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.”

creating community

Seeking to broaden its support base, Jeffco looks at building bridges to community

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

When Elizabeth Panzer’s 10-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, the school community in northwest Arvada organized a schedule to prepare and deliver meals to her family those first few months.

“The community of that school, they kept us afloat,” Panzer said. “That was powerful for me because I didn’t know that many people in the school because I hadn’t been very involved.”

It was that experience of the community coming together that brought Panzer to join the group tasked with delivering recommendations to Jeffco Public Schools for how the district can engage and build better relationships with the community.

Superintendent Jason Glass said he convened the group after hearing during his listening tours that too many people in the county have no connection to the schools. Forging stronger ties with more folks is especially critical this year as the Jeffco district contemplates placing a tax measure on the November ballot to produce new local revenue.

“We recognized we have this disconnect, and we have an understanding that if we can increase that connection, we can also increase support for public education,” Glass said.

Panzer said she wondered if the same community strength that helped her family could be fostered to create a “give-and-take” relationship that benefits other children who may be struggling.

“There are so many people who are struggling, and they’re quiet,” Panzer said. “They’re not the ones involved. They’re the ones on the edges. The more connected we are, the better able we are to scoop up the ones on the edges who need help.”

From any school district’s perspective, there are many reasons to foster community engagement. Schools could use partnerships with local businesses to create apprenticeship opportunities for students. Community members can make good volunteers, mentors, or donors. And students can learn something from giving back to their community, too.

Glass cited all of those reasons. He has asked the task force to give him recommendations on better engaging the community — particularly Jeffco residents who aren’t connected to schools — by September.

Next meeting:

  • 6 p.m. Monday July 30
    at the Ed Center, 1829 Denver W Dr, Golden
  • More information on providing input online, here

The tight deadline reveals another reason improving community engagement is important to the district now. If Jeffco’s school board next month decides to ask voters for increased local funding this November, the district must prepare to communicate their needs to voters.

Two years ago, the district asked voters for new dollars to improve salaries, add new counselors at elementary schools, and to improve buildings by adding space and by replacing older schools. But voters rejected both requests.

“The work of this community engagement task force is really important for that work coming up,” Glass said.

Many put the percentage of Jeffco residents who don’t have a connection to schools as high as 75 percent. Using rough estimates from the district including 86,000 students, 14,000 employees and about 130,000 parents, that would leave almost 60 percent of the estimated 575,000 residents of the county without a direct link to schools.

So far, the task force of about 35 people has met twice. Its volunteer members are asking for more input from the community and for more participants to help draft the recommendations. Anyone interested in joining still may. The next meeting is at 6 p.m. July 30.

Katie Winner, a district mom on the task force, said many participants have shared stories of how they were involved at their school or examples of problems they faced in trying to get access to a school in their neighborhood.

The task force will look at ways to address barriers people have faced in connecting with schools. It also will look at what kind of engagement makes a difference and is worth the district’s support. And they will consider if different strategies are needed for various segments of the community such as senior citizens, faith based organizations, or local businesses.

“We have to think about policy for an entire district,” Winner said. “So, it’s challenging.”

Panzer said she believes the group should look at having more open schools and creating trust.

“I believe the power will come from us reaching out to the community first,” Panzer said. “That starts to build trust.”

Glass said he didn’t create the group with any preconceived ideas about what kind of recommendations it should create, but instead said he wants it to lead to a better relationship with the community.

“I’m really relying on the members of this task force to draw on the wisdom of the community,” Glass said. “Schools and districts can operate with a sort of fortress mentality. We haven’t necessarily done the work to show the community we honor and value them. We realize there is work to do to show the community there’s outreach that its genuine and real.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

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

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.