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Many Jeffco schools use discredited curriculum to teach students how to read

Young students sit on a carpet looking at a teacher holding part of a lesson
Dozens of Jeffco’s elementary schools will have to switch K-3 reading programs because they use a curriculum rejected by the state.
Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

One-third of schools in Colorado’s second-largest district use a reading program the state has rejected and researchers have panned for promoting strategies that run counter to science.

Another 20% of schools in the 84,000-student Jeffco district rely exclusively on a district-created core reading curriculum that some educators and school board members say is hard to navigate and has numerous holes.

These problems came to light after Jeffco officials released a school-by-school list of K-3 reading curriculum on Oct. 9, meeting a long-standing request by parents, advocacy groups, and media outlets to make the information public. Previously, district leaders didn’t know what each of Jeffco’s 90 district-run elementary and K-8 schools used to teach children how to read.

The list of reading curriculums illustrates not only the stark differences between Jeffco schools, but also the large number of district schools that are out of compliance with a 2019 state law requiring them to use K-3 reading curriculum backed by science.

That law — an update of Colorado’s landmark 2012 reading law — was borne out of frustration from lawmakers, parents, and advocacy groups that the original law, the READ Act, barely boosted reading scores despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent.

Only about 41% of Colorado third-graders can read well, according to the most recent state test results. In Jeffco, the rate is 46%, but the district ranks lower than the state on another measure that reflects how much students improve from year to year.

The 2019 READ Act update gave the state stronger levers to ensure that teachers receive adequate training on literacy instruction and that schools use scientifically sound reading programs. It also demanded more transparency from districts, requiring them to report to the state what K-3 reading curriculum their schools use. The Colorado Department of Education plans to eventually post that information on its website.

State officials say schools that report using a program the state has reviewed and rejected because it doesn’t align with science must make a good-faith effort to switch — or their districts could face lower accreditation ratings.

Chalkbeat asked Jeffco officials by email Tuesday and Wednesday how and when they’ll transition schools that use unacceptable curriculum to new programs. Reached by phone Thursday, Chief Academic Officer Matt Flores said he didn’t have time to respond that day.

State officials provided few specifics on how or when the education department will enforce the law.

Floyd Cobb, the state education department’s executive director of teaching and learning, said by email the department won’t create “a comprehensive plan for how to support” districts that need to make curriculum changes until after April 15. That’s when all Colorado districts will have to submit school-by-school curriculum lists.

Joyce Rankin, a state board of education member, said she wants schools to make changes “as soon as possible.”

She’s heard concerns from educators and district leaders who say, “Oh with COVID now, you’re piling this on.” She said, “My argument to that is, ‘No, this is what should have been happening in 2012.’”

Experts say a strong core curriculum is a key ingredient for effective reading instruction, but not the only one. Teacher training and coaching are also important, and in their absence, a good curriculum won’t get the job done.

“A curriculum in and of itself is only a piece of the pie in many respects,” said Lynn Kuhn, president of the Rocky Mountain branch of the International Dyslexia Association. “I do believe teacher knowledge is a huge component of effective instruction.”

Here’s what Jeffco schools use to teach reading

Nearly one-third of Jeffco’s 109 elementary and K-8 schools — that includes charters — use one of 10 core English-language reading curriculums the state approved last spring. Core Knowledge Language Arts, Wonders, EL Education, and Open Court are the most common choices. Schools in this category won’t have to switch programs.

Another third of Jeffco schools will have to switch because they use a reading program called Units of Study for Teaching Reading, more commonly called “Lucy Calkins.” It’s been popular for years in Colorado and around the nation, but experts say it doesn’t do a good job teaching phonics and encourages debunked strategies, such as having students guess at words instead of sounding them out.

Colorado curriculum reviewers agreed, awarding the program just 14 of 27 possible points, not enough to move on to the second, more in-depth phase of evaluation last spring. The program’s publisher, Heinemann, appealed the state’s decision and lost.

