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. 

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”