to drill 19 wells near a Greeley elementary school received such vehement backlash from the community that officials withdrew the plan. ( Denver Post )

The wheels on the bus go round and round

After a car crashed into a school bus so hard it wedged itself under the back of the bus, the bus driver took a moment to drive home school bus safety. ( 9News )

Keeping a close eye

After expanding its preschool program, Boulder Valley School District is forming a task force to make sure the standards for the program are high and implemented well. ( Daily Camera )

Star students

The Gazette recognized 20 Pikes Peak region seniors in their annual "Best and Brightest" list. ( Gazette )

And now we wait

Pueblo's school board reviewed 23 applicants for the superintendent position. The list of finalists is expected next week. ( Chieftain )

Earth education

Montrose and Olathe students took the opportunity to learn about their environment yesterday as part of Earth Day celebrations. ( Montrose Press )

Categories: Urban School News

Online bill has rocky outing in House Education

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 21:23

Proposed changes in state law governing multi-district online schools got generally bad reviews from witnesses at a committee hearing Monday, and a vote on House Bill 14-1382 was delayed so its sponsors can work up some amendments.

The bill was one of 10 bills on a House Education Committee calendar that was an odd mix of big bills, relatively routine measures, a couple of new ideas and bills that have no chance of passage but are being kept alive out of courtesy.

Those sorts of long mixed-bag calendars become increasingly common as committees race to finish their work before the legislature’s May 7 adjournment deadline.

Controversial

House Bill 14-1382 proposes to update the definition of online education in state law, make changes in how online enrollment is counted, require school districts to more promptly transfer student records to online schools and to create pilot programs to test innovations in online education. (Read bill summary here.)

Its most controversial recommendation is to have the Department of Education set standards for districts that authorize multi-district online programs, rather than certify online programs themselves and then let districts supervise them, as is the case now.

The bill was developed by a bipartisan group of four lawmakers based partly on the recommendations of a task force they convened in late January and that issued its recommendations in late March (see story).

The bill drew plenty of criticism Monday from witnesses, including representatives of the for-profit online company K12 Inc., the Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families. GOAL Academy and even some members of the task force itself.

The major complaints were that the task force wasn’t fully representative of the online community, that switching CDE’s role in multi-district online schools would be disruptive for schools and that there’s not enough time left in the 2014 session to handle such a complex topic.

After an hour of testimony, House Education chair Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, huddled with the House sponsors, Democrat Dave Young of Greeley and Republican Jim Wilson of Salida. After a brief break, she announced the bill would be laid over to allow the sponsors to work on amendments.

They’ll have to work fast, as the legislature has to adjourn two weeks from Wednesday.

Something new

A new bill that could provide more scholarship money and college counseling for Colorado students passed the committee 11-1.

House Bill 14-1384 would create a program call the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative to scholarships and other forms of assistance to Colorado students starting in 2016. The bill is focused on students who are eligible for federal Pell grants and students whose household incomes are 100 to 250 percent above Pell requirements.

The bill, partly based on the structure of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, also would provide college counseling service to high school students. The program would initially be funded by an infusion of $33 million that’s been hanging around in the Department of Higher Education since a 2010 law required the College Invest program to sell off its portfolio of students loans. The bill also envisions future state appropriations and private grants as funding sources for the loans. (Get more details in this legislative staff summary.)

One big bill

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia made a cameo appearance to testify in favor of Senate Bill 14-001, and the committee voted 10-2 to advance the measure. This is the so-called College Affordability Act, which would increase higher education funding by $100 million in 2014-15 and put a 6 percent cap on tuition increases next year.

The measure hasn’t been controversial, but it represents a significant increase for colleges and universities after years of cuts, and it is being promoted by legislative Democrats as a good-news election year measure.

(This year’s other big higher education measure, 59-3 – House Bill 14-1319, received final 59-3 final passage on the House floor Monday morning. This is the bill that would create a new method for allocating funding among colleges and universities, partly based on institutional performance, starting in 2015-16.)

Counselors and closures

The committee voted 7-4 to advance Senate Bill 14-150, which would add $5 million in funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps program (doubling the funding) as well as expand the number of schools eligible for grants, which are used to train existing counselors and hire additional ones. (See this legislative staff summary for details on the bill and this CDE report for program information.)

House Bill 14-1381 passed with an 8-4 committee vote. This measure would establish requirements for public communications, timetables and student reassignment procedures in the closure plans for schools that are to be shut down for low academic achievement.

Doomed courtesy bills

Republicans introduced a package of education-related bills early in the session, most of them proposing to resurrect various portions of last year’s Senate Bill 13-213, which didn’t go into effect. Variations of those proposals related to English language learners, charter facilities funding, district financial transparency, kindergarten funding and enrollment counting have been incorporated into two other measures, House Bills 14-1292 and 1298. Those are pending in the Senate and are surrounded by a bit of uncertainty and controversy (see story).

Because of that, four of the GOP bills were laid over by House Education until after the Senate acts on those bills, kind of delaying the inevitable as a courtesy to their sponsors.

