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. 

$1 billion

The tension between CPS enrollment declines and new schools

PHOTO: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
The West Loop neighborhood on the Near West Side is booming with new residents and corporate headquarters.

Chicago plans on opening a handful of schools in the next several years. But for whom?

Chicago Public Schools faces a critical decline in enrollment and is closing or phasing out four more schools on the city’s South Side as a result.

Yet the district just unveiled a new $1 billion capital plan that adds schools: an open-enrollment high school on the Near West Side and an elementary school in the Belmont Cragin community on the Northwest Side. That’s in addition to repurposing two old buildings to open classical schools in Bronzeville on the Near South Side and West Eldson on the Southwest Side.

CPS is soliciting feedback about the plan this Thursday ahead of next week’s board of education vote, but community organizers say the proposal shows a bias toward investments in or near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Some complain the new schools will siphon enrollment and resources from current neighborhood options, and worry the schools are an election-year ploy that will exacerbate or enable gentrification. Others contend that the district’s spending still prioritizes white and mixed communities near downtown and on the North Side as opposed to majority black and Latino communities on the South and West sides.

Despite the criticism, and despite declines in city population and enrollment, CPS said it is taking a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to to creating new schools and academic opportunities. In a statement to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS defended its decision to open new schools, despite enrollment declines, by citing community demand. And CPS CEO Janice Jackson told a room of business and nonprofit executives at the City Club of Chicago on Monday, “we can’t do great work without investing” — and not just in school staff, but in buildings themselves.

At a budget hearing later in the day, Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark stressed the money was being allocated “with a great deal of focus on local schools that in the past had legitimate reason to feel that they were not prioritized as they should (be).”

The problem, still, is fewer and fewer families are enrolling their students at CPS.

Enrollment is declining at Chicago Public Schools.

The roughly 371,000 students enrolled at CPS this year is a 15 percent decrease compared with the year 2000, when enrollment topped 435,000, according to CPS data. And there’s no sign the numbers will trend upward soon:  The district projects about 20,000 fewer students to enroll in the next three years. The trends mirror population drops in Chicago, which has about 182,000 fewer residents than it did 18 years ago, according to Census data. More than 220,000 black residents have left since the year 2000.

One expert on neighborhood change in Chicago, Alden Loury of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said building new schools shouldn’t be part of a broad policy given the city’s population declines. However, he said new schools may make sense in certain areas.

“You may see pockets within the city where there’s a very clear difference happening,” he said.

Demographer Rob Paral, who publishes Chicago demographic data on his website, said while the city’s population might be down, some parts of the city that have grown, especially areas that are gentrifying and former white ethnic enclaves transformed by Latinos and immigrants.

“Chicago has got these microclimates when it comes to neighborhood change,” Paral said.

You’ll see what he’s saying in Belmont Cragin, a community just west of one of Chicago’s most popular gentrifying communities, where the population has ballooned as the overall city population has dropped.

A new elementary school for Belmont Cragin

Belmont Cragin is a quiet, working-class neighborhood full of single-family brick bungalows and two-flat apartments. Taquerias, Mexican boutiques, hair salons and auto bodies dominate commercial corridors that used to serve more Polish residents, who are concentrated on the northern end of the community.  Since 1990, Belmont Cragin’s population has increased 40 percent to 80,000 and changed from two-thirds white to 80 percent Latino. Paral said Latinos have moved from communities like Logan Square to the east, where gentrification pushed them out, and replaced aging white populations. Latinos have similarly transformed former enclaves for European immigrants on the Southwest Side, like West Eldson and Gage Park.

CPS said in its statement that community groups and leaders in Belmont Cragin advocated for the elementary school, and that CPS “shares these communities’ vision of expanding high-quality educational opportunities to children of all backgrounds.”

CPS wouldn’t say who in the Belmont Cragin community had asked for a new school. It wasn’t Rosa Reyes or Mariana Reyes (no relation). They said their children’s school, Burbank Elementary, is losing students and needing improvements to its roof, heating and cooling systems. The district labels Burbank, like most schools in Belmont Cragin, as efficiently using its space and not yet suffering  from under-enrollment — yet. Still, its student body is shrinking. Latino enrollment at CPS seems to be falling, too. Experts note that immigrants are coming to the city at much lower rates than in the past when they offset black population loss, and that birth rates have declined across the board. 

The mothers said CPS allowed a Noble Charter Network to open in 2014 that exacerbated enrollment declines at Steinmetz High School, and that the same happened to Burbank in 2013, when an UNO charter elementary opened a few blocks west of the school.

Steadily losing students costs Burbank funding, doled out per-pupil. That’s why they the parents don’t support CPS’ new school proposal.

“It will be taking from the local schools,” Rosa Reyes said.

A push for a Near West Side high school

Drive west from Chicago’s central business district and you’ll pass through the Near West Side, one of the city’s 77 official community areas. However, those official boundaries also contain a racially and economically diverse mix of neighborhoods. East of Ashland, you’ll see the West Loop, home to mostly white and affluent residents, pricy condos, trendy restaurants, and a booming business community that includes corporate headquarters for Google and McDonalds.