That means Jeffco and other Colorado districts that use Lucy Calkins, including Denver, Aurora, Cherry Creek, and Mesa County Valley, will have to phase out the program or risk state sanctions.

When Jeffco officials provided the reading curriculum list on Oct. 9 — a deadline they set on Sept. 11 — they omitted nine district-run schools. Chalkbeat requested the missing information that afternoon. A district spokeswoman said Wednesday that district officials were still gathering it and likely wouldn’t have it for several more days.

Using data from school improvement plans or information provided by principals, Chalkbeat retrieved answers for five of the missing schools.

How teachers view Lucy Calkins

Jeffco teachers have a range of opinions about the Lucy Calkins reading program.

Jon Cefkin, a first-grade teacher at Lukas Elementary School in Westminster, said he likes a few things about it, such as the cute posters and graphics, but he finds the lessons wordy and hard to execute. Teachers never got the same kind of in-depth training on Lucy Calkins they’d received on other reading programs earlier in his career, he said.

Cefkin also said some lessons don’t relate to his students or their lives — for example, one about a teacher learning yoga.

“I would not be upset about ditching Lucy,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem applicable to many of our students.”

About 35% of Lukas students are eligible for subsidized meals, a proxy for poverty, and Cefkin said many live in homes with both parents and grandparents.

About 5 miles away at Meiklejohn Elementary, veteran kindergarten teacher Melissa Houlihan has a different take on Lucy Calkins. She said it helped deliver solid reading growth last year, her first year using it. It also weaves in seamlessly with the Lucy Calkins phonics and writing programs she also uses.

“For my kids, it hits them where they need to be,” she said.

Houlihan acknowledged that Meiklejohn’s student population is more affluent than most — just 4% of students are eligible for subsidized meals — and said many students come into her kindergarten class already knowing a lot of skills they’ll need for reading.

She also believes there’s no one-size-fits-all curriculum and that the most important factor is “the teacher and what they’re trained to do.”

“If we had to switch [from Lucy Calkins,] that would be a really large bummer,” Houlihan said. “We spent a ton of money on that.”

She wonders where her school will get the funds to buy a new program, especially with budgets extra tight because of the pandemic.

Jeffco will spend some money on new core reading programs this year, according to a district plan detailing how the district will spend nearly $1.9 million in READ Act funding for struggling readers. About $180,000 — 10% of the money — will go toward the purchase of core curriculum from the state’s approved list.

The rest will pay for tutoring, teacher training, and other reading instruction materials. Reading programs, which usually include teacher manuals and reading and practice materials for students, can cost tens of thousands of dollars per school.

The holes in Jeffco’s district-developed curriculum

About two dozen Jeffco schools rely exclusively on something called “Bridge to Curriculum,” a set of district-created resources. Most other district schools also report using it, though usually in combination with commercial programs.

It’s not clear how state officials will handle schools using Bridge to Curriculum materials because state reviewers only evaluated commercially available reading programs last spring, not district-developed programs.

Regardless of the state’s stance, plenty of Jeffco educators aren’t happy with Bridge to Curriculum, which also houses materials for teaching math, science, and other subjects. At a recent school board meeting, Board member Susan Miller said when a district teacher walked her through the online offerings, they looked “very rich,” but “then we got to resources and it said there are no resources.”

Cefkin, who’s been teaching for 26 years, said he finds Bridge to Curriculum massive and cumbersome, and worries it will discourage beginning teachers who need clear guidance to teach reading.

Brooke Williams, president of the Jeffco teachers union, said the union often hears from teachers who say there are big gaps or broken links in Bridge to Curriculum materials on reading and other subjects. Such problems force them to spend hours plugging holes, a task made more onerous by ballooning COVID-era workloads, she said.

