Future of Schools

Dems retake state House control

Democrats gathered in downtown Denver celebrated victories, including takeover of the state House. Photo / Joe Mahoney

Updated 1 p.m. Nov. 7 – Jubilant Democrats late Tuesday claimed control of the Colorado House, a chamber they lost two years ago.

Democratic leaders, analyzing the returns late in the evening, said they definitely will take 34 seats and could have as many as 38. The party was expected to retain its control of the Senate, although the race between Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster and Republican Lang Sias remained tied Wednesday and may go to a recount.

“We have taken back the majority in the Colorado House of Representatives!” Rep. Mark Ferrandino of Denver, leader of the House caucus, told revelers at the Democratic Party’s election party in the Sheraton downtown.

Lawmakers next year will have to start dealing with the implications of Amendment 64, the proposal to legalize marijuana and direct some of the revenues from taxes on the drug to school construction. The proposal had 53 percent support with about 1.9 million votes tabulated late in the evening.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock celebrated Democratic victories. Photo / Joe Mahoney

In the House, Democrats needed to add only one seat to their current 32 to retake control of that chamber. Minority Republicans in the Senate had a somewhat tougher challenge and needed to add three seats to their current total of 15 to win the majority.

Eighty-five of the legislature’s 100 seats were on the ballot. Most were safe for one party or the other, so legislative control depended on what happened in 12 to 14 closely contested races.

Education debates are expected to have a different tone in 2013. A third or more of lawmakers will be new to the Capitol and will face a steep learning curve on such complex issues as school finance and teacher licensing, both expected to be on the 2013 agenda.

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet joined the Democrats’ celebration. Photo / Joe Mahoney

What lawmakers won’t face is the prospect of tough budget cuts, given improvements in state revenues.

With Democrats in control of both houses, it’s possible school finance reform might get a closer look than it has in past sessions, and legislation creating lower tuition rates for undocumented students is expected to pass.

Republican issues like school vouchers, parent triggers and changes in the Public Employees’ Retirement Association likely won’t get very far.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who easily won re-election to his second term, said the most dramatic effect of the Democratic takeover of the House, and retention of the Senate, would likely affect education two ways.

Erin Larkin of Thornton cheered at the Democrats’ party. Photo / Joe Mahoney

First, he predicted a greater chance of passage for the ASSET bill, which has been slowly building support in recent years and which would provide lower tuition rates for undocumented students. Second, he expected an examination of how to “solve” school finance in Colorado.

Top education-related races

House District 29 (Westminster area) – Republican Rep. Robert Ramirez, a member of House Education, lost to Democrat Tracy Kraft-Tharp, a community activist.

House District 40 (Aurora) – Democrat John Buckner, a long-time Cherry Creek administrator and principal, defeated GOP Rep. Cindy Acree.

House District 61 (Summit County and central mountains) – Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, a former Summit County schools superintendent, bested two challengers, Republican artist Debra Irvine and independent Kathleen Curry.

Senate District 19 (Westminster area) – Hudak remained in a neck-and-neck race with Sias. As of Wednesday afternoon, Hudak had a 332 vote lead, a difference of less than 1 percent with overseas and provisional ballots still to be counted. Hudak is vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, a long-time education activist and former member of the State Board of Education.

Senate District 22 (central Lakewood and Ken Caryl area) – Two House members, Democrat Andy Kerr and Republican Ken Summers, battled for this newly drawn Senate seat, with Kerr coming out on top. Kerr is a curriculum specialist and teacher. Summers has been an active participant in education debates of recent years but not an initiator of major legislation.

Other education-related races

House District 11 (Boulder) – Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, who was appointed to the seat, beat Ellyn Hilliard, who has a background as a teacher and administrator at Waldorf schools.

House District 24 (Wheat Ridge area) – Democratic Rep. Sue Schafer defeated Republican E.V. Leyendecker. Schafer is a member of House Education and worked as a teacher and state Department of Education administrator.

House District 35 (western Adams County) – Democratic Rep. Cherylin Peniston, a former teacher and veteran House Education member, won another term over Republican Brian Vande Krol, a businessman.

House District 50 (Greeley area) – Democratic Rep. Dave Young, a former teacher, defeated Republican insurance agent Skip Carlson.

House District 56 (Adams County) – Republican Rep. Kevin Priola, a former House Education member, beat Democrat David Rose, a former teacher and principal.

House District 57 (northwestern Colorado) – Democrat Jo Ann Baxter, a former teacher, Moffat County school board member and a member for the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, lost to Republican Robert Rankin, an engineer and former corporate executive.

House District 60 (Fremont and Chaffee counties) – Republican Jim Wilson, a former teacher and superintendent for districts in Kansas and Colorado, defeated Democrat Pier Cohen, a contractor.

Senate District 28 (Aurora) – Democrat Nancy Todd, a member of House Education and a retired teacher, is moving to the Senate after defeating Republican John Lyons, a retired diesel mechanic who is studying to become a teacher.

Implications of Amendment 64

The constitutional amendment would allow individuals over the age of 21 to possess and use an ounce or less of marijuana and to grow and possess up to six marijuana plants. It also would create of system of licensed marijuana outlets, much like liquor stores, and require the legislature to create a regulatory system and enact an excise tax on marijuana sales.

The amendment affects education because it requires that the first $40 million of excise tax revenues every year be funneled to the state fund that helps support school construction projects.

However, because the state constitution requires voter approval of new taxes, the marijuana excise tax would have to go to the voters at a later election.

Despite the prospect of more money for schools, the education establishment was leery of Amendment 64. Several school boards passed resolutions opposing the amendment while others declined to consider the issue. Both the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of Schools Boards opposed the measure. (See this story for details.)

Many educators have cited concerns legalizing marijuana for adults would make it easier for teens to obtain the drug, increasing youth marijuana use. (See this EdNews package on medical marijuana and schools.)

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.