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

creating community

Seeking to broaden its support base, Jeffco looks at building bridges to community

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

When Elizabeth Panzer’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, the school community in northwest Arvada organized a schedule to prepare and deliver meals to her family those first few months.

“The community of that school, they kept us afloat,” Panzer said. “That was powerful for me because I didn’t know that many people in the school because I hadn’t been very involved.”

It was that experience of the community coming together that brought Panzer to join the group tasked with delivering recommendations to Jeffco Public Schools for how the district can engage and build better relationships with the community.

Superintendent Jason Glass said he convened the group after hearing during his listening tours that too many people in the county have no connection to the schools. Forging stronger ties with more folks is especially critical this year as the Jeffco district contemplates placing a tax measure on the November ballot to produce new local revenue.

“We recognized we have this disconnect, and we have an understanding that if we can increase that connection, we can also increase support for public education,” Glass said.

Panzer said she wondered if the same community strength that helped her family could be fostered to create a “give-and-take” relationship that benefits other children who may be struggling.

“There are so many people who are struggling, and they’re quiet,” Panzer said. “They’re not the ones involved. They’re the ones on the edges. The more connected we are, the better able we are to scoop up the ones on the edges who need help.”

From any school district’s perspective, there are many reasons to foster community engagement. Schools could use partnerships with local businesses to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. Community members can make good volunteers, mentors, or donors. And students can learn something from giving back to their community, too.

Glass cited all of those reasons. He has asked the task force to give him recommendations on better engaging the community — particularly Jeffco residents who aren’t connected to schools — by September.

Next meeting:

  • 6 p.m. Monday July 30
    at the Ed Center, 1829 Denver W Dr, Golden
  • More information on providing input online, here

The tight deadline reveals another reason improving community engagement is important to the district now. If Jeffco’s school board next month decides to ask voters for increased local funding this November, the district must prepare to communicate their needs to voters.

Two years ago, the district asked voters for new dollars to improve salaries, add new counselors at elementary schools, and to improve buildings by adding space and by replacing older schools. But voters rejected both requests.

“The work of this community engagement task force is really important for that work coming up,” Glass said.

Many put the percentage of Jeffco residents who don’t have a connection to schools as high as 75 percent. Using rough estimates from the district including 86,000 students, 14,000 employees and about 130,000 parents, that would leave almost 60 percent of the estimated 575,000 residents of the county without a direct link to schools.

So far, the task force of about 35 people has met twice. Its volunteer members are asking for more input from the community and for more participants to help draft the recommendations. Anyone interested in joining still may. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. July 30.

Katie Winner, a district mom on the task force, said many participants have shared stories of how they were involved at their school or examples of problems they faced in trying to get access to a school in their neighborhood.

The task force will look at ways to address barriers people have faced in connecting with schools. It also will look at what kind of engagement makes a difference and is worth the district’s support. And they will consider if different strategies are needed for various segments of the community such as senior citizens, faith based organizations, or local businesses.

“We have to think about policy for an entire district,” Winner said. “So, it’s challenging.”

Panzer said she believes the group should look at having more open schools and creating trust.

“I believe the power will come from us reaching out to the community first,” Panzer said. “That starts to build trust.”

Glass said he didn’t create the group with any preconceived ideas about what kind of recommendations it should create, but instead said he wants it to lead to a better relationship with the community.

“I’m really relying on the members of this task force to draw on the wisdom of the community,” Glass said. “Schools and districts can operate with a sort of fortress mentality. We haven’t necessarily done the work to show the community we honor and value them. We realize there is work to do to show the community there’s outreach that its genuine and real.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

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

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.