But one measure, House Bill 14-1212, was postponed indefinitely at the request of Wilson, its sponsor. It would have provided state funding for all full-day kindergarten programs.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to texts of bills mentioned in this story plus other information. The Tracker includes all education-related bills introduced this year.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Missing data leaves teachers in the dark when it comes to evaluations

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 09:59

Trust issues

Some parents and community members in southeast Denver are suspicious of the district's intentions for a new elementary school, despite the Denver Public Schools repeated claims of transparency. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

evaluating the evaluations

As the school year winds down, teachers across Colorado are left wondering what data — if any — will be used in their first state-mandated evaluations. ( Denver Post )

Part of the 2010 law that created Colorado's teacher evaluation policies is the now legally-challenged "mutual consent" statute. Some teachers are suing DPS for alleged abuse of the law. Other teachers say it simply isn't true. ( Westword )

New standards

At a Pueblo charter school, teaching literacy doesn't look that much different despite an early adoption of the Colorado Academic Standards. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

A home in any other language

For some 400 English language learning families, understanding a new language isn't just a skill, it's a step toward a new culture and acceptance. ( Fort Collins Coloradoan )

Digital School

Electronic tablets are making classrooms more engaging, according to teachers at a St. Vrain Valley school. And more are on the way for the school district. ( Longmont Times-Call )

Tragedy's impact

Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis marked the 15th anniversary of the school's shooting tragedy Sunday — his last as principal. ( 9News )

Survivors elsewhere are finding their purpose 15 years later. ( USA Today via Detroit Free Press )

Bus(ted)

One person was hurt during an auto accident involving a DPS bus. The school bus driver was later cleared of any wrong doing. ( KDVR, CBS Denver )

Monkey Bars

Boulder's University Hill Elementary School playground is getting a $100,000 makeover. ( Daily Camera )

Two cents

Colorado's new standards and assessments are a step toward creating an education we can all be proud of, opines a Denver parent. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

There is no more important investment we can make than the safety of our children, write leaders from both parties in the Colorado Senate. That's why they're excited to see the governor sign legislation that will fund a hotline intended to prevent violence on campuses. ( Denver Post )

A law that would establish more transparency for school funding isn't strong enough, suggests a conservative think tank leader. ( Denver Post )

Transparency talks

One man's complaint has raised questions about transparency for the Ridgeway School District School board. ( Ouray News )

Categories: Urban School News

At Pueblo charter school, teaching literacy hasn’t changed much with new standards

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 08:45

The end of a three week unit on characters, plots, and themes is near in Leslie Fitzgerald’s eighth grade reading class at the Pueblo School of Arts and Sciences. On Thursday students began reading their last short story, “With Bert and Ray, told by William,” in a collection Throwing Shadows by E.L. Konigsburg.

The charter school class is using the anthology of short stories to understand the most basic literary techniques. These lessons may seem strikingly similar to lessons of yesteryear, even though this is the first year schools are supposed to be teaching to a new set of standards. For some Colorado districts, the new standards have meant a complete instructional overhaul.

But at this Pueblo arts and sciences school, teachers began exploring the standards in 2010 and found that in most subjects they had to make only slight shifts, said Natalie Allen, head of school.

Fitzgerald’s students are a bit excited after returning from a districtwide choir competition. As they tumble into their seats and unpack their shared tubs of books, reading journals, and workbooks, Fitzgerald reads aloud to them. The story of “Bert and Ray” begins with the narrator explaining his family’s current plight: His father has died of alcoholism and his mother, known as “Ma,” has been left with plenty of debt, including two months of dentist bills.

Fitzgerald usually begins the group reading aloud, she said after the lesson. “I want the students to hear fluent reading.” It also helps ensure that all students are in the same place when the class breaks for discussion. And it doesn’t take Fitzgerald long before she’s prodding her students about unfamiliar vocabulary words and themes.

To pay off the dentist bills, William tells the readers, Ma has decided to have a garage sale. William’s father was a bit of a pack rat and collected guns and other hunting paraphernalia including duck decoys. Fitzgerald stops to ask her students if they know anyone like William’s father. Does anyone in your family collect obscure objects? The students nod and Fitzgerald shares her own experience of a family member collecting hundreds of National Geographic magazines.

A common reading instruction technique is to ask students to connect the text they’re reading to their own personal lives. However, Fitzgerald says, part of an instructional shift aligned to the new Colorado Academic Standards requires students to go beyond personal connections and connect what they read to other texts. She does this next.

As the story continues, Ma has priced all the items and opened her home to buyers. Among her first customers is a pair of antique collectors, Bert and Ray. The collectors offer Ma exactly what she asked for the decoy ducks and are quickly on their way. Bert and Ray tell Ma to invite them back whenever she has another sale — they’ll be there.

Fitzgerald stops again to ask her students what that might mean. Several students suggest Ma might have priced the decoys too low. Fitzgerald affirms their inferences. Despite devaluing the decoy ducks, Ma and William make enough money to pay off their dentist bills and get more work done.

One day, on their way home from the dentist, William recognizes Bert and Ray’s shop by a sign hanging outside. The sign includes the word “proprietor,” which Fitzgerald stops to quiz the class on. “What does proprietor mean?” she asks the class. One student suggests it means “expert.” That’s a good guess, Fitzgerald said, but not quite. “What other clues from the text might be useful?”

Prepackaged vocabulary tests, as part of the Success For All literacy curriculum the school uses, have become increasingly more complex, Fitzgerald said after the lesson. In earlier editions of the program, students might have been asked to choose words from a bank to fill in sentences. Now, they might have to come up with a word on their own or find words being misused in sentences. The vocabulary tests are now three times as long.

William suggests he and his mother visit Bert and Ray, as the collectors had instructed them to do if they were ever near the shop. But Ma doesn’t want to. She believes it’s rude to “pay a call unexpected.” Fitzgerald stops here, after reading aloud for 15 minutes. What does that tell you about Ma, she asks? How does she compare to other adults in the previous short stories we’ve read, asks Fitzgerald?

Critics of Colorado’s new standards have often criticized what they say is an emphasis on shorter stories and non-fictional texts, as opposed to longer classic novels. But Fitzgerald said she has used novels and short stories interchangeably for years. She said using short stories makes it easier for students to draw comparisons and contrast themes and symbols as they begin exploring those literary devices.

After a brief discussion on Ma, Fitzgerald asks her students to stop and predict what will happen when William and Ma enter Bert and Ray’s shop. She also assigns the majority of what’s left in the short story, pages 122-136, for partner reading. It might seem like a lot for independent and partner reading, she said, but she assures her students they can do it. Her students will have a unit test next week.

