First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

National School Choice Week prepares for takeoff with in-flight video

Last January, tens of thousands of parents, concerned citizens, and advocates from across the political spectrum joined together for National School Choice Week, a week dedicated to promoting the right of all parents to choose the most effective learning option for their children.

The previous National School Choice Week involved supporters from more than 200 organizations, and resulted in more than 150 events all across the United States. The second annual is expected to be even bigger.

Beginning this month, NSCW supporters are presenting their school choice message to passengers on board select airline carriers as part of the in-flight video programming. Over the next three months, the video will be shown on 29,000 flights, to an audience of more than 3.8 million viewers.

Viewers will be urged to get involved in the next National School Choice Week, which is being held Jan. 22-28, 2012. The video can be seen by clicking here: Anyone interested in getting involved in the upcoming National School Choice Week can visit to find an event in their area.

Obama launches ‘Digital Promise’

The Education Department provided start-up funding for the new project, which promotes software and “digital tutors.” The White House announced Friday the launch of “Digital Promise,” a nonprofit initiative meant to bring more technology to classrooms. Read more in The Hill blog.

Vouchers, merit pay spice Dougco forum

Anger on both sides of Douglas County’s controversial school voucher program, its equally controversial performance-pay plan for teachers, and the perceived politicizing of the school board drove debate at a candidates forum Monday night, as six of the eight people seeking a seat on the county school board came together at a Highlands Ranch elementary school to field questions submitted by voters. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Latin lost in budget translation at Jeffco schools

In Laurie Lawless’ Latin class at Dakota Ridge High School, 18 eager students study the classics: works by Vergil, Ovid, Horace — and, of course, the timeless … Seuss? Read more in the Denver Post.

SAT reading scores fall to lowest level on record

SAT reading scores for the high school class of 2011 were the lowest on record, and combined reading and math scores fell to their lowest point since 1995. Read more in the Denver Post.

Equity Education Conference held in Aurora

The Equity Education Conference will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at Vista PEAK Preparatory 9-12, 24500 E. 6th Ave., Aurora.

This year’s topic is Culture, Community and Our Classrooms: Examining the Impact of Equity through Relevance, Rigor and Relationships. Gary R. Howard, who has 35 years of experience working with civil rights, social justice, equity, education and diversity issues, will serve as keynote speaker. Considered groundbreaking, his work regarding privilege, power and the role of white leaders in a multicultural society can be found in his most recent book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multicultural Schools.

The conference is open to all teachers, classified staff, parents, students and community members of Aurora Public Schools.

New STEM schools target underrepresented groups

Few Americans may know about the Grand Challenges for Engineering—from making solar energy affordable to ensuring access to clean water—but the students at a new school on the campus of North Carolina State University are getting to know them firsthand. Read more in EdWeek.

Poudre schools 101 event for community members

PSD’s parent District Advisory Board invites parents, community members and staff to a free “PSD 101” conference to learn how the district operates and how to make an impact in the decision-making process. The free conference will be held from 6 to 9 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3, at Blevins Middle School, 2101 S. Taft Hill Rd. No pre-registration is required. Spanish interpreters will be available.’

Get Into Water’ project teaches water science in Boulder Valley

Boulder High juniors and seniors are learning the basics of Colorado’s water system with the possibility of getting jobs in the water industry after they graduate or continuing in that field of study in college.

The Boulder High class is part of the “Get Into Water” project through the Boulder Valley School District’s Lifelong Learning Program, in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Section of American Water Works Association and the Colorado Workforce Development Council. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Brighton parents begin push for school district’s mill-levy ballot measure

BRIGHTON — Parents are hoping a November ballot measure will help the financially starved Brighton School District 27J, considered the most poorly funded in the Denver area.

“Something has to give soon or we’ll be up the creek without a paddle,” said Edith Kohler, the parent of a district third-grader. Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder Valley parents raised $370,000 for tutors, teacher aides

Budget cuts in the last couple of years could have endangered the jobs of some classroom aides at Boulder’s Flatirons Elementary.

But, according to Flatirons Principal Scott Boesel, the school’s parents raised enough money that he could continue to provide critical support to classroom teachers, reducing class sizes and increasing the hours for gifted advisors. Last school year, Flatirons raised $34,000 to pay for staff time. Read more in the Daily Camera.

District 6 Board of Education to hold community conversation

The District 6 Board of Education will hold a community conversation session from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, in the auxiliary gym at Franklin Middle School, 818 35th Ave. Parents, students, staff members, and community members are invited to attend and participate in the conversations.

The meeting format will feature small-group conversations at tables set up in the gym, with board members spread among the tables. District staff members will be on hand to answer questions at individual tables as needed.

Attendees will be asked to share their thoughts on a variety of educational issues. In addition, participants will be asked to discuss what programs and services they would add or strengthen in the district, should K-12 funding be improved in the future. Input gathered from table conversations will be factored into the Board’s discussions and decisions throughout the school year. The Board of Education regularly holds several community conversation sessions throughout the school year.

Notes from the table conversations will be compiled after the meeting and posted on the district website, Community members who are unable to attend the meeting can provide their comments by e-mail to [email protected].

Middle-class schools miss the mark

Middle-class public schools educate the majority of U.S. students but pay lower teacher salaries, have larger class sizes and spend less per pupil than low-income and wealthy schools, according to a report to be issued Monday. Read more in The Wall Street Journal.

Boulder Valley School District seeks input on standards curriculum

Boulder Valley School District is inviting community members to play a role in developing new curriculum to align with the new Colorado Academic Standards adopted by the Colorado State Board of Education in 2010. BVSD must revise its standards as necessary to ensure that district standards meet or exceed the statewide standards.

This curricular revision and alignment with state standards must be completed and approved by the Board of Education by Dec. 15. To meet that deadline and receive as much input as possible, the district is holding public meetings this month. Meetings will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on the following dates:

Sept. 20 — Monarch K-8 School, 263 Campus Drive, Louisville

Sept. 22 — Southern Hills Middle School, 1500 Knox Drive, Boulder

Sept. 29 — Lafayette Elementary School, 101 N. Bermont Ave., Lafayette

Those who would like to review the curriculum documents, but cannot attend one of the above meetings, can request a copy by calling Susan Wojciechowski at 720-561-5139.

In October, district personnel will review public input and amend curriculum revisions before submitting them to the school board for review and discussion. The curriculum revision is slated as a study item at the board’s Nov. 8 meeting and final action is slated for its Dec. 13 meeting.

34 percent new principals in DPS schools

Denver Public Schools opened its doors last month to more new principals than it has in at least six years.

Denver Public Schools logoPrincipals at 46 of the district’s 134 non-charter schools – or 34 percent –  are new this year to their position, their school or both, according to district information.

Suzanne Morey, new principal at McGlone Elementary, works with a student. Photo courtesy of McGlone.

Sixteen of the new principals are moving into the position from that of assistant principal. If the 11 principals who simply moved laterally – jumping from the leadership of one Denver school to another – are not counted in the total, DPS still has 35 new principals. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.