by Jenna Schmidt
The energy around the kid-sized tables in the school gym was cautious and curious. Parents and teachers quietly filled the room before the first community meeting to discuss and hear feedback on the Jefferson Area Plan, while Spanish translators handed out wireless headsets so that everyone could understand and participate. Meetings were convened to gather teacher, parent, and community feedback on the ideas to improve student achievement in area schools.
Any plans for the Jefferson Articulation Area will need to garner school board approval for action. The area encompasses Edgewater and parts of Lakewood and Wheat Ridge along the corridor between Wadsworth and Sheridan boulevards.
The proposed plan was created by area principals to address low student achievement in local schools. Currently, less than 3 percent of Jefferson High School 10th grade students rate “proficient” or “advanced” in math, according to the 2014 TCAP scores shown at the beginning of each presentation. With a full third of Jefferson High School students failing to graduate on time, and with an average ACT score of 16.1, a full eight points below the typical score of a University of Colorado at Boulder freshman, significant improvements are critical.
Wheat Ridge 5-8, an unusual grade configuration created in 2010 to improve student achievement, has consistently had the lowest middle school scores in the district. The school is one of 55 in Colorado to receive the state’s lowest accreditation rating of “Turnaround.”
School administrators developed ideas to help students build better futures. One of the primary changes proposed involves eliminating some of the difficult transitions students must make between elementary, middle, and high school (and sometimes even more frequently).
The suggested adjustments to the school system include closing Wheat Ridge 5-8 and moving Stevens Elementary students onto that campus to establish a preschool-through-sixth grade program.
Similarly, Jefferson High School would become a pre-college and career academy educating students from grades seven through 12. The proposal also suggests moving Sobesky, a school for students with identified emotional disabilities, into the vacated Stevens building.
Adding seventh and eighth graders to the Jefferson High School campus elicited a lot of feedback from parents at all three community meetings. “[My sixth grader] told me, ‘I hear bad words at school’ and I think, ‘just wait until you get to high school.’ That makes high school coming down to him a little bit scarier,” offered one parent at the January 6 community meeting held at Edgewater Elementary. “To me, that’s a concern.”
Another parent, though, shared that she thought her middle school students would behave better because their older cousins would be in the same building. School administrators assured the community that the safety and security of their students is their first priority.
The plan also involves the possibility of expanding dual language programs, and offering Problem Based Learning for seventh through 12th graders. In addition, discussions have included creating professional learning communities across all Jefferson area schools, and applying for Innovation Status if necessary.
The 2008 Innovation Schools Act, adopted by the Colorado General Assembly, created a framework for schools, groups of schools, or districts to craft a plan for success free from burdensome laws and policies. Teachers are empowered to vote on changes needed to bypass union contract rules. The State Board of Education decides whether to offer waivers from specified state laws that school leaders can seek as a means to reconfigure the educational program and meet performance targets.
District leaders and area principals provided more research and answers at each meeting, actively adapting the discussion based on the concerns that emerged in feedback. In fact, by the final meeting at Lumberg Elementary on January 15, Chief School Effectiveness Officer Terry Elliot preemptively asked the school gym, “How many of your tables had discussions about concerns of seventh graders with twelfth graders?” Almost all of the roughly 60 attendees raised their hands.
Based on feedback from each meeting, the subsequent gatherings incorporated answers to parent questions, especially regarding combining grades. Mr. Elliot explained that Jeffco leaders have researched other districts across the country that have successfully minimized school transitions, and increased student achievement. The research has been posted on the district’s website.
Principals discussed the many ways they would handle seventh graders and high school seniors being on the same campus to assure safety. They discussed the possibility of different starting and lunch times or different class period breaks for different grades, and how to keep students in different parts of the building.
By the end of the meeting, parents had the opportunity to provide feedback and to have their questions answered. The process confirmed for parents that district administrators and teachers are passionately committed to helping their students succeed, like so many students’ family members who showed up to participate. In each of the three meetings, attendance increased but the process remained similar. Parents gladly engaged with each other and with the school faculty and staff to brainstorm how the Jefferson Area Plan could best improve student achievement.
District leaders hope to have the plan implemented for next school year: 2015–16.
“The next step is us coming together and deciding what a plan looks like, that brings us forward together,” Jefferson High School Principal Michael James said. “It’s not about seven principals coming together and saying, ‘this is what we’re going to do’…It’s creatively coming together, deciding some things that need to be the framework of a plan, and then getting all of you involved in that plan, and that’s what we’re here to do tonight.”
Next steps include having staff further define the plan, hosting more community meetings, and presenting the plan to the Jeffco Board of Education, who will make the final decisions.