By Jenna Schmidt
For the past two years, the Jeffco School Board has squarely focused on student achievement while facing harsh public criticism for attempts to change the status quo.
More than 135,000 Jeffco residents voted in the 2013 election. Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams won their elections by 14, 8, and 22 percentage points, respectively. In 2011, 20,000 fewer Jeffco voters cast ballots, with only 113,000 making school board choices. Lesley Dahlkemper won by 12 percent and Jill Fellman won by 22 percent.
In voting for reform-minded school board members, a significant portion of the electorate in 2013 decided that the status quo simply was not good enough and that dramatic change was needed. They sent a clear message that the focus needed to be on improving student achievement. They also voted for better financial management, more choice, and accountability at all levels. What we have seen the board do is just what the community asked them to do.
Focus on Improving Student Achievement
The focus on achievement meant investing in a new math curriculum to replace one that had been in schools for nearly a decade and which produced virtually no achievement gains.
After only a year in place, the district’s Acuity scores have improved as Jeffco teachers demonstrated what was possible with the right supports. A particularly shining example—sixth graders at south Jeffco’s Ute Meadows Elementary showed outsized improvement in their math scores, revealing how exceptionally great teachers with the right tools can make a difference. At the same time, schools that preferred to keep the “old” math curriculum because it worked for them were allowed to do so.
Focusing on achievement also means investing in programs to support gifted students and those with special needs. Recognizing that some accelerated learners were not able to get into programs that would meet their needs, the board made investments in ensuring these programs are expanded.
In addition, after Cindy Stevenson-appointee Sue Chandler threatened to cut nursing services at Fletcher Miller, she was let go and the board approved an in-depth study of the way the district handles special needs services. Over the last three years the district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees instead of investing those dollars in services. This board said no more and demanded an audit of the department.
Focus on Being Financially Responsible
The board is also fulfilling the promise to be more financially responsible. The result has been more equitable funding across the board: for charter school students; free full-day kindergarten that reaches all free-and-reduced-lunch students wherever they go to school; increased investments in our lowest performing articulation areas; and higher pay for the most effective teachers.
Directed by the board to streamline central administration, the superintendent saved enough money to pay for a new elementary school in northwest Arvada. This decision alone will save taxpayers millions of dollars and will prevent the board from having to cut services to pay for the debt on a new building.
In fact, this year the district came off of the state’s financial watch list. Enrollment in Jeffco has begun to increase again, as more families choose to have their children educated in a district focused on students first.
Focus on Choice
Expanding choice means guaranteeing the expansion of programs that work for students and those that are in high demand. The board is listening to the community and investing in programs that meet the needs of students. More choice also means emphasizing local control, which has happened this year with the rollout of student-based budgeting for all schools. This change gives parents and schools more power to choose which investments to make for their students, prioritizing spending to meet their needs.
Choice is not one-size-fits-all, top-down commands from central administration. While charters may represent the ultimate in local control with their own boards directing their work, neighborhood schools can and should be allowed much the same flexibility. As Superintendent Dan McMinimee has said, these new processes allow the district to create a one-size-fits-one system to ensure the needs of each student are met.
Focus on Accountability
The new focus on local control drives accountability to each school closer to students and families. We will now know exactly what dollars are being spent in which schools, and local school teams will be held accountable to show the positive results from their investments. In fact, the board heard from the principal and staff at Wheat Ridge’s Pennington Elementary, where the teams have provided extended learning time for students. These investments are paying off in increased student achievement.
The superintendent has described the process as turning the district on its ear. Where the prevailing culture previously had been, “We need to do things the way that headquarters tell us to do things,” the new culture is built around the belief that, “Teachers and local communities know what is best for their students.” They are now empowered to make more decisions, and are given ready access to the resources they need. Central staff are now seen as a resource to support local decisions.
In these four key areas that matter greatly to the success of Jeffco students, the current board has made clear strides forward. As the district continues along this course, there is a promise of significant improvements in student achievement.