Future of Schools

Dougco moves ahead with voucher charter

Updated July 21 – Douglas County officials will not appear before the State Board of Education in August. Instead, state officials have told the district that, because the waivers they’re seeking for the new charter are automatic under state law, a letter of notification is sufficient. This story reflects the change.

CASTLE ROCK – As expected, Douglas County school board members on Tuesday gave the final nod of approval to a charter school that will serve as the administrative home of students with vouchers.

Douglas County school board member Craig Richardson
Dougco school board member Craig Richardson

School board members voted unanimously June 27 to create the Choice Scholarship School but made that approval contingent upon a review of its charter school application by the district’s accountability committee.

With committee members’ comments in hand and a tweaked application, school board members voted to move ahead with the next step in the voucher pilot, formally known as the Choice Scholarship Program. The vote was 5-0, with two board members absent.

Some charter school leaders have criticized the use of the state’s charter law to implement the pilot. Yet neither that criticism nor multiple legal efforts to halt the voucher plan appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of Dougco school board members.

“I think this is a momentous time in the life of our Choice Scholarship Program,” board member Craig Richardson said before Tuesday’s vote. “I’m excited about this next step in our deployment of that program.”

The charter school needs one more stamp of approval but it’s procedural. Dougco officials are asking for a series of automatic waivers, typical of charters, and must notify the Colorado Department of Education of those they’re seeking. In return, state officials respond with a letter indicating receipt of the notification.

‘Nothing like this has been done anywhere’

Charter schools are usually created by outside groups – from parents to for-profit companies – who want to offer an alternative to traditional neighborhood schools. They form a board of directors, submit lengthy applications to school districts and plead for approval before school boards.

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But the Dougco charter is different. District administrators wrote the application at the direction of the school board, which waived the usual application timeline and, on Tuesday, appointed the charter’s first board of directors. It consists of three parents of voucher students and two community members, including Ben DeGrow, an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute.

Even more unusual is that the voucher charter won’t have teachers or classrooms. Instead, up to 500 students will enroll in the school but they’ll take their vouchers totaling $4,575 in public funds – and their backpacks – to private schools.

By creating a charter, Dougco gets a state-assigned school number for funding purposes and can more easily track the attendance and testing of its voucher students. In the resolution approved Tuesday, the charter is described as “the most efficient way” of managing the pilot.

“As far as we know, nothing like this has been done anywhere,” Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said last week. “There is not a pattern for this, we’re creating it.”

Responding to criticism from charter leaders

Using a charter school to implement the voucher pilot has sparked concern from some charter-school leaders.

When EdNews Colorado first wrote about the “voucher charter” concept in March, Alex Medler, who has long been active in the state and national charter movements, commented “this idea is extremely problematic” and “hopefully this is a non-starter.”

And Jim Griffin of the Colorado League of Charter Schools was quoted in the Denver Post as saying the Dougco charter application “just does not meet what we have adopted as quality standards for charter school applications.”

Tuesday, Richardson responded to criticisms that the Dougco voucher charter is a “sham.”

“I think that’s an unfortunate and somewhat shrill description of what may be a very legitimate policy difference,” he said. “Reasonable people can disagree about this …

“I would urge all of us to remember, including our friends in the charter community, this is about – let’s see what works, let’s see what doesn’t work and we’re very, very interested in their views.”

Video highlights from Tuesday’s Douglas County school board meeting

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.