Categories: Urban School News

Process to select new elementary school sparks controversy

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 15:42

Accusations of inadequate transparency have tarnished Denver Public Schools’ efforts to select a school operator for a controversial new southeast campus.

The planned elementary school at Hampden Heights, where construction started in January, has for months been at the center of public disputes between neighbors and DPS, including a lawsuit over land acquisition scheduled to be argued in Denver District Court in May. Three applicants — charter school Rocky Mountain Prep, an expeditionary learning school, and a traditional neighborhood school — are vying to occupy the new campus.  The Denver school board will pick the winner in June.

But some area residents accuse the district of having settled on the Rocky Mountain Prep charter, before the community has a chance to provide input and an official process can take place. It’s an accusation school district officials have been quick to counter, saying DPS systems for selecting new schools have been overhauled to remove any possibility of favoritism.

Improving transparency

But charges of sham transparency have proved difficult for the district to counter. Most recently, the district has faced controversy over a new high school in Stapleton. And recent years have seen conflict over new schools at the North and West High School campuses and in the Far Northeast. Debates across the city have been punctuated by accusations against the district of insufficient communication and favoritism for charter networks.

But district officials say they have recently transformed the process for selecting new schools and identifying facilities for them.

“We’ve worked pretty hard in the past year to get clearer and clearer about facilities decisions,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief of innovation.

As for the accusations that the district had already selected Rocky Mountain Prep for Hampden Heights, Whitehead-Bust said that the new procedures the district has implemented make that impossible.

“I can assure you a decision hasn’t been made,” said Whitehead-Bust. She said each application was scrutinized by eight to 10 reviewers, who include district staffers as well as independent financial experts, parents, and others. “There’s no way there could be a predetermined outcome because there are so many people involved. They have to come to consensus. They interview the applicants and the board, in the case of charter schools.”

She cited praise of the district’s procedures from national groups, including the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

“We’re known nationally for the quality and integrity of the process around our new schools,” said Whitehead-Bust. “We are held up as an exemplar for transparency processes.”

Misunderstandings and mistrust

Still, the perception at Hampden Heights lingers that Rocky Mountain Prep, a high-structure charter school, is a shoo-in for the campus.

“My prediction is it’s going to be Rocky Mountain Prep,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous because she was employed by the district. Her preferred school was the district-run school, as was the case for several other parents. But, she said, “our school board member loves [James Cryan, the school’s founder].”

Other parents and community members echoed her sentiment, saying that Rocky Mountain Prep appeared to be the district’s favored applicant.

And the charter’s own actions may have exacerbated those feelings. The school recently posted a job listing for a “Founding School Leader: Hampden Heights Campus.” They have since changed it to the more generic “Founding School Leader: Second Campus” (an archived copy of the original posting is available here).

Also, current and prospective Rocky Mountain Prep parents and students showed up en masse to the last community meeting in t-shirts emblazoned with the charter’s logo.

But Rocky Mountain Prep’s leaders say that if something’s been decided, they haven’t heard. And the posting went up, they said,  to ensure they have a strong leader if they do get approved.

“The most important part of [our planning] process is identifying and selecting an amazing school leader at least one year before the school opens,” said Cryan, the school’s founder and CEO. “This allows for a rigorous residency year and the thoughtful planning necessary to open an amazing school.”

And some say the politicized environment surrounding Hampden Heights, where the district has already battled accusations of back room dealings over the acquisition of the land, is the real reason for the lingering suspicions.

“Hampden Heights has been in a political realm since the idea [for a new school] came around,” said school board member Anne Rowe, who represents southeast Denver. “That may be part of it.”

Categories: Urban School News

The type of education we should all expect

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 14:00

Colorado’s public schools are not delivering the type of quality education that we should expect, and the onus is on all of us – parents, teachers, school administrators, public officials, and average Coloradoans alike – to make necessary changes.

As a proud mother of three school-aged children in the northeast Denver community, I have a personal stake in ensuring that my children receive a quality education that prepares them for their futures. But I also believe that a quality education is a right of all students – and that Colorado needs to band together to cause necessary changes to our education system.

The Colorado Academic Standards along with their aligned assessments are the next steps in bringing about the necessary changes to every school in Colorado, from the Denver metro area to the rural plains. These new, rigorous standards – which are aligned in math and literacy to the Common Core State Standards – are more comprehensive and offer a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what our kids need to know to be prepared for college and careers. But it’s not enough to just raise the bar — the new, aligned assessments will help us prove it.

I was not given access to a quality education, and I have felt the consequences my whole life. I was a hard-working student and graduated at the top of my Denver high school class. After turning my tassel, I was eager and ambitious to move forward in my life journey, confident that my years in school had prepared me for my future. Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening.

I later learned that my high school was classified as a “failing school.” Even though I carried a 4.3 GPA, colleges and employers repeatedly told me that I was not considered a strong applicant because the education I had received did not meet their expectations. I was set behind in life through no fault of my own. My story is not uncommon – only 42 percent of Colorado’s eighth graders are judged proficient in math, and only 40 percent are proficient in reading.

Fortunately, the Colorado Academic Standards have been developed to address this pressing issue. These standards establish a set of clear, consistent guidelines for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, affording them the opportunity to compete with their peers around the world. These expectations do not tell teachers what to teach in their classroom, only what skills a student should know in each subject at each grade level. The aligned PARCC assessments will help teachers know whether or not students are meeting those expectations so they can correct course. That will help us make sure that no more Coloradans who receive a diploma will face the uphill climb I did.

The Colorado Academic Standards and PARCC assessments will give me and other parents across the state the confidence that our children will have the educational foundation they need to not only move up to the next grade level, but be fierce competitors for the jobs of tomorrow. And it isn’t just parents who support these standards – 70 percent of Colorado teachers are enthusiastic about the implementation of these higher standards. Parents and teachers know what’s best for our kids — rigorous expectations coupled with high quality measurement of whether our students are meeting the bar.

