out of the mouths of babes

Jeffco students, at rally, flirt with recall effort

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Evergreen High School student Mali Holmes, center, gets a hug from a fellow student after she spoke at a rally, organized by students, to gauge interest in a possible recall of three Jefferson County board members.

LITTLETON — Students, incensed over what they call disrespect from their elected officials, told their suburban community today they’re prepared to lead the charge in a recall election of three school board members.

Making their public debut at a park near Columbine High School, Jeffco Students for Change told a crowd they’re ready for a change on the Jefferson County Board of Education. Board members Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk can make the change themselves, they said, or the students will do it for them.

“Like pawns, students are on the front lines of this issue,” said Mali Holmes, an Evergreen High School student, referring to a statements made by Witt, who called students who organized earlier walkouts pawns of the union. “But the difference is, we will not back down. We will stand together and fight until we win this battle. We will be the ones to call check mate.”

The three board members, elected nearly a year ago, have found themselves embroiled in controversy after controversy with vocal members of the Jeffco Public Schools community.

Several of the students’ speeches either called for the board to resign, improve their relationships with the community, or face a recall.

CHALKBEAT EXPLAINS: Jeffco interrupted

But student organizers said they’re still determining whether a recall is feasible. They’ll gauge how many individuals who attended the rally provided the students with contact information.

In an earlier interview, board chairman Witt said he was focused on improving student achievement, not the politics of a recall. He also encouraged students to continue to share their opinions at board meetings.

Despite months of acrid debates between some community members and the board’s majority, today’s rally is the first time any organization has hosted a public conversation regarding a recall election.

Rumors of a recall raised to a fevered pitch last spring but puttered out during the summer. In fact, some parents and board observers privately discouraged a recall because they rarely work and are extremely expensive for both organizers and the school districts. Under Colorado law, Jeffco Public Schools would have to pay for the election’s costs.

Today, it’s unclear what sort of political wherewithal a student-led recall would have, or whether reluctant parents and adult organizers would stand with them. The students organized this rally in about a week. And a parent donated the $1,000 for the park permit, organizers said.

Jeffco Students for Change, is the newest kid on a crowded block of anti-board majority organizations. It loosely formed during a week’s worth of earlier protests over a proposed board-appointed curriculum review committee.

Some students, teachers, and parents believed that committee, which would have been tasked with reviewing an advanced history course, would lead to censorship. Those students left their classrooms for the streets by the hundreds.

Jeffco board member Williams, who proposed the review committee, said critics were misinterpreting her proposal.

Ultimately, the school board, on a 3-2 vote, amended Jeffco’s curriculum review process and put it under the board’s purview.

Students behind the new organization and Saturday’s rally rejected the board majority’s claim of a compromise. There are still many details to be worked out, which the district is handling.

About 250 people, mostly parents, attended the rally. The audience waived signs while students spoke and local bands, Red Fox Run and From Thin Air, provided musical entertainment.

Some local political campaigns took advantage of the rally including State Board of Education member Jane Goff, who is running for re-election. Goff had volunteers there. Her opponent, Laura Boggs, a former Jefferson County Board of Education member herself, stopped by. Some parents vocally shooed her away.

“We don’t want you here,” one parent yelled.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who was out campaigning himself, also made an unannounced stop at the rally.

Meanwhile, other rally attendees played hacky sack, ate ice cream, and updated their voter registration.

“If you are of legal age to vote, then make your voice heard at all levels,” said Kyle Ferris, a Columbine High School student. “Many people didn’t vote in the school board election because they didn’t feel like it was important — and look where that got us.”

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.