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. 

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.