New Beginnings

New Jeffco superintendent emphasizes community engagement, visibility during first day tour

PHOTO: Jack Maher
Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee speaks to students at Jefferson High School on the first day of school.

Jefferson High School principal Michael James started the school year by challenging his new freshmen to beat the upperclassmen to a cheering contest.

The freshman lost, but, James consoled them that over time their voices would become louder and their spirit stronger.

“I know it’s a challenge to have your first day of school in a new building,”James said.

Jefferson High School is the smallest high school in Jefferson County, with about 550 students. It is this small, close-knit culture that makes the school so special, James said.

“I am one of those principals that is going to push you in many different areas, and one of those areas is involvement,” he said. “I want you to raise your leadership. I want every one of you to be able to say ‘I am a student leader.'”

These freshmen weren’t just meeting new students and staff. Today, they met Jefferson County Public Schools’ new superintendent, Dan McMinimee.

There’s a lot at stake for the new district leader, a former Douglas County Public Schools assistant superintendent.

McMinimee came into leadership during a tumultuous time for the district. Tensions between the board and parents, teachers and community members reached an all-time high when Cindy Stevenson bowed out four months before her retirement, after 12 years as superintendent. Stevenson left, citing distrust between her and the board’s new conservative majority, leading residents demanding a recall of its board members.

His road to appointment wasn’t an easy one. After a split 3-2 vote from the board in May, community members raised concerns about his credentials and whether McMinimee is worth his $280,000 salary.

His message to the students echoed his own charge as district leader — they should become actively involved in their schools.

“You make the decision, today, whether you’re going to be engaged in the Jefferson community,” he said to the 200-some students, teachers and staff gathered in the school’s auditorium.

A principal for seven years, McMinimee said visibility and community input in decision-making are two of his top priorities this school year.

When it comes to getting parents and students involved in decision-making at the school level, McMinimee said empowering principals will be the most important thing.

“I think one of the big things that I do really well is high visibility and high access,” he said. “I think that’s important for people  — especially in a district the size of Jefferson County — to feel like they have access to the superintendent and board of education.”

McMinimee spent Jeffco’s first day back visiting seven schools, including Jefferson High and Edgewater Elementary, which have two of the district’s highest number of students on free-and-reduced lunch.

“If there are challenging circumstances, we need to provide the resources to make sure that building principals get an opportunity to do the things they need to do with their staff to make it a great place for kids,” he said. “Authentic engagement really happens at individual schools,”

After the school assembly, James and McMinimee met to talk about the school’s goals.

“We want to raise the bar for every student,” James said. “We want students to realize that a diploma is the most important gift to receive.”

James said he hopes McMinimee and Jefferson High students and staff can work toward those same goals throughout the school year.

McMinimee said one of his toughest challenges this year will be acclimating to Jeffco’s climate and culture.

“Dr. Stevenson was here for 12 years, so she leaves a tremendous legacy of knowledge around what’s going on in schools and who’s doing what,” McMinimee said. “She probably hired most, if not all, the principals in these schools. I think that familiarity is a big challenge to overcome.”

He said, from there, he hopes the board, teachers and parents can come together to develop common goals.

The board will meet later this month, and McMinimee said he is looking forward to getting to know its members and the community in the coming months.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to meet with them at all, except for my interviews way back in May,” he said. “I hope what comes of that meeting is a sense that we have some great goals that we’re going to be working toward, and we’re going to work together moving forward.”

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.

first shot

Jeffco district giving charter school district status and district building, while letting it maintain autonomy

A 2013 image from Free Horizon Montessori Charter School in Golden. (Denver Post file).

In a rare deal, a Jeffco charter school will become a district-run school but keep much of its independence — and also secure a long-sought campus.

For its part, the Jeffco school district wins a stable school in a Golden neighborhood that lost its own elementary school last year.

Free Horizon Montessori in the Jeffco district will still be run by its own board and is requesting the same waivers from state education law that it has now. But instead of getting them by being a charter school, it will become a district-run innovation school. Innovation schools, which are popular in Denver and several other districts, can win waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools. Free Horizon will be the first school in Jeffco Public Schools to earn the status.

Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass called it a “win-win-win.”

District officials had been considering what to do with the building that was emptied this year after the school board voted to close Pleasant View Elementary in 2017. Officials said feedback showed the community favored keeping the building as a school.

The charter school, now located about a mile away from the school building, just south of U.S. Highway 6, was looking for a new location. In its current space, configured more for an office than a school, the charter would have had to spend about $7 million for the changes it wanted.

Under the plan, the charter will get a rent-free campus at Pleasant View, which will still be owned and managed by the district. The community will again have a school in the building — one which officials believe will have more stable enrollment than the elementary school the district closed — and the plan would give Pleasant View-area students a priority at the charter school, if they choose to go there.

Finding a place to house a school is one of the most common challenges facing charter schools in the metro area, especially as market rates go up. Jeffco has no policy on how to choose to lease, give, or sell a district building to a charter school, but it has done so a few times. Last year, for instance, the school board reluctantly approved a lease for Doral Academy to temporarily move into a district building.

Glass said that after seeing how Free Horizon works out, he’d consider a more consistent way of sharing available district space with charter schools, provided they accept all Jeffco students equitably and serve the community’s interests.

“Free Horizon certainly meets the bill,” Glass said. “This is sort of our first shot at this.”

Free Horizon Montessori, a preschool through eighth grade school, has about 420 students, including 21.6 percent who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Currently, about 20 students from the Pleasant View neighborhood attend Free Horizon.

Miera Nagy, the charter’s director of finance and advancement, said after the move, the school will likely shrink its preschool, which has 75 students, to be able to fit in the building.

When arguing to close Pleasant View, Jeffco officials had cited necessary and costly building repairs. Now, they say it was decreasing enrollment that was the primary reason that made the school unsustainable.

In talking about Free Horizon’s plans, Nagy said, the school building won’t allow the school space to grow much. Instead, the school wanted the Pleasant View campus for “dedicated space for our specials.” As an example she said, the school’s physical education class is located in a room without a field or things like basketball hoops.

“This expands those services and those programs,” Nagy said.

The school board approved the school’s proposed innovation plan last week and it now heads to the State Board of Education. Jeffco officials, meanwhile, are working to delineate in a new document what responsibilities their school board will have, and which ones will be left to the school’s board.

Glass is seeking to keep the school intact.

“What he asked us to do was find a way that we could do this without designing any changes to the program that Free Horizon has,” said Tim Matlick, Jeffco’s achievement director of charter schools at a board meeting last week. “Free Horizon has a very successful program.”

The charter school meets state academic growth goals and falls slightly short of standards for achievement. According to state test results from 2016-17, 41.7 percent of the charter’s third graders met or exceeded standards for language arts. That’s slightly lower than the district’s average of 45.4 percent for the same group.

As a charter school, Free Horizon hires custodial services and buys school lunches, but as a district-run innovation school, Jeffco will provide those services. In exchange, the school will get less money per student than it does now as a charter school.

“Some of those things will actually be under the district’s umbrella, allowing the team at Free Horizon to really focus on the educational process,” Matlick said

The plan will also include a way for the district or the school to terminate the agreement by allowing the school to revert to a charter school if things don’t go well.

“We know that we’re going to learn more as we continue to go down the path,” Nagy said. “We’re going to be figuring this out together.”