kindergarten clash

Jeffco board balks at expanding free full-day kindergarten

In a school district with a $648 million budget, the $600,000 proposal to add free full-day kindergarten at five more Jefferson County elementary schools next year appeared to be a modest expansion of an existing program.

But the removal of that line item by a split vote of the conservative-leaning  school board on April 3 has generated an outcry that has some community members questioning the board’s priorities and its approach to the district’s growing low-income population.

Now, a group of concerned parents is mobilizing to speak out against the removal of the line item at the board’s May 1 meeting, and administrators are scrambling meet the board majority’s request for Jeffco-specific data showing the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten.

The fate of the kindergarten expansion proposal is still unclear and there’s been no move to eliminate free full-day kindergarten at the 40 schools where it’s currently offered.

But the debate has highlighted how much the political winds have changed since the district first launched free full-day kindergarten at 30 schools in 2008 and expanded it twice in subsequent years. These days, the board’s three-member majority has taken a skeptic’s stance on the accepted wisdom that full-day kindergarten can help improve reading proficiency, close achievement gaps and reduce retention rates.

School Board President Ken Witt said on Thursday that while he found national studies showing positive outcomes from full-day kindergarten “certainly enlightening,” other studies have shown that the effects don’t last.

“There’s competing information on this topic,” he said.

For veteran observers of the early childhood political landscape, the board’s demand for local data and concerns about possible “fade-out” come as no surprise.

“Typically, it’s the conservative right that’s opposed things like quality preschool and full-day kindergarten,” said Bruce Atchison, director of the Early Learning Institute at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

He said while fade-out of full-day kindergarten effects has been demonstrated in some research, “the reality is that’s a couple studies.”

Many more, he said, show that such programs have lasting positive effects on children

Expansion proposal follows trends

In Colorado and nationally, free full-day kindergarten — especially in schools and districts with large concentrations of poor students — has become increasingly common in recent years.

“As we had money available, we made sure it went to free full-day [kindergarten]” said Marcella Hoefner, director of early childhood education in Jeffco.

Parents like Kelly Johnson worry that by blocking expansion of the program, the current board is neglecting the needs of low-income students.

“I just am not getting the picture… that they are looking at those kiddos,” she said. “We’re going to be a have- and have-not district.”

But Witt said the current model in which free full-day kindergarten is available school wide at select schools even though some families can afford to pay for it isn’t efficient or fair.

The 40 Jeffco schools that currently offer free full-day kindergarten — down from 45 a couple years ago — have low-income populations ranging from 36.8 to 95 percent. The five schools that would have added free full-day kindergarten under next year’s budget proposal have low-income populations ranging from about 37 to 43 percent.

Given such numbers, it’s clear that some families not classified as low-income currently have access to free full-day kindergarten and even more would under the expansion proposal. At the April 3 meeting, Witt expressed concern that the proposed expansion could lead the way to free full-day kindergarten at every school. In response, some audience members called out “yes” and applauded.

Witt responded, “No, I’d like to make data-based decisions, data-driven decisions.”

Advocates for the five-school expansion agree that some of the families served by free full-day are not officially poor, but say they may not be particularly well-off  either, or may include English language learners who struggle in school because of language barriers, not poverty.

Overall, 34 percent of Jeffco students come from low-income families, up from 18 percent a decade ago. District administrators noted that the county also has the highest homeless population in the state.

Tricky funding 

While some states fund universal full-day kindergarten, Colorado does not. Currently, school districts get funding for full-day kindergarteners equal to 58 percent of the amount they receive for first- through 12th-grade students — an average of $3,858 instead of $6,652 per student. That means districts must come up with the rest of the money for free full-day themselves, either from their general funds, federal Title 1 dollars, grants or some other source.

“The more innovative districts are out there raising money,” said Atchison.

DPS data showing achievement differences between full-day and half-day kindergarteners.
DPS data showing achievement differences between full-day and half-day kindergarteners.

Colorado Springs District 11, where 57 percent of district students are low income, is one district that offers free full-day kindergarten at all traditional elementary schools.  In Cherry Creek, where 26 percent of students are low-income, free full-day kindergarten is available at six of the district’s more than 40 elementary schools. At other schools there, parents pay $290 a month, or $218 if they’re low income, for an afternoon add-on called “Kindergarten Enrichment.”

In Denver, where 73 percent of students are low income, full-day kindergarten is available at every school, but is only free for students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Others pay a sliding-scale fee ranging from $90 to $310 a month. All told, 99.27 percent of Denver kindergarteners attend a full-day program. In Jeffco, that number is 75 percent.

Asked if Jeffco would consider a sliding scale fee model for full-day kindergarten, administrators said they were unsure.

Witt said, “We will certainly consider a proposal that’s brought.”

While parent Tina Gurdikian believes the state should fully fund universal full-day kindergarten, she said, “In the meantime, it doesn’t mean the district shouldn’t advocate for it.”

Like other parents concerned about the recent board decision, she feels it will help the district reach some of its key achievement goals, including increasing the percentage of third-graders who score proficient or advanced on third grade reading tests from 80 to 85% by August 2015.

But to Witt, it’s not clear without seeing Jeffco-specific data that free full-day kindergarten is the means to that end.

“We have to have plans that are data-driven,” he said. “Jeffco information is important.”

Gurdikian said, “I understand his request for Jeffco data, but to ignore any state and national data is shortsighted.”

Hoefner, noting that the district’s assessment team is now working to compile kindergarten achievement data, said, “We had not, as a team, ever been asked to provide trend data.”