“It always seems to fall on educators’ backs ... to find those resources on their own,” she said. “Why can’t we pick some things that are approved to help our educators out?”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Look up Jeffco K-3 reading curriculum by school

Search for a Jeffco school below to find out what core reading curriculum it uses in kindergarten through third grade and whether that program has been approved by the state. A core program is a comprehensive instructional program designed to teach all children in a classroom a broad range of reading skills.

Search Jeffco reading curriculum here

School Name Core reading curriculum Approval status
School Name Core reading curriculum Approval status
Hackberry Hill Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Kendallvue Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Maple Grove Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Swanson Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Welchester Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Arvada K-8 Wit and Wisdom (grade 3) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Columbine Hills Elementary School Orton-Gillingham Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Columbine Hills Elementary School Heggerty Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Eiber Elementary School Fundations (grades K-1) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Mitchell Elementary School Fundations Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Mitchell Elementary School Heggerty Phonemic Awareness (grade k) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Parmalee Elementary School Orton-Gillingham Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Parr Elementary School Orton-Gillingham Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Peiffer Elementary School Mondo Phonics (grade K) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Peiffer Elementary School Open Court phonics strand (grade 1) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Powderhorn Elementary School Fundations (grade K-2) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen (C) Wit and Wisdom Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Ryan Elementary School Mondo Phonics (grades K-1) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Collegiate Academy of Colorado (C) Being a Reader (grades K-2) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Stober Elementary School Fundations Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Wilmore Davis Elementary School Really Great Reading Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Witt Elementary School Fundations (grade K) Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Eiber Elementary School Mondo Approved as supplemental or intervention program
Allendale Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Bradford K8 South (K-3) Lucy Calkins No
Blue Heron Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Coal Creek Canyon K-8 Elementary School Lucy Calkins — Phonics (grades K-2) No
Coronado Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Eiber Elementary School Leveled Literacy Intervention ( grades 1-3) No
Elk Creek Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Fairmount Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Foothills Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Fremont Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Governor's Ranch Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Hutchinson Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Lawrence Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Little Elementary School Lucy Calkins (grade k) No
Lukas Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Marshdale Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Meiklejohn Elementary Lucy Calkins No
Mitchell Elementary School Lucy Calkins (grades k,2,3) No
Mortensen Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Mount Carbon Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Mount Carbon Elementary School Lucy Calkins — Phonics (grades K-2) No
Jefferson County Open Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Parr Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Patterson International School Lucy Calkins No
Peck Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Ralston Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Red Rocks Elementary School Leveled Literacy Intervention No
Semper Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Shaffer Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Shelton Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Sierra Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
South Lakewood Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Two Roads Charter School(C) Lucy Calkins No
Van Arsdale Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Vanderhoof Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Vivian Elementary School Leveled Literacy Intervention (grade 3) No
Warder Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Westridge Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Wilmot Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Green Mountain Elementary School Lucy Calkins No
Edgewater Elementary School Estrellita Pending
Adams Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Adams Elementary School Phonics from a consultant (grade 3) Not reviewed
Allendale Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Belmar School of Integrated Arts Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Bergen Meadow Primary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Bradford K8 South Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Blue Heron Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum (grades 1-3) Not reviewed
Campbell Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Coal Creek Canyon K-8 Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Coal Creek Canyon K-8 Elementary School Reading A to Z Not reviewed
Colorow Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Columbine Hills Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Compass Montessori - Wheat Ridge Charter School (C) Montessori reading curriculum Not reviewed
Coronado Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Compass Montessori - Golden Charter School (C) Montessori reading curriculum Not reviewed
Doral Academy of Colorado (C) Journeys Not reviewed
Doral Academy of Colorado (C) Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Devinny Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Edgewater Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Edgewater Elementary School Leveled books Not reviewed
Eiber Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Elk Creek Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Excel Academy Charter School (C) Reading Street Not reviewed