But west of Ashland, as you approach the United Center where the Chicago Bulls play, you’ll find more low-income residents, public housing, and African-American residents. Like Belmont Cragin, the Near West Side has witnessed immense population growth in recent decades. White people have flocked to the area, especially the affluent West Loop, while the black population has plummeted. In 1990, about 66 percent of Near West Side residents were black and 19 percent were white. Nearly 20,000 new residents have moved in since then. Today, the Near West Side is 30 percent black and 42 percent white. An analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that most African-Americans leaving Chicago are under 25, and low-income. Alden Loury, the council’s research director, said the city is struggling to retain young black people who might eventually establish families, and that many black Chicagoans have left seeking better job markets, more affordable housing, and higher quality schools.

CPS hasn’t announced where on the Near West Side it will put its proposed $70 million high school – but the community groups calling loudest for it are pro-business groups and neighborhood organizations led by mostly white professionals. The community group Connecting4Communities and the West Loop business organization the West Central Association have advocated for a new high school and see the mayor’s proposal as responsive to the growing community.

“Most of the high schools that people are comfortable sending their children to, the good ones, are selective enrollment,” said Executive Director Dennis O’Neill of Connecting4Communities.

He said that parents whose children don’t test into those schools—Jones College Prep, Whitney M. Young Academic Center, and Walter Payton College Prep —lack an acceptable option.

“Our neighborhood school, Wells, which is nowhere near our neighborhood, is so under-enrolled, and is not [a school] that people feel comfortable sending their children to,” he said. “When people see a school is so woefully under-enrolled, they just don’t have confidence in it.”

Wells Community Academy High School, which sits near the intersection of Ashland and Chicago avenues, also is mostly black and Latino, and mostly low income.

But O’Neill emphasized that high school request isn’t an effort to exclude any groups. He said the groups have a proposal for a new high school that draws on eight feeder schools, including a school serving a public housing development, to ensure the student body reflects the diversity of Chicago.

Loury of the planning council said it makes sense that as the Near West Side grows there’s a desire to satisfy that growing population. However, he found the idea of low enrollment at a predominately black and Latino school amid a boom in white population to be problematic. Parents might avoid sending their children to certain schools for various reasons, but a new building nearby furthers disinvestment in schools struggling to fill seats.

“It’s a pretty classic story in terms of Chicago and the struggles of integration and segregation,” he said.

A classical debate in Bronzeville

When it comes to CPS’ new school plans, line items don’t always mean new buildings, as evidenced by the two classical schools opening in existing structures in West Eldson on the Southwest Side and in Bronzeville on the South Side.  

Bronzeville Classical will open this fall as a citywide elementary selective enrollment school. Classical schools offer a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum to students who must test in. Last year, more than 1,000 students who qualified were turned away for lack of space, according to CPS, which is spending $40 million to expand three existing classical programs elsewhere.

“The district is meeting a growing demand for classical programs by establishing programs in parts of the city that do not have classical schools, like Bronzeville – making this high-quality programming more accessible to students in historically underserved neighborhoods,” the CPS statement read.

Alderman Pat Dowell, whose ward the school is opening in, supports the new Bronzeville school.

“It provides another quality educational option for families in Bronzeville and other nearby communities,” Dowell wrote in a statement she emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago. “No longer will children from near south neighborhoods seeking a classical school education have to travel to the far southside, westside or northside for enrollment.”

However, some South Side residents see the classical school as problematic.

Natasha Erskine lives in Washington Heights on the Far South Side, but is Local School Council member at King College Preparatory High School in the Kenwood community near Bronzeville. She has a daughter enrolled at King, a selective enrollment high school. Before that, her daughter was in a gifted program at a nearby elementary school. Erskine supports neighborhood schools, but struggled finding schools that offered the kind of field trips and world language instruction many selective enrollment schools offer.

“I see the disparity, because it’s one we participate in it whether I like it or not,” she said.

Bronzeville is a culturally rich neighborhood known as Chicago’s “Black Metropolis,” where black migrants from the South forged a vibrant community during the Great Migration, building their own banks, businesses and cultural institutions.

And it retains a resilient core of committed black residents, but has suffered some decline and lost population like other black neighborhoods.  The community area that contains Bronzeville and Douglas has lost about half of its black population since 1990.

But Bronzeville is adjacent to the gentrified South Loop, which is grown increasingly white in recent years. And it’s a short drive  from Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to be built. Paral, like other observers, predicts the Bronzeville is one of the areas between the South Loop and the Obama Library that will be further gentrified in coming years.

Jitu Brown, a longtime Chicago education organizer and community leader who heads the Journey for Justice Alliance, believes that the investments are an attempt to attract more white families to areas at a time when low-income people and African-Americans are being priced out and leaving the city. Brown added that creating more selective-enrollment schools is a different type of segregation: “You’re segregating talent.”

On Thursday, the district will solicit feedback about the spending plan via simultaneous public hearings at three different sites, Malcolm X College, Kennedy-King College, and Truman College. Here are the details.

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District