culture war

Jeffco parents fear censorship as board considers new curriculum panel, AP history

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi leads a discussion on the earliest days of American colonies. Rossi has taught Advanced Placement U.S. history for more than a decade.

A proposed panel that would oversee Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, curriculum, and assessments is provoking anxiety among some parents who fear the panel could be a de facto tool for censorship.

That’s because the committee’s first task might be to ensure that revisions of an advanced American history class are patriotic and teach students to respect authority.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is expected to decide whether to establish the panel tonight at its evening work session.

The nine-member panel, as outlined by conservative board member Julie Williams, would be appointed by the board and report directly to them on an ongoing basis. The committee would most likely be comprised of lay citizens — not necessarily education and curriculum specialists.

The impetus for the panel is a number of new standards and curriculum questions that have lately proved to be political flash points, including the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and their related assessments.

But, if formed, the new committee is expected to first take up the revised Advanced Placement U.S. history course, which has become the target of conservative criticism across the country.

The new version of the course spends more time on early and recent American history and places greater focus on the role of women and minorities. Many conservative critics have complained that the changes are revisionist and present a negative view of the country. The Colorado State Board of Education has debated the topic but has taken no action. Meanwhile, the Texas State Board of Education just took a preliminary step to curtail the course.

As currently outlined, the proposed panel in Jeffco will be charged with ensuring the course is aligned to Jeffco Public Schools’ standards, and is factual and taught without bias. But the panel is also supposed to make sure materials do not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” and instructional materials “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Those directions, which Williams said she replicated from another source, has sparked the most conversation among critics.

“Does that mean we’re going to eliminate slavery from class discussions, because that wasn’t a particular positive time of our history?” asked Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson, rhetorically. “Hiroshima didn’t necessarily look great.”

Williams, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said she recognizes dark times in the nation’s history need to be taught, but she believes the coursework goes further than just pointing out blight spots on the nation’s record.

“There are things we may not be proud of as Americans,” she said. “But we shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to think that America is a bad place. When [the course questions] our American values and leaves out so many of our founding fathers, that’s concerning to me.”

Taught with fidelity, students should be able to identify and discuss broad themes that have helped create the nation’s identity, including happenings before the British colonies were formed, said Fred Anderson, a University of Colorado professor and one of the architects of the course redesign.

“American history doesn’t start in 1775,” Anderson said. “That’s actually the midpoint. Everything that happens in the national period goes back as equally far. That’s one of the great things [students] should come away with. We’re an amazing nation. It’s an outgrowth of specific historical circumstances. For example, there was a native population that inhabited the land before any European knew it was here.”

Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi said that despite the revised curriculum guide, her classes’ content remains the same.

“It’s America’s story,” she said. “But the new approach engages students in a more thoughtful way that does not make the test the only focus of the curriculum.”

Rossi would not directly comment on the proposed committee, but she did say she was disappointed by the approach.

“I’m saddened to think that anyone doesn’t believe Jeffco U.S. history teachers aren’t already engaging students in healthy discussions,” she said. “Do they not think we’re not talking about patriotism? They don’t even know us. They don’t know what we’re doing.”

Williams admitted she doesn’t know. And that’s the point of the committee.

“All I can say is that this has been brought to me by so many of my stakeholders,” she said. “There are certainly enough questions about this. All I’m asking is for a committee to review it. What does it hurt to look at it?”

Critics of the proposal note that Jeffco Public Schools already has two different curriculum committees that might be able to answer those questions.

One is a regular committee made up of administrators who review and make recommendations on new curriculum before its purchased. The second is an ad-hoc committee pulled together when a parent challenges a specific text.

Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students first and general supporter of the board’s majority, said parents should be more involved in curriculum selection in the first place.

“JCSF is very supportive of the move to increase transparency around curriculum and text book review,” she wrote in an email. “I absolutely agree the community should be involved in selections, but I am not certain of the manner and make up of the review committee. For years, the Jeffco board has talked about community involvement in the curriculum selection and text book review, but what that meant in reality was the books were placed in some libraries for a few weeks and no one really knew about it or even knew who was on any relevant committees.”

While the board has engaged in some conversation, including a lengthy study session with standards experts in August, it has failed to act, mostly because board chairman Ken Witt has asked for more information and time.

Because feelings on standards, curriculum, testing and local control can blur ideological lines, it’s not clear how the board will act — if at all. But some observers believe Witt likely be the swing vote on the matter. Fellow conservative board member John Newkirk is likely to follow William’s request.

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.