For Joel Newton, the work to improve some of Jefferson County’s lowest-performing schools is personal.
His two daughters attend Lumberg Elementary, where only four out of every 10 third graders are reading at grade level.
But he doesn’t blame the teachers or Jeffco Public Schools.
“The irony of our schools is that we have great programming during the school day,” he said. “But those kids who are growing up in poverty, they need extra support on top of what our schools offer if they’re going to catch up and stay ahead.”
That’s the theory behind Newton’s organization, the Edgewater Collective, and the nonprofit’s first public project, the Jefferson Success Pathway.
Formed in 2013, but just now going public, the Edgewater Collective’s mission is to foster relationships between six schools in and around the city of Edgewater and nonprofit organizations that can offer services to the schools leaders, teachers, students and their families.
Schools in the Edgewater Collective
• Molholm Elementary
• Edgewater Elementary
• Lumberg Elementary
• Stevens Elementary
• Wheat Ridge 5-8
• Jefferson HighThose schools, run by Jeffco Public Schools, are not like most in the suburban — mostly white and middle class — county. Most of the students — at least 70 percent at each school — come from households that earn little enough to qualify for either free or reduced-lunch prices, a proxy of poverty, and are Latino. There is also a concentrated population of English language learners.
The students who attend those schools are also usually behind grade level in reading, writing, and math, and are less likely to go to college, let alone graduate.
Newton believes the adults inside the schools and the district leaders who support them are doing all they can to enrich those students lives — but they need help to overcome what many call the “opportunity gap.” The opportunity gap is the barriers some students, usually poor students of color, face to access quality resources that support them before, during, and after school. Those barriers could include a lack of breakfast, after school programs, or a quiet place to study and use technology.
To close those gaps, Newton has partnered with more than two dozen organizations from the health, nonprofit, faith-based, and government sector.
It’s his role to connect those organizations to the schools.
Part of the reason why they haven’t already connected, Newton said, is because most confuse Edgewater, the tiniest community in Jefferson County, with Denver.
“I think people still feel Edgewater is Denver because the demographics align better with the students who attend Denver Public Schools,” he said. “And the test scores look more like the schools across the street in Denver.”
As part of his work, Newton and a community board have put together a list of goals he hopes his organization can influence while working with Jeffco Public Schools. Those goals include increasing the number of families that are safe, healthy, and supported; preparing more students for kindergarten; increasing the number of students able to read and write at grade level by the third grade; and growing the graduation rate.
The Edgewater Collective, which published its ambitions earlier this month, will spend the early part of 2015 gathering baseline data around those goals and then set targets.
“We don’t want to be another initiative that just looks good on paper,” Newton said at the public unveiling of the Jefferson Success Pathway project.
Newton already has the support of Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee.
“We all know what the challenges are,” McMinimee said at that meeting. “And we can spend a lot of time talking about past mistakes. Or we can rally around this shining light.”
The nonprofit’s announcement of the Jefferson Success Pathway program took place the same week as Jeffco officials announced their own intentions to speed up improvements at some of the schools the nonprofit works with.
Newton doesn’t see his work as a duplicated effort. Instead he wants to run alongside the field as a sort of water boy or cheerleader for the teachers inside the schools.
“We don’t want to lay blame, but say as a community, “how do we work together?” Jeffco schools can’t do this alone,” he said.
Newton hopes to share his organization’s work with the district’s fractured school board in the spring of 2015 and create an official partnership between the nonprofit and the school district via a board resolution. He’ll only do so if he knows he can get a rare 5-0 vote.
“We’re staying away from the big issues, the divisive debates, we’re going to keep asking how do we help all kids in this area to succeed,” Newton said. “The children and family in our area can’t sit by and watch a three year battle with the school board — they need help right now. They need the support right now. They need investment right now.”