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.

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.

Week In Review

Week in review: As ‘count day’ nears, the scramble is on to lure students and teachers

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan districts are trying to get as many students as they can into school for next week's Count Day. That includes these kids from Detroit's Durfee Elementary-Middle school who met new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti on the first day of school.

The scorching temperatures that shut many schools down early in Detroit and across the state this week have finally broken, but in other ways, the heat is still very much on.

Next Wednesday is count day — the crucial day when the number of students who show up for class will determine much of a school’s budget for the rest of the year. Schools are planning special events including carnivals, pizza parties, and giveaways to entice as many students to school as possible. The main Detroit district is offering free breakfast and lunch to parents.

The district is also stepping up its game to bring more teachers into classrooms, considering additional incentives for educators willing to work in “hard-to-staff” schools and in shortage areas such as special education.

Scroll down for more on these stories — plus check out our latest Story Booth from a group of high school students discussing the people who motivate them to succeed.

Also, Chalkbeat has a new national newsletter! Check it out and subscribe here. And, our reporters in New York, Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana, and Detroit spelled out what we plan to cover this year — with help from our readers. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback, or making a financial contribution. And for now, read on for all of this week’s headlines.

In Detroit

  • Details of a program that would pay teachers more to take jobs in “hard-to-staff” positions in Detroit’s main district will be worked out through negotiations with the city teachers union.
  • Early numbers show the main district could see its first enrollment increase in years as it absorbs students from shuttered charter schools and the now-dissolved state recovery district.
  • U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed at Harvard University when responding to a question about Detroit schools.
  • Quicken Loans plans to bankroll computer science classes for 15,000 Detroit students. The contribution — announced as part of Ivanka Trump’s visit to Detroit this week — is among half a billion dollars from private companies and the government that will go toward computer science education across the country.
  • Here’s why 2,000 Detroit ninth graders just got free cell phones.
  • This Detroit high school has seen some tough times, but its students mean business.
  • The board that oversees the finances of the city and school district just got a new member.
  • Two researchers explain how the new hockey and basketball arena will take money away from Detroit schools.  
  • A Detroit charter school management company just got a $5 million grant from the federal government, one of 17 charters nationally to get help expanding.
  • A former Michigan governor says Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan  — and his successors — should be given control over the city schools. That same governor was just named by DeVos to a national education board.
  • Two Detroit high schools will now have special programs on Saturdays.

Across the state

  • A new study finds the state’s “schools of choice” program, which lets students cross district lines to attend school, has little effect on student performance.
  • State data show that nearly a quarter of Michigan students are not attending school in their home district. Some of those kids are in charters. Others are crossing district lines to attend a neighboring district.
  • These are the 50 Michigan districts that have the largest net loss of students from schools of choice (Detroit is No. 6). These 50 districts saw the biggest gains.
  • A photo essay from an advocacy organization illustrates how a state school funding system that provides no construction funds to districts has created “disheartening disparities in the quality of facilities between tax-rich districts and their poorer counterparts.”
  • This tax loophole is keeping money from Michigan schools.
  • Wednesday is not just count day. It’s also Walk to School day, and 300 Michigan schools are expected to participate.
  • The state court of appeals has rejected an effort by Catholic schools and lawmakers to join the ongoing legal dispute over whether state money can flow to private schools.
  • It’s hard to compare Michigan SAT scores to those in other states because all students here, not just ones heading to college, take the test. Still, here’s how Michigan students did compared to other states with high participation rates.
  • A new study says Michigan teachers have it pretty good compared to their peers in other states.  
  • The state school reform officer who led a botched effort to close 38 low-performing Michigan schools has resigned to take a job in Missouri. The state superintendent is looking for her replacement while planning another round of the “partnership agreements” that districts were able to sign to avoid closure.
  • Thirteen Michigan schools — none in Detroit — were awarded federal “Blue Ribbon” recognition for their test scores.
  • A Detroit education professor pushed back against a state education leader who says Michigan schools are not in crisis. “Michigan’s academic stagnation,” she writes, “is a real and direct threat to our state and our children’s futures.”

In other news