do you hear the people sing?

Jeffco students continue demonstrations; hundreds rally along major streets

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Josh Billups, a junior at Pomona High School, was one of the first students to arrive at a student organized protest. Students across Jefferson County have rallied for three schools days. They're worried a proposed curriculum review panel would lead to censorship.

ARVADA — Hundreds of Jefferson County students took to the streets today for the third school day in a row to voice their concerns over a proposed curriculum review panel they believe could stifle an honest teaching of U.S. history.

Meanwhile, Julie Williams, the suburban school board member who has proposed that the district review an advanced U.S. history curriculum, reaffirmed her position in an early morning statement to the media.

Williams, echoing concerns of conservatives across the country, believes the new curriculum for the Advanced Placement U.S. History course portrays the nation’s history in a negative context.

“I was truly surprised by the reaction of so many people regarding the AP U.S. History curriculum,” Williams said. “I must not have explained myself clearly. I thought everyone, or at least everyone involved in education, understood the huge debate and controversy surrounding the new [curriculum]. … Balance and respect for traditional scholarship is not censorship.”

Architects of the new curriculum and teachers who are using it have said the concerns are unfounded. Instead, the new curriculum guide actually allows teachers flexibility and focuses on key historical concepts that have shaped the nation’s identity.

Resistance to the idea that a community committee would review the curriculum has grown since last Thursday, when the board tabled action on the committee.

Tuesday’s protest, made up of demonstrations across the county, is the largest so far. Hundreds of students walked out of Pomona and Arvada high schools between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. to busy intersections along the county’s main artery Wadsworth Boulevard. Students from Golden High School rallied at the district’s headquarters and some later moved to an intersection near Wheat Ridge High School to join students there.

Other schools that had planned protests include Arvada West and Ralston Valley high schools.

While the student protests have primarily aimed to voice concern about the proposed committee, some students are also demonstrating on behalf of their teachers. Tension between the county’s teachers and the school board’s majority appears to be at an all-time high. The conflict has led to a teachers union vote of no confidence in board chair Ken Witt and an apparent teacher “sick out” that closed two high schools.

“The frustration level is just so high right now among students and teachers,” said Kayla Greco, a senior at Pomona High. Greco led the walkout there. “It’s not just the teachers who are upset about changes.”

Arvada High School students rallied along Wadsworth Boulevard Tuesday morning. They're upset over a proposed curriculum review committee.
Arvada High School students rallied along Wadsworth Boulevard Tuesday morning. They’re upset over a proposed curriculum review committee.

Student walkouts are likely to continue throughout the week.

Jeffco school officials said they’re monitoring social media, the main platform students have used to organize, and trying to communicate with parents as quickly as possible.

I respect the right of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee in a statement. “I do, however, prefer that our students stay in class.” 

Jeffco officials this morning also dispatched central administrators to schools they knew had planned protests to help answer students’ questions. But that didn’t seem to deter students from rallying.

“I want the school board to know we don’t want to be sugar fed history,” said Leighann Gray, an Arvada High student. “They didn’t send anyone from the school board to talk to us. [The central administrator assigned to her school] is not from the board. So I don’t care.”

As the protests have grown in size, it is becoming less clear how much the students are speaking out versus acting out. Some students who left school to rally along Wadsworth were treating themselves to nearby fast food, running through intersections, and loitering in parking lots.

Others couldn’t articulate why they were protesting. Some students incorrectly believed the board had already acted and that the new curriculum was created because of the state’s new standards. Others believed teachers were going to see pay cuts if they didn’t comply with teaching American exceptionalism.

Student organizers, such as Greco, took it among themselves to self-police goofballs, including asking some to leave. Arvada authorities were also on hand observing students.

Pomona High School students gathered at a busy intersection near their school to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believe will lead to censorship.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Pomona High School students gathered at a busy intersection near their school to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believe will lead to censorship.

It’s important that our community understand that no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee,” McMinimee said in his statement. 

But there is no indication at this point Williams will withdraw her proposal.

Despite her call for balance in history classes, Williams’s statement concluded with her belief that students should be taught that America is uniquely great.

“I humbly ask our Jeffco history teachers to review their philosophical position on the [curriculum]. I think the majority will be surprised to find they agree. I invite them to join us while we investigate this curriculum together.”

The Jeffco school board may take the issue up at its Oct. 2 meeting.

Students from Golden High, who met with district staff during their rally, said they plan on addressing the board then.

“We weren’t as prepared as we should have been,” said Noelle Cohn, a Golden High senior. “We’ll be back in a civilized way to address the board.”

Most of the protests ended by the afternoon.

In an email to parents, Pomona High principal Andy Geise said, “This is our students’ school. As I see it, they are trying to make it the best they can. I appreciate our community’s support of our students. We have great kids here at Pomona. I’m proud of all of them.”

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

year in review

A new superintendent and a new vision for Jeffco schools in 2017

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools started the year making big news when its board of education decided to open a search for a new superintendent. Former Superintendent Dan McMinimee left the role in March before a new leader had been hired.

Just before he left, McMinimee proposed to the Jeffco school board a plan to close five schools as a way to save money so the district could raise staff salaries as the board had directed.

The schools recommended for closure served a disproportionate number of low-income students and housed several centers for students with special needs. They also included a high-performing school. Officials said they did not consider academic achievement in selecting the schools.

In addition to closing five schools, the proposal suggested cuts to other programs, including one for helping students develop social and emotional skills and one that helped students struggling with reading.

But in a last-minute move, the superintendent altered the proposal during a school board meeting just before the board was set to vote. In the end, the board voted to close one elementary school and spare four others as well as the programs.

A few months later, the school board selected Jason Glass as the district’s new superintendent. Glass, who was a superintendent in Eagle County at the time, had a history as a reformer helping create pay-for-performance systems. But he changed his support of some reforms after learning about education systems around the world.

One of the first changes Glass announced in Jeffco was a timeout on any school closure recommendations while district officials review and create a new process for deciding if school closures are necessary and if so, which schools to close.

Glass also published his vision for Jeffco, which will have the district take a closer look at inequities and outside factors that affect students, such as poverty. At least one school was already experimenting with that work by moving to a community school model. And the district was already considering outside factors as they were rolling out restorative practices, which change how school leaders respond to student discipline issues.

More recently, Glass asked the board, which will remain the same after the November election, to consider an expansion of school choice in Jeffco with proposals to create new options schools such as an arts school to help attract new students to the district. District officials may release more information about that plan and other changes, like a study on high school start times, in the coming months.