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

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.