welcome parents

Denver’s new plan to engage families began with a daydream and ends with regulations

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post
Joshua Montoya and Tina Chavez attend a parent-teacher conference for her daughter, Sofia, at Fairview Elementary in 2010.

In a school district often criticized for not listening to the community, a few parents recently sat down with Denver Public Schools staff to revise its 13-year-old family engagement policy.

One of the first things they did was daydream, said Theresa Becker, the district’s director of family constituency services. “Close your eyes,” she said she told the parents, “and envision a school that has active, vibrant family engagement: What do you see? What do you hear?”

The staff took down their answers: parents helping in the classrooms, family members volunteering, parents feeling like the school is “another home for them,” Becker said.

The policy they came up with doesn’t differ much from the district’s last attempt in 2003. It talks about how schools should foster a welcoming environment for families. How principals and teachers should respect parents as equal partners in their children’s education. And how families should provide input and advice to their schools.

But this time, the parents and staff wrote regulations meant to better ensure the policy will be carried out. The DPS school board is set to vote Thursday on whether to adopt both.

“This new policy has more outlines for parents to break barriers, especially with the language part,” said Elodia Romero, a mother of three DPS students whose first language is Spanish and who works as an organizer with the Denver-based Padres & Jovenes Unidos advocacy organization. The regulations, she said, are “like a roadmap for how to engage parents.”

The proposed regulations say schools will have a plan to “effectively communicate with parents and the community on a frequent and regular basis throughout the school year, formally and informally, in the languages spoken by the parents and the community.”

When possible, front desks should be staffed with people who speak the languages parents speak. And they say interpretation should be available at school-sponsored programs and events.

Thirty-seven percent of DPS students speak Spanish, according to district statistics. Other common languages include Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, French, Nepali and Russian.

In addition, the regulations require schools to assign a point person to oversee volunteering, to set aside a dedicated space for families to network, to consult with families before making important decisions, such as changes to curriculum, and to set up fully functioning school accountability committees to provide feedback on school budgets and academic programs.

“Parents should feel like the red carpet is rolled out for them, not that there are locks on the doors to their involvement,” said Karen Mortimer, a DPS parent who is active with the community organization Together Colorado and who helped write the policy.

But that’s not always the case. While most parents report that they’re generally happy with their children’s schools, fewer say the schools ask for their input on important decisions.

In the most recent DPS parent satisfaction survey posted online, from 2014, only 60 percent of the approximately 40,000 parents who answered said their school does a good job. A slightly higher percentage — 66 percent — said their school provides opportunities to connect with other parents, while 65 percent said their school reduces barriers to parent participation by providing things like interpretation and convenient meeting times.

To Mortimer, who sees big differences in how well schools engage families, that’s not enough.

“Parents are not empowered with the knowledge and the understanding of what should be happening at their schools. School leaders are not being held accountable,” she said. “Those two things come together and mean that you have wide disparities.”

The proposed regulations attempt to change that by calling for the creation of a family advisory council “to provide advice on all matters related to family engagement to include programs supported by Title I funds.” Title I funds are federal dollars provided to school districts to improve academic outcomes for low-income students. DPS will get about $32 million next year.

Schools with a certain percentage of poor students are designated as Title I schools; 156 of DPS’s 199 schools fit that description, according to a district list. Title I schools are required by law to have a parent involvement plan that families help write. Research shows that when families are engaged in their children’s learning, they do better academically.

But DPS officials admit that the level to which Title I schools truly involve their parents in writing the plan and carrying it out varies. The district relies on school staff to report whether they’ve met with parents to show them the plan and explain what being a Title I school means as required by law, said Veronica Bradsby, the DPS title programs director.

“I can’t speak for every principal in every school,” Bradsby said. “But I can tell you there’s compliance and then there’s commitment.” She said that while she’d like every Title I school to show commitment, she knows that doesn’t happen.

In 2003, the last time DPS updated its family engagement policy, the district set up a parent advisory council to ensure the policy’s success. According to Becker, who works for the DPS Office of Family and Community Engagement, the council met for a few years but stopped when the district began hosting its superintendent parent forums, at which the schools chief meets with parents to discuss initiatives and programs underway in DPS.

Mortimer, for one, hopes this time will be different. Only time will tell, she said: while policies and regulations are important, what the district does with them matters more.

“Any document is only as good as the staffing and the support that goes behind it,” she said.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.