Had my high school been held to the same expectations and been able to measure our progress against other schools, I would not have struggled for so many years. These new standards and assessments are a step to fix this problem. Because our state is setting the bar higher for all kids– no matter where they live or what their circumstances are –graduates will no longer suffer the way I did.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Teachers oppose union’s mutual consent lawsuit

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 09:35

On the Capitol

A last minute legislative committee assignment added a layer of intrigue to the debate over the school finance bill which has shaped this year's discussion of education issues. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

But a higher education bill to pump up performance funding for schools floated through the House. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Teachers speak out

Not every teacher agrees that Denver's practice of mutual consent, under fire from the union, is being used to push out good teachers. Hear from some who disagree with the union's lawsuit. ( Westword )

Mogul money

Billionaire John Malone announced plans to double his investment -- to $14 million -- in charter school network DSST. ( Denver Post, 9News )

Testing anxiety

Teachers worry about how the time they have with students -- already tight, they feel -- will be impacted by new state tests. ( 9News )

For many schools, these weeks are filled with piloting the new tests, which are administered online and have proved somewhat buggy. ( Daily Camera )

College dreamin'

For one student with a hard knocks story, a passion for languages earned him multiple scholarships and a shot at college. ( Sentinel )

Superintendent speaks

Pueblo's superintendent Maggie Lopez says four years ago, the district's systems were out of whack; she identified them and brought them into alignment. The district is nearing the end of the clock for improving its performance or facing state intervention. ( Chieftain )

23 candidates are now vying for her position. She is leaving at the end of the school year. ( Chieftain )

Cut to the bone

Montezuma-Cortez school district is facing the prospect of a quarter million in cuts to programs and positions. In years past, said the superintendent, cuts have hit failed programs but that the cuts can hurt achievement. ( Cortez Journal )

Meanwhile, a small rural district on the eastern plains, Holyoke, is pushing to extend its mill levy override, which it says has compensated for state cuts. ( Holyoke Enterprise )

But that doesn't mean the district is ok with the cuts. Holyoke's school board voted to join a class action lawsuit demanding the state look at how it funds schools. ( Holyoke Enterprise )

Categories: Urban School News

Higher ed funding bill has easy time in House

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 00:06

It’s nice to be speaker of the House, even when you’re a lame duck.

The House Thursday gave easy preliminary approval to Speaker Mark Ferrandino’s proposal to inject a little performance funding into the budgets of Colorado colleges and universities.

The House passed the bill on a preliminary voice vote after only 12 minutes of discussion – mostly by Ferrandino – as it worked through a long evening calendar.

The bill sent ripples of apprehension through the higher education establishment when it was introduced in March (see story) and raised questions about creating winners and losers among universities and colleges, disrupting current initiatives of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and about whether the bill really proposed significant change.

But the Denver Democrat extensively reworked the bill after consulting with the higher ed lobby and executives, and nobody raised a peep about the bill on the House floor Thursday.

Starting in the 2015-16 budget year, the bill would require that 52.5 percent of state higher education funding be funneled through the College Opportunity fund tuition discounts for resident undergraduate students. The remaining funding, know in higher ed jargon as “fee for service,” would be allocated to institutions based on their roles and missions, graduations rates and student retention and on additional criteria to be developed by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

The bill also contains special provisions for the funding of professional programs such as medical and veterinary education and for specialized programs such as local district junior colleges and vocational schools.

The measure also contains provisions for suspension of its requirements if state funding declines dramatically, which has happened in the past to higher education.

Ferrandino has 24 House sponsors on the bill, including 13 Republicans. (There also are 17 Senate sponsors, including 10 Republicans.)

That may account for the lack of debate. “Almost half of you are cosponsors on this bill. Just remember when you’re voting,” Ferrandino said Thursday, urging passage of the bill.

Categories: Urban School News

School finance fight takes on new intensity

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 23:42

Sen. Mike Johnston Thursday night lost key parts of his Student Success Act to a bipartisan coalition in the Senate Education Committee, but he may have a chance to recover because House Bill 14-1292 now heads next to Senate Finance – which the Denver Democrat chairs.

Thursday’s developments added a new element of intrigue to the months-long tug of war over how much money to spend on reducing the state’s $1.04 billion school funding shortfall and how much to use for targeted programs like early literacy and services for English language learners.

A coalition of mainline education interests – school boards, administrators and teachers – has mounted a tireless campaign to reduce the shortfall (called the “negative factor” in statehouse lingo) and to resist targeted funding.

That lobbying paid off in the House, which increased the negative factor buy-down and watered down other elements of the bill.

Senate Education continued that process Thursday, voting for amendments that added to the negative factor reduction, further loosened the bill’s financial transparency requirements and reduced the amount of extra money that would be given to districts for implementation of the READ Act, which requires literacy evaluations of K-3 students and development of individual literacy plans for students who are lagging.

But the bill goes next to Senate Finance, which Johnston chairs and whose five members include Democratic Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City, both Johnston allies on HB 14-1292. (Interestingly, Ulibarri officially was added as a co-prime sponsor of the bill only on Thursday morning.)

Asked by Chalkbeat Colorado if he intends to undo Thursday’s amendments in the finance committee, Johnston was diplomatic, saying only that  “We’ve got to take a look at what passed tonight. There’s work left to do.”

Johnston opponents clearly were taken aback by the committee assignment, and the committee took three breaks to huddle about the parliamentary question before voting 7-0 to send the bill to finance.

When the committee meeting adjourned after more than five and a half hours, district lobbyists huddled in the hallway outside the committee room, grousing about what had happened and noting that similar bills in past sessions hadn’t been routed to the finance committee before heading to Senate Appropriations.

