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.”

getting to know you

New Jeffco superintendent has more questions than answers in tour of district

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

New Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass introduced himself to the community Monday with an eight-site swing through the sprawling district, asking the same three questions of community members at every stop.

At a late afternoon visit to the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver in Lakewood, the former Eagle County schools chief asked more than 50 residents, parents and teachers for feedback on what the 86,000-student district should keep doing, stop doing and start doing.

That was in keeping with what Glass promised this spring when he was tapped to succeed Dan McMinimee, who had led Jeffco since 2013. Even before officially starting, Glass met with staff and visited schools. He told Chalkbeat in May he would not start with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said in the spring. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

In Lakewood, much of the hourlong discussion evolved around expanding community partnerships and supporting students with diverse needs, which Glass said were common themes he heard throughout Monday. Glass has said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs.

“We only have so much energy, time, resources to spend, and we want to make sure that those are pointed toward the real concerns — issues and vision for the community,” he said in an interview. “We only can get to that by talking to people and finding out what that really is.”

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How Jeffco’s pick for superintendent changed his mind about education reform

Jason Glass, the sole finalist for the superintendent position in Jeffco Public Schools, toured Arvada High School last week. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Jason Glass was recruited to oversee more than 300 Iowa school districts as the state’s director of education, he was known for his work in Colorado’s Eagle County tying teacher pay to student performance.

The Republican governor who appointed Glass in Iowa called him a “reform-minded leader” and put him to work to explore similar models for Iowa’s teachers.

Over time, both while in Iowa and after returning to serve as superintendent of Eagle County Schools, Glass changed some of his thoughts on education reform. He said it happened while he was looking at education systems around the world and found that many of the popular reforms in the U.S. “were not a strong ingredient” in other systems around the world. Addressing student needs was, he said.

“Unless you’re doing something to impact poverty, you’re really not changing outcomes,” Glass said. “It changed my focus.”

Glass’s views are front and center as he is set to take on a more prominent role as the next superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district. Pending contract negotiations and a final vote Tuesday night, he will begin the role July 1.

Glass was the sole finalist of a school board that won election with support from a coalition that included well-connected parents and the teachers union.

In Eagle County, Glass is admired by the local union. He said he no longer believes in performance pay for teachers, but advocates for other ways to pay teachers other than under traditional models. He’s been critical of testing in Colorado. He believes charter schools should meet high bars, including showing quality in instruction.

“I’m most interested in getting something done,” Glass said. “That can take on different forms.”

Jeffco board members who picked Glass as sole finalist for the job praised his ability to work with different people, his work on rolling out a biliteracy seal in his district to encourage bilingual students and for “doing his homework” on Jeffco’s master plan.

The Jeffco board launched a national search earlier this spring to find a new leader.

The last superintendent, Dan McMinimee, was hired by a previous school board in a majority decision by three conservative board members who were later recalled. Three of the five current school board members are up for re-election this November.

“I really admire this board,” Glass said. “It took a lot of courage for them to run.”

Even before officially starting, Glass has been meeting groups of staff and visiting schools. On Thursday, he visited Arvada High School, where two students gave him a tour of the school and told him about the programs they say make their school great.

Glass was quiet, mostly listening to the students and asking occasional questions.

He said he won’t start work in Jeffco with an agenda.

“I’m going to spend a few months working on that relationship-building to really understand the decisions that have been made and the context,” Glass said. “From that point forward, who knows where that will go?”

He said he will consider whether Jeffco could offer a biliteracy seal — a credential given to graduating students who meet requirements to prove they are fluent in two languages.

Talking about his views on budget issues facing most Colorado districts, Glass said districts should explore working with outside groups that can help address children’s non-academic needs — services that cash-strapped districts often have to cut.

Glass said it is clear the district needs someone to unite the community.

“It’s a place that needs a strong leader, a relationship-builder,” Glass said. “Those are skill sets that I have and areas that I’ve been successful in.”

His job application highlighted that voters in Eagle County in November approved a tax increase for the district. Jeffco failed to pass two tax increase measures in November.

Charlie Edwards, the president of the Iowa State Board of Education, agrees that Glass has learned to work well with various groups.

Edwards said that when Glass started in Iowa and was working to create a statewide model of teacher pay and to create new academic standards, the hundreds of school districts used to having local control were skeptical.

“There was initially quite a bit of resistance,” Edwards said. “He worked through a lot of it. It was not an easy sell.”

Now people describe Glass as a supporter of teachers.

When he returned to Colorado after working in Iowa, Glass negotiated a contract with the school district that tied his own pay raises to teacher pay raises. It was something important to the community at the time, Glass said, because they worried about a previous leader that took pay raises while teacher salaries lagged.

Glass also rolled back the performance-pay model that he helped create as the district’s director of human resources. Now, teacher pay is more traditional but with some added performance bonuses.

“He is very supportive of what we do,” said Megan Orvis, president of the Eagle County Education Association.