JEFFERSON COUNTY — Principal Warren Blair has a teacher problem: He has to keep hiring them.
In the five years his school, Wheat Ridge 5-8, has been open, teacher turnover has been a consistent challenge. Just last year, Blair had to replace about a third of his staff. The year before that, he said, a little less than half of his staff left. One year, the teacher turnover rate Wheat Ridge was 70 percent.
Tonight, the Jeffco Public Schools board of education will vote on a plan that aims to reduce those high rates of teacher turnover and improve student achievement in the part of the county known as Jefferson, where Wheat Ridge 5-8 is located. As part of the plan, the district will close Wheat Ridge 5-8 and send seventh and eighth graders to Jefferson High School, create specific professional development programs for teachers at all six schools, and develop a problem-based learning curriculum for each grade level.
At the same time, the board will decide whether the district should move forward with a similar set of changes in the Alameda neighborhood, which is suffering from extreme overcrowding in its elementary schools.
Both clusters of schools serve mostly poor and Latino students, unlike most of the rest of the majority-white, middle-class suburban district.
If the board green-lights the proposals in their current form, many details, such as bell schedules and new incentives for teachers, will still need to be worked out. “All the unknowns need to be decided, fast,” Blair said.
The plan for the Jefferson neighborhood aims to address lower academic achievement, while the plan for the Alameda schools is designed to relieve overcrowding at elementary schools in Lakewood. But though the reasons for the proposed changes are different, the plans are similar.
In both neighborhoods, academically struggling middle schools will be merged with nearby high schools. In Alameda, next year’s seventh and eighth graders who would attend O’Connell Middle School will instead report to Alameda High School. In Jefferson, seventh and eighth graders who would attend Wheat Ridge 5-8 will instead report to Jefferson High School.
O’Connell Middle School will be converted to a new elementary school and draw students from nearby Stein Elementary, where enrollment is at 164 percent of the building’s capacity. Currently, O’Connell Middle School enrolls only seventh and eighth graders and uses just 60 percent of its building space.
Under the current plan, the Wheat Ridge 5-8 building would house Stevens Elementary; Sobesky Academy, which serves Jeffco students with extreme emotional needs would move to the current Stevens campus.
The new district-run elementary school in the Alameda area will adopt an International Baccalaureate or IB model. It will complement the IB program that Alameda High already uses.
Meanwhile, all Jefferson schools will offer a dual language program for native Spanish speakers and will adopt problem-based curriculum. That means students will be asked to learn math and science concepts through real world problems.
The main difference between the school revamps in the two neighborhoods involves teachers. The Alameda plan does not include changes to teachers’ professional development, compensation, or schedules. But such changes are very much at the heart of the proposed Jefferson plan.
While details are still being worked out, teachers in the Jefferson neighborhood — which the district refers to as the Jefferson articulation area — can expect to have special professional development, more support in the classroom, time carved out to work with peers across the hall and at other schools, and a discussion about a different compensation model.
“We want to make teaching in the Jefferson articulation area a desired career path,” said Terry Elliott, Jeffco’s chief effectiveness officer.
Tara Scholten, an eighth grade teacher at Wheat Ridge 5-8, said she hopes the changes include more formal teacher collaboration, known as professional learning communities. But conditions need to be right for that to work, she said.
“Teachers need to be vulnerable” she said. “It takes extra time and you can’t close your door and just teach by yourself.”
Mandy Hayes, a dual language teacher at Molhom Elementary in the Jefferson area, is cautiously optimistic about the changes despite the unknowns, but has been critical of the plan’s rollout so far.
She said communication to teachers and parents has varied from school to school. “I’m pouring my heart and soul into my community every day,” she said. “The staff is going to be the ones living and breathing these changes. And there have been more questions raised than answered. That’s not creating a positive work environment.”
High teacher turnover plagues both neighborhoods
While curbing teacher turnover isn’t part of the Alameda area’s plan, turnover rates in the Lakewood schools are similar to those in the Jefferson neighborhood, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s data.
At Alameda High, for example, teacher turnover was 26 percent last year. That’s compared to 21 percent at Jefferson High.
For the 2013-14 school year, teacher turnover rates were also high in at least three Alameda area elementary schools: 28 percent in Kendrick Lakes Elementary, 23 percent at Patterson Elementary, and 20 percent at Stein Elementary.
In the Jefferson area, 42 percent of Stevens Elementary left their posts last year, compared to 28 percent at Edgewater Elementary, and 21 percent at Lumberg School.
Meanwhile, the district’s average teacher turnover rate — which includes teachers who have retired or moved into administration, as well as those who have switched schools, left the profession, or been fired — was 10 percent last year, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Education.
The plans the board will vote on tonight have been pitched to the community at district board meetings and at the schools that would be affected by the changes.
Parents in both the Jefferson and Alameda neighborhoods have been most vocal about their concern about the safety of seventh and eighth graders who would share the same campus as high school juniors and seniors.
“They don’t feel like they’re safe in their elementary and middle schools now,” said Molhom Elementary teacher Hayes.
In fact, student incident rates, which include classroom suspensions, in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions reported to the Colorado Department of Education, are much higher in the Jefferson and Alameda areas than in the district as a whole, especially at the middle schools. During the 2012-13 school year, the student incident rate at O’Connell Middle School was 53 percent, compared to a district average of 8.6 percent. Meanwhile, the incident rate at Wheat Ridge 5-8 was 47 percent.
But principals at both Alameda and Jefferson high schools said they’re taking every precaution to keep students safe even if the changes are approved, by having different start times for younger and older students, funneling different grade levels to different parts of their building, and having locker room aides during gym class.
“There will be adult supervision at all times,” said Susie Van Scoyk, Alameda High’s principal.
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted a prevision of the Jefferson area plan that would move Stevens Elementary School to the Wheat Ridge 5-8 campus and the Sobesky Academy to the Stevens campus. This article has also been updated to reflect the correct teacher turnover rates at Wheat Ridge 5-8.