Johnston was bested Thursday by a coalition of Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and the committee’s three Republicans, Sens. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Mark Scheffel of Parker.

They successfully pushed through amendments that would:

  • Increase the money devoted to reduction of the negative factor to $120 million. (The reduction was $110 million in bill as it came from the House.)
  • Reduction of additional READ Act funding from the $20 million to $10 million. (Districts already receive $16 million a year for this program.)
  • Elimination of funding for a proposed state website that would link users to information about district and school spending. Instead, districts would post that data on their own websites.
  • Elimination of a proposed study of new enrollment counting methods by the Department of Education.

The Success Act is the 2014’s key education funding bill and originally was proposed by sponsors as a way to recover a few of the education reforms contained in Senate Bill 14-213, the comprehensive funding reform bill that never was implemented because voters didn’t approve the tax increase necessary to pay for it.

But HB 14-1292 has been steadily whittled down under that lobbying pressure from school districts and other interest groups intent on winning as large a reduction as possible in the negative factor.

House sponsors worked hard to meet concerns about the bill (see story), partly in hopes of reducing controversy and changes in the Senate. That obviously didn’t work.

Thursday’s extensive testimony touched on familiar themes, with school administrators and board members stressing the importance of reducing the negative factor and other witnesses urging spending on early childhood and English language learners.

Here’s the shape of the bill as it heads to finance:

  • Negative factor: The proposed reduction now is $120 million, up from the $110 million approved by the House. Sponsors originally included no reduction in pre-introduction versions of the bill.
  • Transparency: School districts would be required to post financial information, broken out by school, on their websites, but there would be no central website compiling information statewide. This $5 million has been a key item of contention between school districts on one side and bill sponsors and Gov. John Hickenlooper on the other.
  • Construction funding: HB 14-1292 proposed taking $40 million in marijuana tax revenues and diverting them to kindergarten construction, technology grants and charter facilities funding, instead of letting the funds flow into the main Building Excellent Schools Today construction program. A successful House amendment eliminated most of those earmarks but retained a 12.5 percent diversion to a fund for charter school facilities. Senate Education didn’t change this, despite testimony in support of doing so.
  • Charters: Also still in the bill is $13 million in additional funds that would be allocated for charter facilities, split between per-student grants to schools and supplementing a reserve fund that backs charter construction debt.

Here’s what was cut out of the bill or significantly changed as it’s moved along:

  • Implementation funding: $40 million in per-pupil aid to districts to help cover the costs of implementing education reforms such as new content standards, new tests and educator evaluations was eliminated in the House during negotiations over the negative factor.
  • Enrollment counting: There’s noting left in the bill about this.

Senate Education also considered amendments to House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 school finance act. A committee amendment removed a House proposal that $17 million in at-risk early childhood funding be focused on full-day kindergarten. Senate Education restored a provision that lets districts decide whether to use the money on preschool or kindergarten.

The Senate panel also voted for a modest increase in full-time kindergarten funding, under which those students would be paid for as .6 of a full-time student, instead of the current .58. The committee agreed to retain $30.5 million in additional funding for English language learner programs but moved that funding to a separate account that won’t be subject to the automatic annual increases required by the constitution for some types of school funding.

The next installment in this drama likely will come next Tuesday, when Senate Finance is scheduled to meet.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Colo. Springs schools show off their entrepreneurial spirit

Thu, 04/17/2014 - 08:29

Healthy schools

A new program, developed in Australia and being rolled out in Colorado, aims to help adults who work closely with students identify mental health concerns. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

A state Senate committee stripped away a provision in a contentious public health bill that would have required parents who wish to opt-out their children of vaccinations to learn about the pros and the cons of immunization. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

New ways of doing things

Schools in Colorado Springs are showing off their innovative ideas during a two-day conference throughout the city. Programs of note include new STEM offerings and civic engagement classes. ( Colorado Springs Gazette )

California Dreamin'

Denver's assistant superintendent Antwan Wilson is the top finalist to lead the Oakland Unified School District. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Contra Costa Times )

early childhood education

The state Senate Education Committee gave approval to a new idea that would pay private early childhood centers with dollars saved from reduced intervention costs, such as grade retention, at public schools. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

The American Indian College Fund in Denver will receive a $500,000 grant to continue its early childhood education outreach initiative. ( Denver Post )

money money money

More money will be sent to Colorado's public schools if Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the state's budget lawmakers approved earlier this week. ( AP via KREX TV )

Also getting more money, pending approval from lawmakers and the governor, will be the state's colleges and universities. But they have to cap tuition increases at 6 percent, not 9 percent. That bill cleared the Senate. ( AP via 9News )

Wait a minute

In a previous story, we said one reason why a stingy achievement gap may exists at DPS' East High School was because of how well the flagship school's white students did on standardized tests. But, looking at the data a different way yields a new perspective: white students there might not be doing as well as we once thought. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Problem solvers

Some of St. Vrain Valley's special needs students leant their voices to solving some of democracy's most vexing problems. ( Times Call )

'part of their school'

A new unified co-ed basketball team has students with developmental disabilities dribbling up and down the court for throngs of fans. ( )

Categories: Urban School News

Teeth pulled from immunization bill

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 23:29

A controversial immunization bill got a significant amendment Wednesday in a Senate committee, which removed a provision that would have required parents to get information about the pros and cons of vaccinations before they opted out of the shots children need for school enrollment.

House Bill 14-1288 has been the focus of emotional and prolonged committee hearings in both the House and Senate. It has pitted public health advocates against parents who are fearful about the possible side effects of immunizations and believe they should have an absolute right to refuse those shots.

