Down to the wire on R2T

StockARRALogo92909Colorado’s effort to win part of a $4.35 billion education reform grant is coming down to the wire, with just two weeks to go before the federal Race to the Top deadline.

Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is among the 70 districts with school boards already voting to participate in the reform plan if the Colorado application is approved.

Leaders in another 40 districts have indicated their boards are likely to say yes, state officials said, but the holiday break has delayed formal votes. School boards in Aurora, Cherry Creek and Denver are expected to vote in the next week.

At least one district is a definite no – the 105-student Kit Carson school district on the Eastern plains, where Superintendent Gerald Keefe warns of federal encroachment in local education decisions.

“People don’t understand,” he said, “if you let the federal government get their hooks in any deeper, they’re not letting go.”

Keefe’s district also refuses to accept federal Title 1 dollars so it’s not subject to the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act.

He readily acknowledges that turning away federal money is easier when your property tax base is fed by oil and gas companies.

But in other districts, where money is tight and the number of students far exceeds a hundred or so, agreeing to participate in Race to the Top could mean millions of dollars.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson pointed out many of the reforms in the state’s application already have been mandated by state lawmakers.

That includes implementing the new academic content standards recently approved by the State Board of Education and creating a new assessment system to go with them, steps carrying an estimated price tag of $80 million.

“It’s what we have to do to move our work forward for kids,” Stevenson said. “If we don’t get these dollars, if we don’t get Race to the Top, how are we going to do that?”

Points for participation

The federal scoring rubric for Race to the Top awards more points to states with broad participation from their school districts, represented by signed agreements.

But just how much is enough – Is 50 percent of districts good enough? What about 75 percent? – is not spelled out.

Of the 500 potential points a state can earn for its application, according to federal guidance issued in November, 45 points are possible based on the participation of local school districts willing to sign agreements.

Nina Lopez, who’s working to gain district support, said the 110 of the state’s 178 districts expected to participate so far represent more than 80 percent of Colorado’s 800,000-plus schoolchildren.

“We’re going to work with districts as best we can, for as long as we can, to provide information they need to hopefully sign on,” said Lopez, special assistant to Education Commissioner Dwight Jones.

Districts willing to participate are asked to sign Memoranda of Understanding or MOUs outlining their responsibilities – such as implementing the reforms and responding to requests for information.

They sign off on a preliminary “scope of work” or reform plan and, if Colorado wins a piece of the billion-dollar prize, they have 90 days to complete a final, more detailed scope of work with the state.

But if the district and the state cannot agree on that final reform plan, the district can withdraw, Lopez told district officials listening in on three webinars over the past several weeks.

“The scope of work will be negotiated separately with every district,” she said, noting the disparate sizes, cultures and needs of the state’s districts. “If we’re unable to agree on a scope of work, your MOU can be nullified.”

Bringing unions on board

The MOUs require the signature of a district’s superintendent and school board president. The signature of the district’s teachers union is not required but is highly encouraged, Lopez said.

“If you have an association, we encourage you to engage in conversation with them,” she told district leaders. “They are absolutely key to your success.”

Monday, Lopez said about a dozen unions across the state had signed MOUs alongside district leaders.

It’s uncertain how many of the state’s 178 districts have associations that might be asked to sign on to the state’s R2T application. Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, said the CEA has active affiliates in 154 districts and members in virtually all of the state’s districts.

In other states, unions have opposed Race to the Top efforts. Education Week, the weekly journal, reported Dec. 30 that Florida’s top union official used a newspaper ad to discourage local affiliates from signing Race to the Top agreements.

CEA has taken a different approach, with union leaders participating in committees convened to recommend reforms to Gov. Bill Ritter, who has final say over the state’s application.

“We believe that we have had some very positive impact on the direction some of this stuff might have taken,” Fallin said.

Still, the CEA has yet to see a copy of the final application – due out this week – and is not ready to commit to a positive review.

“The possibility exists, there could be a part or two of the final draft we would have difficulty with,” she said. “And when we see it, we’ll let you know.”

Union concerns – in Colorado and nationally – have centered around the federal government’s push to link student achievement to teacher evaluation, pay and retention.

“We are going to be concerned about the rights of employees so that they can’t be arbitrarily and capriciously hung out to dry because some kids in their class didn’t do well on CSAP,” the state tests, Fallin said. “No one will ever want those poor kids.”

Last month, concerned by a rush to get signatures before an initial Dec. 23 deadline for MOUs, the CEA sent out an email to its local affiliates urging them not to sign anything just yet.

Fallin said the direction now, given the time crunch before the federal deadline, is that local union leaders who feel comfortable working with their districts should do so.

Racing to the finish

Lopez, with the Colorado Department of Education, said state leaders have shared prior drafts of the state application with selected groups, such as the CEA, and will share the final application as well.

They won’t post it publicly until after Jan. 19, she said, because of the competitive nature of the grant. A summary of the final plan is expected to posted Wednesday or Thursday on the state’s Race to the Top web sites.

Linking student academic growth to the evaluations of teachers and principals is worth 58 points on the Race to the Top scorecard, among its highest-value areas.

“It’s a balance for us to accumulate as many points as we can while still honoring local interests,” Lopez said. “What you will see in the plan is specific language about what will be completed by when.”

For example, she said, “by 2012, all participating districts will have in place high-quality evaluation systems for their personnel.”

 But since the state has just adopted standards and is working on a testing system for them, she pointed out, the first six to 12 months of the four-year grant period is likely to be devoted to identifying those new measures of student growth.

Union presidents in Denver, Aurora and Jeffco said Monday that they want to see the final language before they put their pens to any agreements.

“I don’t think that you should ever sign something when you don’t know exactly what you’re signing,” said Brenna Isaacs, president of the Aurora Education Association. “And because I’m signing on behalf of the licensed teaching force in Aurora Public Schools, I have a responsibility to them.”

Douglas County’s union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is the largest union in Colorado to sign an MOU for Race to the Top.

President Brenda Smith said the union and district have worked well on past projects that could have been contentious, such as adopting one of the country’s oldest performance pay plans in 1993.

“As long as it’s done with us and not to us,” she said, “we think we can come up with a successful plan.”

Click here to read the latest summary of the state’s Race to the Top plan, updated Monday. 

Click here to visit Gov. Bill Ritter’ and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien’s Race to the Top web page and here to visit the Colorado Department of Education’s Race to the Top web page.

See a list of previous Ed News stories about R2T and other stimulus funds.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”