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.

Looking back and ahead

Here are six big things that happened in Tennessee in 2017 that will resonate in 2018

Children in Head Start programs in Nashville enjoy games on the lawn of the governor's mansion in 2017. Tennessee is putting more emphasis on pre-K as a key to reaching statewide reading goals.

From another year of statewide testing snafus to a growing consensus that pre-K investments are key to unlocking stubborn reading barriers, Tennessee faced education challenges and opportunities in 2017 that are sure to make headlines again during the new year.

Here are six issues we expect to revisit in 2018.

1. TNReady testing: Will the third time be a charm?

During the first year of Tennessee’s new standardized test, TNReady was canceled for most grades after a testing company’s new online platform stalled on the first day. This year, testing went better, but there were fumbles, including score deliveries that were too late to be useful and a scanning mistake that led to scoring errors on some high school tests. In the spring, when the bulk of this school year’s TNReady testing happens, Tennessee is counting on high schools’ switch to online testing to expedite score delivery and pave the way for online testing the following year for most younger students. State officials say TNReady is off to a good start in its third year, with 266 high schools on block schedules completing the online test this fall.

2. Vouchers again?

The battle over vouchers had been expected to dominate education debate when the state legislature reconvenes in January. But the surprising news that the Senate sponsor Brian Kelsey doesn’t plan to carry the bill in 2018 means vouchers could stall again, unless the House sponsor Harry Brooks finds a new champion in the Senate. (Update: Brooks has since said that he won’t pursue the bill either, effectively killing the proposal.) Either way, vouchers likely aren’t going away and definitely will be an issue in 2018 gubernatorial and legislative races, especially as President Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, continue to beat the drum for allowing parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. “We have far too many students today that are stuck in schools that are not working for them and parents that don’t have the opportunity to make a different decision,” DeVos told reporters last month during her first official visit to Tennessee.

3. Priming for pre-K.

For years, Tennessee has waged a war on illiteracy with little success. But as the state seeks to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025, the growing consensus in 2017 was that investing in pre-K and early education programs is the key to reaching that goal. This year, for the first time, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding. But in Memphis and Nashville, home to some of the worst reading scores in the state, a significant challenge looms with the mid-2019 expiration of a $70 million federal grant that’s helped pay for hundreds of disadvantaged children to attend pre-K. Both communities are scrambling to fill that gap — a concern that this week compelled the Memphis City Council to pledge $8 million for pre-K classrooms (although without saying where the money would come from). The investment would be the city’s first in public education since handing over control of its schools to Shelby County four years ago.

4. A green light for ESSA.

More than a year and a half after President Obama signed a new federal education law that’s designed to give states more flexibility to innovate, Tennessee received approval this year of its new plan to meet the demands of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Tennessee’s accountability plan includes an A-F grading system, scheduled to roll out in mid-2018, aimed at helping parents and communities know more about the quality of their neighborhood schools. Beyond test scores, it will include measures like chronic absenteeism and the number of out-of-school suspensions. The plan also changes the state’s approach and timeline for holding chronically low-performing schools accountable. Next summer, Tennessee will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, setting the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.

5. Tweaking turnaround.

The Achievement School District is in its sixth year of trying to turn around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools, and the state’s education commissioner has called the state-run district its most “rigorous intervention” under ESSA. But Memphis schools taken over by the district’s approved charter management organizations have yielded little improvement in their early years, while academically troubled schools in locally operated innovation zones have shown promise, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. Though the state education department has emphasized its support of the ASD, it’s pivoting next year to a new kind of intervention called a partnership zone, in which the state will partner with Hamilton County Schools to make improvements in five chronically underperforming Chattanooga schools.

6. A microscope on Memphis.

Improper grade changes that teachers say have been happening in the shadows for years is coming to light in Tennessee’s largest district. An external investigation launched this year after a Memphis high school principal noticed discrepancies between report cards and transcripts. The probe has since flagged concerns with at least seven other high schools, and three people have been fired or suspended as a result. Talks on how Shelby County Schools will clean house, help students negatively affected, and build in safeguards against future abuse is expected to dominate the coming year, even as the district enjoyed good news this year about better-than-expected finances and student enrollment.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.

Week In Review

Week In Review: Count Day pizza, ‘Burger King’ money, and a teachers union spy

Students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School were treated to smoothies and popcorn on Count Day, courtesy of the Eastern Market and the district's office of school nutrition. The school also raffled prizes including a special lunch with the school's principal.

The slushies, ice cream, and raffle prizes that schools across the state used this week to lure students to school on Count Day are the result of a state funding system that pays schools primarily based on the number of students who are enrolled on the first Wednesday of October. The state’s had that system for more than 20 years but it’s worth asking: Is there a better way?