Proof of immunizations is required for enrollment in child care facilities and K-12 schools, but state law allows parents to opt out for medical, religious or “personal belief” reasons. HB 14-1288 originally would have required that parents who wanted to use the personal belief exemption to either be briefed by a health care professional on the pros and cons of immunizations or complete an online education module.

An amendment approved Wednesday by the Senate State Affairs Committee removed that provision. Instead, the bill creates several duties for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, including:

  • Creation of a website containing information about the benefits and risk of immunizations
  • Issuance of rules on how often child care centers and schools should collect exemption forms
  • Working with other state agencies to develop a common policy on immunization data collection
  • Providing technical assistance to child care centers and schools on how to analyze immunization data

The amended bill also would require schools to make available on request their immunization and exemption rates.

Categories: Urban School News

Senate Ed wrestles with a brand-new idea

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 19:27

It’s not often that a legislative committee is faced with a completely new idea or an issue that hasn’t come up before.

But that was the case Wednesday with the Senate Education Committee and Senate Bill 14-185, which proposes a creative new way to fund early learning programs.

The proposal is something that hasn’t come up before at the Capitol, unlike the usual run of education bills, which generally involve issues and subjects that most committee members have at least passing familiarity with.

SB 14-185 would create something called the Pay for Success Contracts for Early Childhood Education Services Program. The program would allow the Office of State Planning and Budgeting and school districts to contract with providers of early childhood development services – and then pay them later with savings realized from the program’s success.

The bill’s idea, based on what are called “social impact bonds” or “results-based financing,” is that service providers can attract private investors to invest in support programs such as high-quality preschool. The theory is that quality programs reduce costly interventions such as grade retention or special education once a child enters school. If the state and a school district realize savings from reduced need for interventions, then the program is paid and investors repaid with interest.

The concept is seen by supporters as a creative way to fund needed services such as early childhood education in a time of constrained government budgets. (The proposal is complicated – get details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story and in this legislative staff summary of the bill.)

The detailed – sometimes too detailed – explanations from the sponsors, Democratic Sens. Mike Johnston of Denver and Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, gave committee members an awful lot to absorb in a short period of time.

“This is pretty deep to be having [a discussion] today,” noted Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley. (Two sets of Senate committee meetings Wednesday were sandwiched between two floor sessions.)

Trying to finish up before another committee took over the hearing room, chair Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, nudged the members to a vote. The bill passed 4-3, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing.

Despite his yes vote, Kerr said he still had questions about the bill and noted, “These are the things we are forced to do in Colorado” because of revenue constraints.

The panel also split 4-3 on Senate Bill 14-182, a second attempt at shining a little light on school board executive sessions. An earlier measure, House Bill 14-1110, passed the House but was killed by its Senate sponsor because she didn’t have the votes for floor passage. That earlier bill would have required boards to maintain a public log of subjects discussed during closed sessions and also required recording of those meetings. There was heavy lobbying against the bill from the legal community, concerned about an erosion of attorney-client privilege.

The new bill would require the log of subjects discussed but imposes no recording requirements. The bill was sparked by citizen complaints about alleged misuse of executive sessions by the Douglas County school board, and two representatives of Dougco parent groups testified for the bill Wednesday.

Senate Education gave unanimous 7-0 support to two other bills. House Bill 14-1204 would allow small rural districts that are rated in the state’s top two accreditation categories to file performance plans every two years instead of annually. It also would allow such districts to get help from boards of cooperative education services in complying with the READ Act. House Bill 14-1314 would require districts formally include charter schools in planning for tax override elections, but it wouldn’t force districts to share override revenues with their charters.

Education spending bills roll on

Republican members gave Democratic Rep. Cherilyn Peniston a bit of hard time on the floor, but she had the votes to win preliminary approval of her House Bill 14-1102, which would boost gifted and talented funding by $3.4 million.

Most of the funds would be used to pay for universal screening of all kids to determine their gifted status and to compensate districts for having half-time G&T coordinators. (An earlier version of the Westminster Democrat’s bill would have cost $6 million and required full-time coordinators in every district.)

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, urged a no vote, saying, “We should have put this into the negative factor.”

“Have you checked with your district to see if they support this?” asked Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. (Lobbyists for key district interest groups testified against the bill in committee.)

Two other education spending bills received final approval in the Senate. There wasn’t any rhetoric, but most Republicans voted no.

Senate Bill 14-150 would increase funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps to the tune of $5 million. Senate Bill 14-167 would create a pilot program for improvement of alternative education campuses’ performance, at a starting cost of $62,639.

To round out the spate of spending, the Senate also gave preliminary approval to  Senate Bill 14-124, which would create a $2 million program to develop school turnaround leaders

Use the Education Bill Tracker to read the texts of bills covered in this story and see this list of all education-related bills introduced this session.

Categories: Urban School News

Denver official is finalist for California superintendent position

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 18:02

A top official in Denver Public Schools is the finalist to lead Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), in California.

Assistant superintendent Antwan Wilson, who led the turnaround efforts at Denver’s Montbello High School, has headed up college and career readiness initiatives for the district. His nomination will go before the Oakland school board on April 23rd.

“Antwan Wilson is an extraordinary leader,” said DPS’ superintendent Tom Boasberg, in a press release from the Oakland press office. “He is a thoughtful and caring advocate for educational equity, and he is an inspiring leader who sets high expectations for all students and then works tirelessly to ensure they have the support they need to succeed in the classroom and in life.”

Montbello High School, which is now in the final stages of being phased out and replaced with three smaller programs, has been  a lightning rod for controversy over Denver’s reforms. Wilson, who had moved from the school’s principalship to a district leadership role, was involved with the contentious community process that led to the decision to close the school.

For more on his potential new role, see the press release from OUSD.

Categories: Urban School News

Digging deeper into East High data

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 17:39

Last week, when we took a  close look at achievement gaps at Denver’s East High School, we reported that “the breadth of East’s TCAP [the state test] gaps may be explained in part by how high-achieving East’s top students are,” because minority students also perform better on TCAPs than their counterparts across Denver Public Schools.

