What it looked like as students across America walked out of school to protest gun violence

Thousands of local students sit for 17 minutes during a nationwide student walkout for gun control in front the White House on March 14, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Students across America left their classrooms on Wednesday to take part in a national protest pushing for stricter gun laws and memorializing those who died in last month’s school shooting in Florida.

The event was rare in its scope, with students from hundreds of schools leaving class for at least 17 minutes in memory of the 14 teens and three teachers killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland one month ago. The event continued throughout the day, with students walking out at 10 a.m. local time across the country.

“People need to start realizing that there needs to be change,” explained Zhy’yon Hoover, a sophomore at Northwest High School in Indianapolis who helped organize that school’s protest, on Wednesday morning.

PHOTO: Dylan McCoy
Students at Northwest High School joined the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

In New York City, students in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood chanted and carried signs reading “How many more?”

Other demonstrations were quiet: elementary school students at P.S. 40 in Manhattan stood with their parents and observed a moment of silence.

At Stoneman Douglas, students had gathered on the school’s football field by 10 a.m. David Hogg, a student who has become one of the most prominent faces of student activism after the shooting, livestreamed the walk-out and thanked school administrators for supporting the effort to remember those who died.

“They don’t have their voices, but we still do,” Hogg said.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students from The SALK School of Science in New York City join Wednesday’s national walkout.

In Washington D.C., lawmakers at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on improving school safety acknowledged the event, too.

“Across the country, in a few minutes, students from across America will be exercising their First Amendment right to speak out about changes that they want on how we regulate our Second Amendment right,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, alluding to the uphill battle students may face in advocating for stricter gun control laws.

Moments earlier, Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the judiciary committee’s chair, said that he was introducing a new bill — the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial Act of 2018” — in order to conduct research on school safety and threat assessment training for schools. But Diane Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, focused her remarks on limiting access to guns.

“High school students who have lost their friends are literally begging us to take action to get these guns off the streets and out of our schools,” she said.

In several districts in the Northeast, a snow day — normally a cause for celebration among students — derailed walk-out plans. In Vermont, some students said they would delay the protest until Thursday, but in Portland, Maine, two dozen middle schoolers still marched with signs like, “Will your school be next?” and “Is it your opinion or the NRA’s?” In Massachusetts, despite widespread school closures, many students still planned to march to the statehouse in protest.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School walked out Wednesday in New York City.

At some schools, protesting students needed to navigate school policies designed to minimize disruption. But some politicians and school officials have offered their support for the event: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and AFT President Randi Weingarten walked out of a Manhattan school and participated in a “die in.” Both the Boston and Philadelphia school districts tweeted support for protesting students.

Meanwhile, students who have long been fighting — and experiencing the consequences of — gun violence had mixed feelings about the national attention the Parkland shooting has focused on the issue.

In Detroit, many students participating were remembering their own, less-publicized tragedies. Darryl Erwin, 17, recalled his mother’s shoulder being grazed when someone fired bullets at several houses on his block.

Students at Western High School in Detroit gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

“I don’t want the school shootings to overshadow the youth violence shootings that happen every day,” said Brandon Warren, a high school senior in Indianapolis who had two classmates killed last spring and started a local anti-violence group as a result. Students at his school were allowed to walk out of classes but not leave the school due to safety concerns.

In Colorado, which has a tragic history of school shootings, hundreds of Denver high school students marched out of class and converged on the state Capitol steps to chant and wave signs decrying gun violence.

Some were holding hand lettered signs: “Protect Kids, Not Guns,” one said. “Keep Your Guns Out of My School.” “Am I Next?”

“We’ve been existing in a world of violence since we were born,” one student said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, briefly address the crowd, saying into a megaphone: “You look pretty fired up,” he said into a megaphone. “A big part is just the fact you took the initiative to come out here and show up. It’s a big part, but it’s not the only part.”

Another national protest is planned for next month: a “day of action” on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. That protest, sponsored by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Network for Public Education among others, encourages events at schools focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Melanie Asmar, Monica Disare, Dylan Peers McCoy, Amanda Rahn, Kimberly Hayes Taylor, and Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting. 


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”