Future of Schools

Voucher vote expected Tuesday

Douglas County school board members appear poised next week to approve the state’s first district-driven voucher program, which would launch this fall with up to 500 students.

Douglas County School Board President John Carson
Douglas County School Board President John Carson listened to public comment Wednesday.

District staff recommended approval of the voucher pilot Wednesday, winning unanimous praise from board members and paving the way for a March 15 vote.

The plan would provide Dougco families with $4,575 per student next school year – or 75 percent of the total per-pupil funding allocated by the state – to pay toward tuition at participating private schools.

At the same special meeting, board members approved a resolution directing district staff to explore asking voters for a tax increase in November.

The combination of the two issues – increasing choice and raising taxes – is no coincidence, one board member said.

“The juxtaposition of these two thoughts is not arbitrary at all,” board member Craig Richardson told the audience, then looked at staff.

“I think it would suggest, if the board were to go forward with both concepts, not only do we believe in choice and competition but we believe in you – we believe this district, going into that competition, is worth investing in and it will do well.”

Could vouchers foil tax increase?

Most seats were taken in the boardroom at district headquarters in Castle Rock but only a handful of people addressed the board, having been told walking in that public comment was limited to the budget.

Next steps
  • A vote on vouchers is expected at the board’s 5 p.m. meeting March 15 at 620 Wilcox St., Castle Rock.

Learn more

Some connected the dots to vouchers anyway.

Anne Kleinkopf, the mother of two Douglas County graduates, said she was happy to hear the board was considering a tax request.

But she said it would be “disastrous” to ask for more money “when we are in the process of giving public dollars to private schools in contravention of Colorado state law.”

Leigh Shuster, who has twins in a district elementary school, said some might see the tax question as a referendum on vouchers.

“I believe many voters will lash out come election time … if they believe their tax dollars are financing private school tuition,” she said.

The voucher proposal recommended by staff is little different than what was discussed during three community meetings in February. Of the seven board members, only one, Cliff Stahl, asked any questions Wednesday.

Afterward, Stahl said he was “about 80 percent” in favor of the pilot, though he wanted more details on how the district would hold private schools accountable.

Questions on admissions, accountability

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said the district will track the academic growth of voucher students, who will be required to take state tests, to ensure the trend is positive.

In addition, she said, “We would do an annual financial review (of the private schools), an annual parent satisfaction review and an annual student achievement and growth review – by student, by school and by the entire program.”

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen responded Wednesday to questions.

Stahl also asked whether private schools participating in the pilot would have to change their admissions criteria.

“What we are saying to the private school partners is they do not have to change their admissions criteria and their admissions process,” said Robert Ross, the district’s attorney.

“For the purposes of accepting students, they can’t discriminate on an area that would be prohibited by law. Except for the religious schools, if they currently use religion as criteria for admission, they don’t have to change that.”

Board President John Carson repeated his conviction that the voucher proposal “contrary to what some people seem to believe, will actually improve the financial situation of the school district.”

He said the proposal is part of Douglas County’s push to innovate in the face of fiscal constraints. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in K-12 funding for 2011-12 means a loss of $465 per pupil for the district.

We’re “not going to sit here like lemmings” and do nothing, Carson said.

“I don’t have fears for our system. I think our system will compete very well,” he said. “I am excited about these changes.”

Details of Douglas County’s voucher proposal

Who could participate

  • Students currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year.
  • Students must live in the Douglas County School District.
  • In the proposed pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery would be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
  • Participating students would be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.

How the money would flow

  • 75 percent of per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school – based on an expected per-pupil amount of $6,100, that’s $4,575 per student.
  • The remaining 25 percent – an estimated $1,525 – would stay with the district.
  • The value of the voucher or scholarship would be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
  • The district would write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents would sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
  • Parents would receive four equal payments annually. Payment could be withheld if the student, parent or private school is in violation of program rules.
  • If 500 students participate, at $6,100 per student, that’s a total of $3.05 million – with $2.28 million going to private schools and $762,500 staying with the district.

How private schools could participate

  • Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District could participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
  • Schools would not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they would not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
  • Schools must be willing to provide the option of a waiver to voucher students for the religious portion of their program.
  • Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
  • Schools would be expected to “demonstrate over time that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to draft policy on the voucher plan.
  • Schools must demonstrate financial stability, disclosing at least the past three years’ worth of audited financial statements and other financial data.
  • Schools must demonstrate their facilities are up to building codes and that they have a safe school plan as required by law.

How the district would use the money

  • Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 would be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office would be created to administer the program.
  • The remaining $401,301 would be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.

*Source: Draft board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot. A final draft is expected to be posted Monday before the March 15 vote.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.