The eight stories that changed Colorado’s education landscape in 2014

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Garrett Hjelle, a Columbine High School student, was one of about 10 students ejected from a Jeffco Public Schools board meeting for attempting to disrupt the evening.

As 2014 year comes to a close, Chalkbeat Colorado looked back to identify the stories and themes that had the largest impact on classrooms across Colorado. Major themes included discontent about testing and school funding, school improvement efforts that are and in many cases aren’t working, and questions of leadership by principals and school board members.

Students take to the streets

“The students of Jeffco are standing up for themselves, and for their friends, family, teachers and most importantly, their education. So are you with us?”
— Jessica Yan, Standley Lake High School student

Colorado students along the Front Range made sure their frustrations — on a variety of issues — were heard loud and clear this year.

Students in Jefferson County, Boulder, Denver, and Aurora left their desks for a string of protests against their school board, standardized testing, and two grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of black men in Missouri and New York.

While the issues were not connected, the series of student-led protests stretched from September through December. Adult reaction to the walkouts was mixed. Most school and civic leaders in Jefferson County and Boulder marveled at the walkouts. Others wondered out loud about the influence of adults on the student’s decisions to protest. And Denver Mayor Michael Hancock pleaded with students to return to class.

In Jeffco, students have vowed to keep an eye on the school board. Adults behind the opt-out movement plan to capitalize on the largest public demonstration against testing to date. And Denver school and city leaders are hosting conversations about race relations. But whether any systemic change comes from the protests is still unclear.

Testing backlash

“Colorado still has to have that conversation — what is that we want from our state system. I think that conversation should be occurring.”
— Joyce Zurowski, executive director of assessment at CDE

Students in Boulder weren’t the only ones — and certainly not the first — upset about changes to Colorado’s testing system. Since the start of the 2014 legislative session, some Coloradans have been been engaged in a renewed debate about how many exams students should be asked to take, and for what purpose.

While the debate about standardizing testing is not new, it has become increasing charged due to two main factors. First, individuals and organizations who respectively oppose the Common Core State Standards, which the state had adopted, and standardized testing have found commonalities in their issues. In some instances, they’ve joined forces. Second, this is the first year of new computer-based assessments, which seem to be eating up more class time and causing logistical headaches, some school leaders claim.

A panel created by the Colorado General Assembly is expected to make recommendations to the legislature early next year on how the state’s testing system should change.

The fight over the negative factor

“We have much ground to make up in school funding. We made some good progress this year, but we are nowhere close to making a proper investment in our public schools.”
— Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association

After voters soundly defeated a constitutional amendment that would have raised an additional billion dollars for schools in November 2013, the coalition of education interests behind that proposal found itself in disarray and split by deep disagreements over the path forward.

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At the heart of the disagreement was the negative factor, a mechanism that the legislature created during the recession to cut the state’s basic school funding. School superintendents and school boards argued that the legislature should focus on backfilling years of cuts driven by the negative factor, and that money should come with no strings attached so that they could restore whatever programs they’d been forced to trim.

But others, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, argued that new school funding could be used as a driver of educational improvement if used in very specific ways to support programs like early literacy and English language instruction.

The two main finance bills, the Student Success Act and the School Finance Act, were introduced in late February. But the arguments, negotiations, and amending continued until the last day of the session, when the House approved the final version of the finance act.

While it’s likely schools will get even more money next year, superintendents are lobbying lawmakers and the governor to ensure that money comes without conditions. And a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the negative factor is making its way through the court system now.

Jeffco interrupted

“Organizations founder when there is instability. Like any corporation, where there is infighting and distraction among leadership, the organization loses direction.”
— David Bloomfield, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center professor

Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district's Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher "sick out."
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district’s Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher “sick out.”

For many years, the Jefferson County school district was the epitome of a suburban school district in Colorado. Most of the 85,000 students in the district performed better than their peers across the state on standardized exams and the district was seeing rising graduation rates.

But in 2013, a new majority, with strong conservative ties, was elected to the school board.

Their message: we can do better. In little more than a year that board has hired a new superintendent; given more money to charter schools in order to close a past funding disparity; and developed a new compensation system for teachers that rewards teachers that earn the highest evaluation rating.

But along the way, critics of the board majority believe they rushed to half-baked decisions; the board chairman failed to comply with open records requests; and one member proposed a curriculum review committee to ensure U.S. history is patriotic which triggered weeks of acrimony and national headlines.

Rumors of a possible recall effort continue to swirl throughout the sprawling suburban county, which also serves as an election bellwether. But opponents to the board majority face an expensive uphill battle if they want to make that happen.

Denver’s new plan emphasizes racial equity, closing opportunity gap

“I can’t worry about tomorrow. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure these kids get to high school. They deserve it.”
— Elza Guajardo, Kepner middle school principal

Students at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver pass between classes. Plans to open a new STRIVE charter school and district-run program in 2015 are on hold for a year.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver pass between classes. Plans to open a new STRIVE charter school and district-run program in 2015 are on hold for a year.