But after an astute reader prompted us to take a closer look at data, we found some interesting nuggets that show what achievement gaps look like across the city and suggest some interesting explanations we might have missed in the original story.

First, East has fewer low-income students (as measured by eligibility for free and reduced-cost meals) across all races and ethnicities than other Denver comprehensive high schools. And that may do more to explain why the performance of all groups of students is higher at East than in DPS overall.

Just 8 percent of East’s white test-taking students (ninth and tenth graders) are low-income. That’s compared to 27 percent at all other DPS high schools. While 86 percent of Latino students at other Denver high schools are low-income, at East the percentage is much lower –62 percent. And 70 percent of East’s African American students are low income, compared to 80 percent at the district’s other high schools.

Furthermore, the ratio of non-poor to poor white students at East is much wider than at other Denver high schools. And while the proportion of non-poor to poor black and Latino students is also wider than at other high schools, it’s by a much narrower margin. So the larger achievement gaps could be explained in part by how many fewer low-income white students there are compared to low-income Latino and African-American students.

It’s also notable that two of  the three Denver high schools that have higher-performing white students than East also have significantly smaller achievement gaps by race.

The two schools are distinct from East in that one, DSST’s Stapleton high school, is a charter school that students choose to attend rather than being assigned by residence. The other, Denver School of the Arts, a selective admissions magnet. And both have lower percentages of low-income students than does East. Still, it’s worth noting the difference in gaps.

DSST’s Stapleton charter high school had an average TCAP proficiency among white students of 93.6 percent in 2013, compared to East’s 81.2 percent.  Yet its proficiency gaps between white and black students was 21.7 percent, compared to East’s 45.3 percent, and its white-Latino gap was 18 percent compared to East’s 36.9 percent.

And while a smaller share of DSST Stapleton’s black students are low-income, more of its Latino students are. Among black students, 54 percent qualify for subsidized lunches, compared to East’s 70 percent. Among Latino students, however, 79 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, compared to 62 percent at East.

At Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires an audition for admission, the average white proficiency rate was 81.3 percent, a tenth of a percentage point higher than East’s. Its black-white achievement gap was also far lower than East’s — 29.6 percent compared to 45.3 percent. And its Latino-white gap was 10.8 percent, compared to East’s 36.9 percent.

But the school also had fewer than 16 students in any racial/ethnic group eligible for subsidized lunches, meaning its poverty rate among all groups is very low.

The school with gaps that top East’s is George Washington High School, where a selective admission International Baccalureate program largely walls off that high-performing student population for core academic classes from the rest of the school. At GW, the black-white gap is 56.2 percent and the Latino-white gap is 45.4 percent.

It’s also worth noting that these gap trends don’t change much when you look only at each school’s non- free and reduced lunch eligible students of all races. George Washington still has the widest gaps, followed, in order by East, Denver School of the Arts, and DSST.

Categories: Urban School News

A new tool in schools’ mental health tool box

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 17:14

Using Crayola markers set on each round table, small groups of adults from the Greeley area — school outreach workers, Boys and Girls Club staff and foster parents — created poster-sized pictures of what mental health problems look like. Glum stick figures sat under rain clouds, a face contorted from happy to sad and a placid face showed no outward signs of distress.

The pictures were just one of several hands-on activities sprinkled throughout a recent day-long training that aims to teach lay-people the signs of mental health or substance abuse problems in youth, and give them action steps to follow when they spot trouble.

Called Youth Mental Health First Aid, the training originated in Australia and was unveiled in Colorado last year. There is also an adult version of the training, introduced here in 2008, called Mental Health First Aid or MHFA.

Both are gaining momentum in what mental health advocates say is a welcome development in a state saddled with one of the highest suicide rates in the country and more than its fair share of school tragedies, including a deadly shooting at Centennial’s Arapahoe High School in December and a self-immolation at Westminster’s Standley Lake High School in January.

Olga Gonzalez, a community outreach worker who participated in the recent Greeley training, said she regularly fields questions from parents who are worried about their children but don’ t know where to turn. She recounted how one family she’d worked with discovered their son had started using drugs. Another learned that their son had stolen credit card information from a customer while manning the cash register at the family’s store.

“He has money in a savings account, you know. He just did it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what kind of support he needs.”

Youth Mental Health First Aid aims to answer such questions for people who are not mental health professionals but who work closely with young people and their families. The target audience includes lay-people like teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, school nurses and even bus drivers.

Advocates for MHFA say Colorado now has one of the largest contingents of certified instructors—around 230 so far. In addition, it’s among only a handful of states to dedicate public funds to the trainings, with $750,000 appropriated for the program next year.

“We have been at the forefront of this since the beginning,” said Brian Turner, director of Mental Health First Aid Colorado at the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council.

Preparing first responders

The concept behind both versions of MHFA, much like medical first-aid, is to equip first responders with the know-how to address emerging mental health or addiction problems. The youth version is also meant to help distinguish between true mental health issues and the normal mood swings and behavior changes that characterize the life of a teenager.

But the training is hardly a technical lecture. It’s participant-friendly approach is evident in the hands-on activities, the video clips, the anecdote-peppered instruction and even the pile of bite-sized candy on each table. Originally, conceived as a two-day training, it has since changed to a one-day format.

“I think we try to make it accessible in a very non-threatening way,” said Pamela Collins Vaughn, one of the instructors at the Greeley training and quality assurance program director at North Range Behavioral Health.

The five action steps in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

Gonzalez, an outreach worker with Community Care Corps, said she learned about the training at a resource fair that she helped coordinate. Her work with families at two local middle schools, as well as in surrounding neighborhoods, made her want to refresh her knowledge on mental health issues.

