kindergarten clash

Jeffco board majority inches toward expanding kindergarten options

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Jefferson County resident demonstrates in front of Bear Creek High School in Lakewood Thursday. The rally was of about 400 individuals was organized largely by the Jeffco teachers union. The union and the district are in the midst of tense contract negations.

LAKEWOOD — Despite their best efforts, dozens of supporters of a plan to expand free full-day kindergarten in Jefferson County did not convince the conservative school board majority of the program’s benefits.

But at least one member of that majority — which so far has blocked a modest expansion of the program — said at the board’s Thursday meeting he’d be interested in exploring alternatives to provide the program for free to more of Jefferson County’s neediest students.

John Newkirk, secretary of the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education, said he’d entertain the possibility of expanding the district’s offering of free full-day kindergarten to all students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty.

He asked the district’s staff to provide him with the estimated cost of doing so.

“We still have 60 days,” he said, referring to the amount of time before the board must finalize the district’s budget, which must be approved by June 30. The first day of the fiscal year is July 1.

Newkirk made the request during discussion on a motion made by board member Lesley Dahlkemper to fund 13 additional kindergarten classes at 5 campuses. It was her second attempt of the evening to have the board approve the $600,000 line item. Both times, the majority blocked the request.

District staff first suggested the expansion at an April 3 meeting.

Officials believe expanding the program would have a positive impact on student achievement and would provide the resources to students and teachers to meet the boards academic goals.

But the board’s majority didn’t buy it.

Board president Ken Witt last night reiterated his concerns about how the program’s expansions targets specific schools, not students, and that the district had no local data to illustrate the benefits of full-day kindergarten.

Under the current proposal, Jeffco would offer full day kindergarten for free to all students, regardless of their parents’ income, who attended a school that’s total population included at least 35 percent of students at or below the poverty line.

That means in some instances, 65 percent of students whose parents could otherwise afford to pay the $300 for a second half-day of instruction would get the program for free, goes Witt’s logic.

Witt said creating a sliding scale for kindergarten tuition could be an plausible option.

Jeffco currently offers free half-day kindergarten to all students. And about 40 full-day kindergarten classrooms across the large suburban district are also free because those schools have at least 36.8 percent of its students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. None of the classrooms are in jeopardy of being closed.

photo 2
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco board member Lesley Dahlkemper, left, speaks with parents during a break at the board’s May 2 meeting at Bear Creek High School.

Dahlkemper’s push for the board to expand the free kindergarten program came during a report from district staff on writing achievement goals.

While Jeffco students meet or exceed the state’s proficiency scores on average, middle school growth scores, or how the state measures how much a student learns year-to-year, are slightly below the state’s requirement.

Dahlkemper wondered out loud if expanding the kindergarten program could help the district boost scores.

Earlier in the evening one group of parents presented data they had collected showing greater positive outcomes for students of full-day kindergarten.

“Your goals focus on mastery of content standards at every grade level and each student achieving at least one year’s growth every year,” said Tina Gurdikian during her group testimony. “Additional board goals focus on academic achievement as measured by testing. It is your duty and obligation to provide funding towards meeting those ends. The research and body of evidence supports the educational benefits of full-day kindergarten over half-day kindergarten.”

Funding free full-day kindergarten is just one of many politically charged conversations in Jeffco.

Dozens of parents, teachers, and students spoke out Thursday in support of their teachers.

Prior to the meeting more than 400 teachers and the supporters rallied outside Bear Creek High School where the board meeting was held.

The union and district are in the midsts of tense negotiations. The union is concerned its teachers will not be given the raises they’ve been promised — despite nearly $12 million being earmarked in the budget to do so. The union declared an impasse last month.

The board’s majority is also trying to equalize funding between its district run schools and charters. A few charter supporters thanked the board’s work to provide them with more money.

Parent presentation to the Jeffco board

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”