In August, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education approved a new and slimmed-down strategic document. The aim: to increase the number of quality school options available to families and close stubborn racial achievement gaps. With the self-congratulating phase over, all eyes are on several big moves aimed at improving equity and access to top educational pr grams throughout the district.

The quality of schools in southwest Denver, which is home to some nearly a fourth of all Denver students, has for years been the subject of concern and discontent. But that’s starting to change, as the district has made reform in southwest Denver — particularly at the neighborhood’s struggling Kepner Middle School — a priority. But not everyone agrees on the best path forward for schools in the southwest. Possible fault lines in the debate include whether new schools that open in the neighborhood should be charter or district-run, and how those schools should best serve the neighborhood’s many students learning English.

And across town, the IB program at George Washington High School has for 30 years educated a small group of high-performing students and sent many of them off to some of the nation’s most elite colleges. The rigorous four-year program admits students based on grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interviews. But in an effort to make the program more inclusive, district officials are opening up the pre-IB program to a much wider swath of students. The move caused an uproar among families at the school, many of whom worry that broadening the program will dilute its rigor.

A promise of improvement at Denver’s Manual High School flounders

“A lot happened this year that we can’t get back. If we can get thought this year, next year will be good.”
— John Goe, Manual art teacher

Eight years after Denver Public Schools officials rebooted struggling Manual High School, promising to rebuild it as a world-class school for northeast Denver, the school had once again fallen away from the public eye and languished as the city’s lowest-performing high school.

English teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
English teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.

But that changed in 2014, after Chalkbeat reporters detailed the rise and fall of reform efforts at the school and Denver officials attempted a dramatic and at times controversial mid-year course correction.

Chalkbeat’s months-long reporting effort found many factors that hindered the school’s efforts to provide a high-quality education for its students, including a continuously tense relationship with the district that stretched through the tenure of three principals over seven years and mismanagement of the school’s budget, which forced staff to abandon key parts of the school’s instructional program.

A week after Chalkbeat’s series ran, Denver officials replaced the school’s principal.

New principal Don Roy made immediate changes to the school, some small and some more significant. He brought on more school security and implemented tighter disciplinary rules. He also backpedaled from some elements of the school’s model, including an extended school calendar that had left many students and staff burnt out. And in June, Roy announced that he would not renew the contract of the school’s assistant principal Vernon Jones, a decision that drew protests from many community members who felt Jones was their connection to and voice in the school.

DPS quietly and shortly considered merging Manual with its flagship high school, East. But community outrage from both campuses squashed that idea. The district is now searching for a new principal to lead Manual in the 2015-16 school year.

In DPS, principal turnover is highest where improvement intentions are most intense

“The notion that great systems can exist without great principals is ridiculous.”
— Tom Boasberg, DPS superintendent

A key and very public strategy the Denver school district has touted has been its reform of how it hires, trains, and retains its school leaders. And while Denver’s overall principal turnover rate has fallen by almost half in recent years, churn of school leaders has not slowed at nearly a quarter of Denver schools, where three or more principals have come and gone since 2008.

Columbine Elementary School principal Jason Krause looks at a student's hall pass. Krause is Columbine's latest principal, the school's fifth in seven years.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Columbine Elementary School principal Jason Krause looks at a student’s hall pass. Krause is Columbine’s latest principal, the school’s fifth in seven years.

That turnover, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of state records, is concentrated in schools where the district has pushed its most intense improvement efforts, schools that researchers say are most in need of high quality and steady leadership. Principals have been thrust into struggling schools with little training, given support that feels more more burdensome than beneficial, and held to expectations that some describe as impossibly too high.

As schools lose principals to burnout or officials move them out, rocky transitions disrupt students’ classrooms and leave communities feeling isolated from their schools.

District leaders say that they are beginning to take steps to understand Denver’s principal churn in order to figure out what to fix. For example, most principals now have development coaches.

The struggles of Steel City’s turnaround

“If the state has all the answers, why are they waiting for five years?”
— Rod Slyhoff, Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce

Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.

It’s becoming increasingly likely the 18,000 student Pueblo school district will be the first big test of the state’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions. Of the dozen or so school districts that are less than a year away from having a conversation with the state about its accreditation, Pueblo City Schools is the largest.

At risk is a loss of federal funding; students’ diplomas will likely be worthless; and the city’s reputation, which was once nationally recognized for teaching students of color how to read well, and its economic recovery is on the line.

The struggle to improve the city’s schools has been fought on many fronts. And to better understand how a school district with a large concentration of poor and Latino students works to improve itself, Chalkbeat spent the spring interviewing dozens of district officials, teachers, principals, students, and community members.

In one case, the city designed a socioeconomically diverse school where most students are succeeding. But in doing so, the district also unintentionally created the state’s lowest performing middle school that has struggled to keep a principal more than a year.

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.