In neighboring Denver Public Schools, local data on the impact of full-day kindergarten show that full-day students do better in reading than their half-day peers. The differences were largest in kindergarten, but were still evident by third-grade.

For example, 57 percent of Denver’s kindergarteners who attended full-day programs between 2001-02 and 2008-9 scored proficient or advanced on third-grade reading tests , compared to 51 percent of half-day kindergarteners.

Picking and choosing investments

One of the issues that has rankled supporters of free full-day kindergarten over the last few weeks is that some higher-dollar programs that appear to benefit advantaged students most have gotten the green light. These include $7.5 million for charter schools and $855,000 for gifted and talented education.

Johnson cited Sheridan Green Elementary as an example of how the board’s budget choices are creating a disparity in funding for different populations. The school, one of the five that would have added free full-day kindergarten next year, will become a gifted and talented center school thanks to the budget line item.

While Johnson said it’s a great program, she said it “creates another divide.”

“The gifted and talented kids just got significantly invested in…and the at-risk kids don’t get it,” she said.

Witt said funding for charters and gifted and talented education are not related to funding for free full-day kindergarten.

He said they are “separate decisions based on separate issues.”

Interestingly, the community appears to support both types of programming. A recent district survey of more than 13,000 people showed that 71 percent of respondents agreed with investing in free full-day kindergarten and 70 percent agreed with expanding choice options, such as gifted and talented, IB and STEM education.

Parents like Johnson and Gurdikian believe the district can afford to fund both priorities and hope they can convince the board to revive the free full-day kindergarten line item at the next meeting.

“In my mind, it’s still on the table,” said Gurdikian. “We’re not giving up on this yet.”

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?”

diverse offerings

School leaders in one Jeffco community are looking at demographic shifts as an opportunity to rebrand

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County.

Along the boundary between the two largest school districts in Colorado is a corridor of Jeffco schools unlike most others in that largely suburban district.

These schools near the Denver border are seeing drops in enrollment. They have a larger number of students who are learning English as a second language and a larger number of families living in poverty. The schools traditionally have performed lower on state tests.

The school principals who got together recently to talk about strategies for improving their schools say there’s one thing they know they’re doing well: creating biliterate students.

But the demographics around the schools are changing, and now school and district officials are looking at how they can respond with new programs to attract newcomers to neighborhood schools while still serving existing families.

“It’s almost like there’s two Edgewaters,” Joel Newton, founder of the Edgewater Collective, told principals at the meeting last week. “The area is gentrifying crazy fast.”

Five of the six dual language programs in Jeffco Public Schools are located in Edgewater and Lakewood. They were created, in part, as a response to the needs of the large numbers of students who do not speak English as a first language.

Three elementary schools that feed into Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Edgewater are working on rebranding their schools and seeing if they can create a two-way dual language program that can also benefit native English speakers and keep more of them in the neighborhood schools.

“All three of the elementary schools have the same offerings,” said Renee Nicothodes, an achievement director for this region of schools in Jeffco. “Are we offering what the community wants? Are students choicing out or is gentrification forcing them out?”

Currently the dual language programs at Molholm Elementary, Edgewater Elementary, and Lumberg Elementary are all one-way programs, meaning that all the students in the program are native Spanish speakers. They receive all instruction in both Spanish and English.

A two-way dual language program, which the district runs in two other Jeffco schools, requires mixed classrooms where half of the students are native English speakers and the other half speak Spanish as their first language. Students receive instruction in both Spanish and English, but in the mixed classroom, the idea is that students are also learning language and culture from each other as they interact.

Educators believe the changing demographics in Edgewater might allow for such a mix, if there’s interest.

Jeffco officials are designing a community engagement process, including a survey that will gauge if there are enough families that would be attracted to a two-way dual language program or to other new school models.

Newton pointed out to principals that as part of their work, they will have to address a common myth that the schools’ performance ratings are being weighed down by scores from students who aren’t fluent in English.

The elementary schools that are part of the Jefferson improvement plans in the district all saw higher state ratings this year. Molholm Elementary, one of these schools, saw the most significant improvement in its state rating.

“Our (English learner) students in our district, particularly at these three schools, are truly performing at a very high level, but it does take time,” said Catherine Baldwin-Johnson, the district’s director of dual language programs. “In our dual language programs, those students are contributing to the higher scores at those schools.”

Some school-level data about the students in the dual language programs can’t be released because it refers to small numbers of students, but Baldwin-Johnson said her department’s district-level data show that at the end of elementary school, students from those programs can meet grade-level expectations in both languages, demonstrating bilingual and biliteracy skills.

One challenge is that after students leave elementary school, there are few options for them to continue learning in both languages in middle or high school. Some middle and high schools offer language arts classes in Spanish. Some high school students can also take Advanced Placement Spanish courses.

As part of the changes the district is making for the Jefferson schools, officials are researching whether they may be able to offer more content classes, such as math or science, in Spanish.

“The vision for the Jefferson area in Edgewater is to make sure students have the opportunity to be bilingual when they leave high school,” Baldwin-Johnson said.

But the reason is also tied to students’ ability to perform in English, said Jefferson Principal Michael James.

“For our dual language kids, if they are not proficient in their home language, chances are they’ll never get proficient in English,” James said. “We have to make sure we’re developing those skills in that language so then we can transfer it to English. It’s a many-year commitment.”

Offering classes in different subjects in Spanish may still be years out.

An opportunity that will be available sooner for all students in the Jeffco district is a seal of biliteracy. The seals, an additional endorsement on high school diplomas, are being used in many other states and in a handful of districts in Colorado. They will be available for students in Jeffco starting next year if they can prove fluency in English and another language.