Wednesday Churn: JBC gets a warning

Updated 10 a.m. – Colorado runs the risk of failing to meet constitutional requirements for funding schools, the Joint Budget Committee was told today.

Committee analyst Carolyn Kampman said continuing the current pattern of financing K-12 districts could mean the state will be out of compliance with the state constitution’s requirement for a thorough and uniform public education system by 2015-16.

That’s because the current pattern of budget cuts will mean the state can afford to pay for only base per-pupil funding and won’t have any additional revenue to provide money to districts for differences in staff cost of living, percentage of at-risk students and district size.

Kampman’s briefing paper recommends that the JBC start consulting with other legislative leaders and the governor’s office about possible changes in the school finance system.

Read the briefing paper here, and check EdNews later for full coverage of the committee hearing on school spending in 2012-13.

Daily Churn logoWhat’s churning:

The Joint Budget Committee will get a two-hour seminar on K-12 spending today when members are briefed on options for school funding in 2012-13.

The briefing, like those for all state departments, is the second major step in the budget process, which began Nov. 1 with the release of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal (see story) and ends in April or May with a final decision by the full legislature.

Veteran JBC analyst Carolyn Kampman has prepared a detailed analysis of school support, which will be released this morning when she starts walking the committee through the document, explaining the K-12 funding system and presenting various options for the committee to consider. Kampman also will compile questions raised by the committee and forward them to Department of Education officials, who will have an opportunity to answer later.

The general feeling in education circles is that school funding will be cut again for 2012-13; it’s just a question of how much.

The JBC will be briefed Dec. 1 on other parts of CDE’s budget, and then department brass will have a chance on Dec. 16 to make their spending case and to answer questions raised at the two briefings.

One issue will be the $25 million cost of developing a new state testing system. CDE asked for the funds in its budget request and Hickenlooper denied it. Education Commissioner Robert Hammond has said he’ll make a pitch to JBC for the money.

Today’s briefing runs from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. in the JBC hearing room in the Legislative Services Building, 200 E. 14th Ave. EdNews will be covering the event, including with Tweets as warranted, and you can listen live here.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson this morning will announce a multi-million dollar federal grant to support and improve college-readiness programs for students who attend schools in the Northwest Denver community. According to a DPS news release, the grant will support DPS’ efforts to foster college-going cultures in eight schools, following all current sixth and seventh grade students at those schools through their middle and high school years. The event is at 9 a.m. at Centennial ECE-8 School, 4665 Raleigh St.

The Colorado GSA Network is looking for students to serve on its Leadership Council. The Colorado GSA Network is a program to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and their allies. The group has released resource guides to educate students on their rights, on how to start and create programming for Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, and on how to combat bullying and harassment. There’s more about the organization here, including a link at the top of the page to find out more about expressing interest in the Leadership Council.

What’s on tap:

The Educational Success Task Force meets today at 1 p.m. at the Colorado Community College System offices, 9101 E. Lowry Blvd. Scroll down at this link for the Nov. 16 agenda.

The St. Vrain School District Board of Education has a 6 p.m. study session scheduled. Election results and board committee assignments are on the agenda. The meeting will be at Mead High School, 12750 County Rd. #7, in Longmont.

The Eagle County Board of Education starts a series of special meetings tonight to begin the process of deciding how to cut $5 million from next year’s school budget. Three high schools are on the list of possible cuts, including Red Canyon High School and the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy. Eagle County voters earlier this month rejected the school district’s request for a $6 million property tax increase. A reduction in performance pay and cuts to central office staff are also among the budget-balancing steps being eyed. The meeting begins at 6 p.m.  at 757 E. Third St. in Eagle at 6 p.m., followed by an executive session at 8 p.m. Agenda

Good reads from elsewhere:

The U.S. Congress is considering a spending bill that will make a statement about the federal government’s role in deciding what shows up in school lunches. Congress appears to be pushing back on the Obama administration’s efforts to limit the availability of unhealthy foods in schools. The final version of the spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year. Frozen pizza companies, the salt industry and potato growers are being credited — or criticized — for their lobbying efforts to make the changes. Read about it here.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.