Is This Best for Students and Does Jeffco Need More Seats?
by Jenna Schmitt
Jeffco is a unique place. We live at the base of the foothills, just miles away from a variety of wonderful outdoor adventures and yet only minutes away from the cultural offerings of Denver. Right here in Jefferson County we have the amazing Red Rocks Amphitheatre, miles and miles of trails and open space, as well as cultural havens including theaters, museums, and even a dinosaur attraction.
Access to a great lifestyle isn’t the only unique characteristic of Jefferson County. We are one of the few school districts in the coun- try where a majority of our sixth graders are educated in elementary schools. Periodically, over the last three decades, the Jeffco commu- nity has engaged in a conversation about mov- ing sixth graders from elementary schools to middle schools. Each time the community, after long conversations and months of study, has said no to the idea.
And yet without any community engage- ment and providing little public justification, our current school board, which has three members running for reelection this fall, is pur- suing a path to force sixth graders out of el- ementary school. The current plan comes with a price tag of about $50 million to add capacity to the middle schools which currently could not accommodate additional students. Those schools include Creighton, Ken Caryl, Summit Ridge, Dunstan, Drake, and Manning Middle Schools.
In addition to the $50 million price tag, the plan calls for adding over 2,200 new classroom seats. But there are already 10,000 empty class- room seats across Jeffco. Why would the board support a plan which increases the number of empty classroom seats by 20 percent?
Additionally, removing the sixth graders from elementary schools will create about 25 small elementary schools, defined as having under 300 students. This board has said that schools with enrollment below 300 are inefficient to run and should be considered for closure. (See Figure 1.) Why would this board be pursuing a plan which could put 25 neighborhood schools at risk of closure? We know from watching the declining enrollment at Pleasant View that when a school is on the closure list families begin to look at other schools to try and ensure they don’t have to move their students midway through their elementary experience.
Closing Pleasant View created an immense amount of stress in one of the most impacted communities in Jefferson County. The neigh- borhood was split as families were sent to two different schools. In one of the new schools students will receive additional supports be- cause they are attending a high poverty school, but that is not the case in the other new school. Additionally, questions remain about how the new schools will replicate many of the pro- grams which were offered at Pleasant View, including the backpack program, food pantry, and holiday shop. Families of students who were in Pleasant View’s center program lived through even more stress because the district did not decide the new school for their stu- dents until late spring. Forcing sixth graders out of elementary schools will put many more communities at risk of their schools closing.
Many are asking what student achievement improvements will be gained from forcing sixth graders into middle schools. Certainly, high achieving students will be able to access higher levels of math and all students will have access to more robust electives offered at mid- dle schools. However, students will also spend less time learning to read and write. In elemen- tary schools, students usually spend nearly two hours a day in literacy instruction; in middle school that is usually reduced to less than an hour a day. With 48 percent of Jeffco sixth graders not meeting grade level standards in English Language Arts, how will a reduction in instruction help improve student achievement?
While there is not much research on the top- ic, the few studies available show sixth grad- ers’ academic achievement is higher when they are educated in elementary schools. We have heard no plans from Jeffco’s leadership on how our sixth graders will get the extra literacy sup- ports they need.
Parents of students in autism center pro- grams which offer robust services to elemen- tary students have spoken loudly against the move. At present, services for autistic students in middle schools are not nearly as compre- hensive as those in elementary schools. Parents of Gifted and Talented students in center pro- grams in south Jeffco and Lakewood are also worried as the middle schools with GT center programs don’t have room for sixth graders.
The district’s solution is to send just one class of sixth graders to the GT middle school cen- ter program. That will result in a school of 600 students having only 30 sixth graders. Families who have been considering Manning are also concerned. If no classrooms are added to Man- ning when they begin adding sixth graders, there will be less room for the many families on the choice list hoping to access the great educa- tion provided at Manning.
When the conversations happened in Jeffco in previous years, the community engagement process took months and in some cases years. The current Jeffco school board did not have these conversations during their campaigns in 2015 and yet by mid-2016 they were hav- ing discussions about making the change. Has there been a survey of parents to know how many Jeffco residents support or oppose mov- ing sixth graders to middle school? The only indication we have might be the defeat of the 2016 tax increase which would have financed the $50 million move. The tax initiative was soundly defeated at the ballot box.