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says maybe — he’s just not sure what that would be. One thing he is sure of: Struggling schools need to be discerning when they’re approached by community groups with offers of help. When he visited schools this year that were threatened with closure, he said, he saw schools in such “dire shape,” they had taken “any help they could get.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the right kind.

Also this week, Chalkbeat checked in with the dynamic Central High School teacher we wrote about in June who uses music to teach students about African-American history. He had intended to return to his classroom this year — but the cost was just too high.

Scroll down for more on these stories, plus the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, don’t forget to tell talented journalists you know that Chalkbeat Detroit is hiring! We’re looking forward to expanding our coverage of early childhood education, special education, and other issues as we grow our staff in Detroit. Thanks for reading!


Count Day

  • Every kid who showed up in class on Wednesday was worth thousands of dollars to his or her school. Each child this year brings his or her school between $7,631 and $15,676, depending on historic funding levels. (Michigan school funding is based 90 percent on fall Count Day enrollment and 10 percent on enrollment in February).
  • The main Detroit district, which started fresh as the new Detroit Public Schools Community District last year, gets $7,670 per student. It had 48,511 students in class on Wednesday and expects its total official enrollment to rise above 50,000 as it submits paperwork to get credit for enrolled students who were absent Wednesday.
  • The district is one of 16 in the state that have lost more than half of their enrollment in the last decade.
  • Another district shares how it nearly doubled the number of students it serves in the last 10 years.
  • Michigan is one of 19 states that use attendance on one or two days to determine school funding levels for the year. “It’s unfortunate” that schools devote resources to “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school,” the state superintendent said. But other counting methods are also problematic.
  • Not all the prizes schools handed out on Count Day were just for fun. A local union donated 50,000 child ID kits that were distributed to Detroit students on Count Day. The kits give parents tools they can use if their child goes missing.

Staffing up

  • Music teacher Quincy Stewart had been determined to stay with his students — until he learned he’d have to take a $30,000 pay cut. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000?” he said. “I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”
  • The teacher shortage that’s left Stewart’s classroom empty (and the students at Central without access to music class) also affects charter schools.. One city parent wrote says her daughter fell behind at a top charter school last year when a substitute filled in for the certified teacher.
  • As Detroit works to raise starting teacher salaries, a new study offers some insights: Young people choose teaching more when the pay is better.
  • Last-minute talks have avoided a janitor strike in Detroit schools — for now. The janitors are employed by a private cleaning company.
  • A state teachers union says its offices were infiltrated this summer by a right-wing activist determined to dig up dirt on the organization. A Wayne County judge issued an order barring the spy from publishing information she obtained during her time posing as a college intern.
  • Another state teachers union has a new video highlighting the determination of early career educators.

Improving schools

  • The 37 schools that signed “partnership agreements” to avoid being closed by the state for poor performance have committed to improving student test scores by 2-3 percent a year, on average. If they miss the mark after three years, districts will have a choice to close the schools or reconfigure them.
  • The state superintendent urged struggling schools to decline offers of help that aren’t closely aligned with a school’s improvement plan. Schools need to be “laser-focused and not bring the flavor of the month,” he said.
  • A longtime Detroit school activist urged Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to focus on the district’s lowest-performing schools.
  • One state business leader says that Michigan students lack key skills that they need to succeed.

In Detroit

  • The historic auditorium in an abandoned west side high school building was seriously damaged in a fire. A community group had been trying to buy the building to build a community center there. The group is among many would-be buyers who’ve run into roadblocks trying to repurpose vacant former schools.
  • A ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning will mark the opening of a new school-based community center where 18 organizations will offer food, job training, and other services to the neighborhood. The center was briefly in doubt last spring when the school housing it was threatened with closure.
  • An innovative laundromat program that teaches literacy to children while their parents do the wash (the subject of a Chalkbeat story last summer) has prompted a “free laundry day” in Detroit next month.
  • Two Detroit museums announced a new partnership that will allow students to experience exhibitions at each institution on a single field trip.

Across the state

  • A GOP Michigan state legislator has been nominated to a post in the U.S Education Department under fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos. The legislator is a longtime DeVos ally who last year joined her in calling for the abolition of Detroit’s main school district.
  • A bill that would allow charter schools to grant priority enrollment to children from low-income families or those who live in certain neighborhoods has been held up due to lack of support from GOP lawmakers.
  • Almost half of Michigan’s students live in a county where there are no dedicated tax funds to pay for career and technical education programs.
  • Meet the state official developing Michigan’s plan for “transforming education through technology.”
  • Michigan may be one of the nation’s least educated states, but a Free Press columnist points out that the state at least is better than Ohio.
  • Christian schools in Michigan say they’re working to improve diversity.
  • Here’s 10 things to know about Michigan private schools.
  • Today is Manufacturing Day, when thousands of area students will get behind-the-scenes tours of 130 local manufacturing companies.  
  • This suburban teacher has won the Excellence in Education award from the state lottery.