While Gonzalez and other MHFA participants are certainly not charged with providing treatment, they do receive a customized local resource guide to help them connect youth with professional help when necessary.

In fact, encouraging youth to seek professional help is one of five action steps—condensed in the acronym ALGEE–outlined in the training. The other four include “Assess for suicide/self harm,” “Listen non-judgmentally,” “Give assurance/information,” and “Encourage self-help/other support.”

Turner said having concrete action steps is important because “there’s a big difference between learning about mental health and substance abuse problems and being able to do something about it.”

During the Greeley training, participants were asked to come up with gestures that would convey each of the five action steps. Soon, in an effort to commit the steps to memory, Vaughn and co-trainer Noelle Hause were leading the group in miming actions like non-judgmental head-nodding and reassuring arm-patting.

Reaching out to schools

While Turner said Youth Mental Health First Aid is not yet widely offered by school districts, there is growing interest. Among the districts that have offered it for at least some staff are Douglas County, Aurora, Thompson, and Weld County District 6.

Barb Becker, division director for community programs at the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network, said the one-day format make it a very doable training for educators.

One of the pictures made by participants at a recent Youth Mental Health First Aid training.

“It just gives a really good overview,” she said, adding, “It takes away some of the stigma associated with mental health.”

While grants to offer Youth Mental Health First Aid are sometimes available and some mental health centers offer it for free, the price of the training can be a barrier for districts. Costs typically run at least $25 per person and can max out at $50 depending on facility and food costs.

While the new $750,000 in state funding will help with expansion, Turner said advocates are also investigating whether Medicaid reimbursements received by schools can help pay for the trainings. Currently, those reimbursements are used for all kinds of school health and wellness efforts, from paying school nurses to buying P.E. equipment.

If Youth Mental Health First Aid is widely adopted by schools, it will join a growing number of tools used to detect and combat mental health problems in students. Many schools already use suicide prevention curriculums, some are adding instruction on social emotional skills and a few conduct universal mental health screenings among students.

In addition, many schools regularly convene meetings to discuss and create plans for students who are showing signs of mental health or behavioral problem. Others publicize programs like Safe2Tell that allow students, parents or staff to anonymously report bullying or threats of school violence or suicide.

While Becker noted that middle-aged white men, not teens are actually at the highest risk for suicide in Colorado, she said it is still a problem among young people.

In 2010, Colorado had the seventh-highest  youth suicide rate among states and Washington, DC, with 16.7 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people in the 15-24 age group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, Colorado’s suicide rates are higher in rural and mountain communities than in urban areas. They are also higher among males than females.

Becker said there are a variety of reasons, including biological changes, peer conflicts and dating strife, that adolescents experience depression, which is a leading cause of suicide.

“It’s a hard time in life,” she said.

Ultimately, Turner hopes both versions of Mental Health First Aid will be widely available in all parts of Colorado. They won’t prevent all violent incidents, he said, but they might help. They can also aid in the healing process for communities that have suffered through fires, floods, droughts and other disasters.

Categories: Urban School News

Colorado education department intends to create turnaround network

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 10:00

The State Department of Education hopes to lend more direct help to Colorado’s struggling campuses by forming a network of turnaround schools, it announced Tuesday in a letter to superintendents.

The network, which will be the first of its kind in Colorado, will offer intensive support directly to school leaders in some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Previously, most of the state’s support has been targeted at the district level, providing training and resources to administrators, not principals and teachers.

Colorado’s Turnaround Network, “will be a highly-collaborative and accountable endeavor between local schools, their districts and the Colorado Department of Education,” according to a copy of the letter provided to Chalkbeat Colorado.

The department hopes to work with eight to 12 schools in just a couple of districts its first year. The aim is to not only improve student academic performances within the network’s schools, but also to provide support and build each district’s ability to provide tools and techniques to other low-performing schools within the participating districts’ boundaries, said Peter Sherman, the state education department’s executive director of school and district performance.

As of December, there are currently 190 schools rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement.” About 75 percent of those schools do not operate in school districts on the accountability clock.

Because of Colorado’s constitutionally protected local control of schools, schools will have to opt into the network, Sherman said. The department’s model is more akin to Connecticut’s Commissioner’s Network, which has partnered with 11 schools and is expanding, than Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has the authority to take over low-performing schools and currently runs 16 schools, Sherman said.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

While the state does not directly accredit schools — that’s the job of local school boards — it does similarly rate schools. Schools, like districts, rated as either “turnaround” or “priority improvement” are placed on the state’s watch list. If schools do not make enough improvement within five years the state board may make a series of recommendations to the local school board including turning the school over to a private organization like a charter network or closing the campus. If the local governing board does not heed the state board’s advice, the entire district may face a lowered accreditation rating.

Neither the districts nor schools enrolled in the network will be let off the so-called “accountability clock.”

“Our goal is to accelerate achievement so we’ll be able to get them off the clock because of improved student achievement,” Sherman said.

If enough progress isn’t made in enough time to beat the clock, Sherman said, his department would at least be able to stand with those schools in the network as the state and local board negotiate the campuses future.

“We would be able to advocate for [those schools] to some degree,” Sherman said. “We’ll feel comfortable saying the district has taken the right improvement actions and that we’ve exhausted everything we could.”

The network’s program will focus on four areas: culture, school design, personnel development, and district relations. One of the many requirements to enroll in the network, according to the letter, is a set of agreements between the state and the districts the schools reside in.

“We will negotiate with each district

assurances that they will create the right conditions for success for each participating school,” Sherman said.

The state will have no official say in curriculum, personnel or budget, Sherman said. But he hopes by enrolling in the network, schools will be provided autonomy and flexibility by it’s district.

The network will be funded by existing funds allocated to the state department, Sherman said. And his office will continue to offer its support to districts on the accountability clock.

Categories: Urban School News

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