change is gonna come

Jeffco mulls overhaul for struggling schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Lumberg Elementary School principal Rhonda Hatch-Rivera visits with students Thursday. She hopes a proposed overhaul of schools, including hers, yields more social and emotional support for students.

EDGEWATER — When Principal Michael James joined the administration team of Jefferson High School, he was appalled at the disrespect in the hallways and the litter around campus. Two years later, the hallways are quiet and the lawn, while dried out from the fall, is freshly manicured.

“It’s not a perfect walk everyday,” James said, referring to his regular rounds through the halls to check on classrooms. “But I don’t feel that culture is here anymore.”

Jefferson High, Jeffco Public Schools’ lowest performing high according to state tests, is in a bit of an upswing. It will be announced next week the school, which serves mostly Latino and poor students, has climbed a rank in the state’s annual evaluation, ending the possibility of state sanctions.

But that progress so far isn’t enough.

That’s why James, other area principals, and district leaders are proposing a substantial overhaul to the educational programs and operations at Jefferson High and the five schools that send students to the secondary school. The proposed changes, if approved, will affect schools that serve the poorest students of Jefferson County.

The proposal, which was shared with teachers earlier this week and the community’s parents today, calls for an extension of the school day and year, and for an expansion of dual language programs. The principals also want students in all grade levels to focus on longer-term projects that require problem solving skills rather than rote memorization and recall.

Jefferson High School Principal Michael James, right, visits with students Thursday. James said he hopes politics doesn't get in the way of proposed changes to his school.
Jefferson High School Principal Michael James, right, visits with students Thursday. James said he hopes politics doesn’t get in the way of proposed changes to his school.

Further, if the proposal is approved by the Board of Education next year, Jefferson High School will serve seventh through 12th grades while all other schools in the neighborhood will serve pre-kindergartners through sixth grade.

Jeffco officials may also ask the state to grant innovation status to Jefferson High. That would provide charter school-like waivers to some state laws for the school.

Teachers at all schools would also receive similar professional development while students and families would see an increase in support for their social and emotional needs.

“I split a social worker with another elementary school,” said Rhonda Hatch-Rivera, principal of Lumberg Elementary School. “That’s not nearly enough support for my students.”

The proposed changes — which administrators and school leaders stress have not been finalized — would be the most substantial overhaul for the poorer Jefferson High School articulation area since anyone can remember. Teachers and community members will be invited to share their input on the proposal in various meetings throughout January.

While test scores have risen in some areas, all has not been equal. Principals of the Jefferson area, which include the entire city of Edgewater and slices of Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, believe these changes will fix that.

“We’ve known for several years — the Jefferson area has unique needs,” said Terry Elliott, Jeffco’s Chief School Effectiveness Officer. “And when you look at the data, we need to look at it differently and do everything we possibly can to support student growth. While we’ve made some improvements and we have some celebrations. But it’s not widespread enough. It’s not everybody — we do need to improve.”

In many ways the Jefferson area population is more like urban Denver than suburban Jefferson County. The average household income in the city of Edgewater is about $40,000, compared to the county average of $68,000. Residents are also mostly Latino. Additionally, Jefferson-area principals believe white and middle class students in the area are choosing to attend other Jeffco schools because of the reputation Jefferson High School has earned throughout the years.

“Our area is losing a lot of families to choice,” James, the high school principal, said. “Some have preconceived notions about what happens at our school. We need to make these changes so our community in Edgewater can be proud of all of our schools.”

A Lumberg Elementary School student exams sand as part of an experiment Thursday. If a district proposal is approved, students will spend more time working on longer projects.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Lumberg Elementary School student exams sand as part of an experiment Thursday. If a district proposal is approved, students will spend more time working on longer projects.

The most substantial changes in the proposal is the closure of Wheat Ridge 5-8, moving seventh and eighth graders in the area to Jefferson High, and the consideration of innovation status for Jefferson High.

Wheat Ridge 5-8 has been considered a failing school by the state education department for four years. While Elliott praised the teachers at the school for their hard work, he acknowledged the rare school model is not working for students. He said if the plan goes through, those students will likely move to Stevens Elementary School and many of the teachers at Wheat Ridge 5-8 will be relocated.

“Those grades don’t go away, so those teachers don’t go away,” he said.

Elliott and school principals hope their suggestion to close Wheat Ridge 5-8 will reduce the number of transitions students have to make, and the one they do easier. Previous transitions between schools, James said, have led to a loss of student proficiency in math and English.

Similar reforms at the middle school level have been rolled out in Cincinnati, which influenced some of thinking in Jeffco, Elliott said.

If Jefferson High seeks innovation status, it would be the first in the district to do so. Innovations schools are an advent of a 2008 state law. Schools granted innovation status are freed from many central administration policies such as budget rules, curriculum mandates, and teacher contracts. Architects of the law believed that granting such freedoms could accelerate academic achievement.

Results in Denver, where innovations schools are most common, have been mixed.

Before the school can seek waivers from the state, 60 percent of teachers at Jefferson High, a majority of the school’s administration and School Accountability Committee, as well as the Jeffco school board must sign off on an application.

Given the political division between the school board and teachers union, that might be easier said than done.

President of the Jeffco teachers union John Ford said he thought teachers should have been involved in drafting the proposal, instead of just asking for feedback.

Ford said the proposal may in fact be the best thing for the Jefferson neighborhood, “but you have to have some conversations with people who work in those buildings, more than just the principals. This is just another example of unilateral decision making without teacher input.”

Ford said he’s heard from dozens of teachers from the area, most concerned about the lack of collaboration.

Elliott, the district effectiveness officer, said the rollout to teachers was intentional. He said he hoped teachers would have time to reflect on the proposal during the winter break and share feedback in January when they return.

“It was never an intent to exclude teachers,” Elliott said. “It’s just a question of where do you start a process?”

Jefferson High Principal James hopes politics doesn’t get in the way of accelerating student achievement.

“I need to know in my heart of hearts that [the school board] understands that a school like Jefferson is different than Dakota Ridge, or Conifer, or almost any of the district’s high schools — and there are 17 of them,” he said. “I want them to know and trust that there are structures and programs and the right people in place to make a difference in these schools.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect there are 17 other comprehensive high schools in Jeffco, not 12. It has also been corrected to correctly identify Stevens Elementary School. 

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”