Fairmount Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Fitzmorris Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Foothills Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Foster K-8 Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Fremont Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Glennon Heights Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Governor's Ranch Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Hutchinson Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Jefferson Academy Elementary (C) Spire EPS 1/2/3 and Epic Books Not reviewed
Sheridan Green Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Kendrick Lakes Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Kullerstrand Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Kyffin Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Lawrence Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Leawood Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Leawood Elementary School Jan Richardson guided reading Not reviewed
Little Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum (grades 1-3) Not reviewed
Lukas Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Mitchell Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Molholm Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Montessori Peaks Charter Academy (C) Montessori curriculum Not reviewed
Mortensen Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Mount Carbon Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Normandy Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Jefferson County Open Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Jefferson County Open Elementary School PEBC Thinking Strategies and Workshop Not reviewed
Parmalee Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Parr Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Patterson International School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Peck Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Peiffer Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Powderhorn Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Powderhorn Elementary School leveled books (grade K-2) Not reviewed
Prospect Valley Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Ralston Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Red Rocks Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Rose Stein International Elementary Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Rooney Ranch Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Ryan Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Secrest Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Semper Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Shaffer Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Sierra Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Slater Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Slater Elementary School Scholastic "leveled book room" Not reviewed
Deane Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
South Lakewood Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Emory Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Stober Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Stony Creek Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Stott Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Ute Meadows Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Vanderhoof Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Warder Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Weber Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Westgate Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
West Woods Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Westridge Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Wilmore Davis Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Wilmot Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Witt Elementary School Bridge to Curriculum Not reviewed
Golden View Classical Academy (C) Literacy Essentials: The Journey from Spelling to Reading Not reviewed
Mountain Phoenix Community School (C) Steiner-Waldorf Curriculum and Roadmap to Literacy: A Guide to Teaching Language Arts in Waldorf Schools Grades 1 through 3. (In the process of selecting a state-approved reading program) Not reviewed
Bear Creek K-8 School Open Court Reading Yes
Lasley Elementary School Adopting new curriculum this year (Either Core Knowledge Language Arts, Into Reading or Wonders) Yes
Dennison Elementary School Open Court Reading Yes
Adams Elementary School Open Court Reading Yes
Arvada K-8 Core Knowledge Language Arts (grades K-2) Yes
Belmar School of Integrated Arts Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Bergen Meadow Primary School Benchmark Workshop (grades K-2) Yes
Addenbrooke Classical Academy (C) Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Columbine Hills Elementary School Wonders Yes
Free Horizon Montessori (C) Wonders Yes
Great Work Montessori (C) Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Jefferson Academy Elementary (C) Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Jefferson Academy Elementary (C) Wonders Yes
Lincoln Charter Academy (C) Open Court Reading Yes
Mortensen Elementary School Core Knowledge Language Arts (k, 2,3) Yes
Normandy Elementary School Into Reading Yes
Patterson International School Into Reading (grade 3) Yes
Collegiate Academy of Colorado (C) Core Knowledge Language Arts (grade 3) Yes
Thomson Elementary School Open Court Reading Yes
Three Creeks K-8 Wonders Yes
Three Creeks K-8 Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Vanderhoof Elementary School Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Vivian Elementary School Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Woodrow Wilson Charter Academy (C) Wonders Yes
West Woods Elementary School Into Reading Yes
Wilmore Davis Elementary School Core Knowledge Language Arts Yes
Witt Elementary School Core Knowledge Language Arts (grades 1-2) Yes
Dutch Creek Elementary School EL Education Approved for some grades
Green Gables Elementary School EL Education Approved for some grades
Lumberg Elementary School EL Education Approved for some grades
Stevens Elementary School EL Education Approved for some grades
Westgate Elementary School EL Education Approved for some grades
Peak Expeditionary - Pennington EL Education Approved for some grades
West Jefferson Elementary School EL Education Approved for some grades
Notes: The reading programs listed are all used in K-3, unless otherwise noted in parentheses. Charter schools are indicated by a (C) next to the school name. Source: Jeffco district officials provided most of the information, with the rest coming from school principals or publicly available school improvement plans. Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat

Note: Since the original publish date, we received additional information from Jeffco about the curriculum used at five schools. We have updated those entries from “no information provided” to “Bridge to Curriculum.” The schools are: Hackberry Hill, Kendallvue, Maple Grove, Swanson, and Welchester.

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