Ready to rumble

Will Colorado lawmakers rekindle the bipartisan spirit to take on these education issues?

State Reps. Millie Hammer and Barbara McLachlan, both Democrats, speak during the 2017 special session. (Denver Post File photo)

When state lawmakers ended their regular business in May, leaders under the gold dome congratulated themselves for finding a long list of bipartisan compromises — including deals on some of the most prickly education issues.

Education debates over charter school funding, a diploma credential for students who speak two languages and high school testing that had befuddled lawmakers for years were settled with bipartisan support.

But after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called legislators back to work to fix a glitch in one of those hard-fought compromises, talk of bipartisanship went straight out the window.

Now, on the eve of Hickenlooper’s last regular session as governor — he’s term-limited — it’s uncertain whether leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House can rekindle the bipartisan spirit during an election year and accomplish anything on a number of policy fronts.

While education lobbyists and other Capitol observers are wary major victories can be achieved, some of education’s most influential lawmakers are sounding a bipartisan tone.

“I’ve loved working with Brittany,” said state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, referring to state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. “It’s an honor to work with someone who challenges my thinking. And yet we always come together to make sure kids have the very best possible education.”

Pettersen echoed Hill’s bipartisan sentiment.

“I know things get complicated during an election year,” she said. “But I’m really proud of the work we’ve done and I hope to do it again.”

Here’s a rundown of what should loom large on the education front this legislative session, which opens Wednesday:

Pension reform is going to take up a lot time and headspace, but a resolution is far from certain.

The state’s pension system, known as PERA, is in a precarious situation. While it’s nowhere near the crisis level it was seven years ago, the system’s funding levels have declined. PERA oversees retirement benefits to 566,000 current and former public employees — and many are school district employees.

There are a number of different proposals floating around the legislature. One is from the PERA governing board, another from the governor, one from state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, and another from legislative staff.

If lawmakers do act this session — and that’s a big “if” — they’re likely to want to put their own mark any reforms.

“I can’t imagine anything gets done this session,” said Hill, who is also the vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which would likely play a large role in shaping any reform package.

Hill suggested that more time is needed to study the issue and craft the best reform package possible — not the quickest.

Some Senate Democrats are hopeful a compromise can be reached, but are also inclined to take time on overhauling PERA.

“I do think a compromise can be had, but it’s going to take us all session to get it,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat. “I’m worried if we try to rush something through, it could get too political and it won’t be a good bipartisan solution like we did a few years ago.”

School funding is likely to see a boon — barring any unforeseen surprises.

Unlike last year when school budget writers were bracing for another round of cuts, things are looking pretty rosy on the school funding front. In November, the governor requested an additional $343 per student. That number is likely to go up given that the state has even more revenue than was expected in November and lawmakers love bragging about how much more money they send to schools than the governor requests.

However, state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat and chair of the legislature’s budget committee, sounded a cautious note.

“Clearly we’re in a much better place,” she said. “But we still have a lot of unknowns.”

Those unknowns include how state lawmakers plan to improve the state’s roads and highways — a huge piece of unfinished business from the 2017 session — and whether Congress will continue to fund the children’s health care program.

“There is going to be a lot of pressure on the state budget to deal with the shortcomings of Congress in regards to that program,” she said.

Don’t expect a massive rewrite of the state’s school funding formula — yet.

One of last year’s bipartisan accomplishments was the formation of a legislative committee to study — and ultimately change — the way Colorado funds its schools. The committee is scheduled to end its first round of meetings Tuesday — with little to show for it.

But that’s by design, several committee members said.

“The common understanding of the challenge is becoming more well-defined,” said state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who co-sponsored the bill that created the committee. “I’m pleased we’re making headway. And for the chance to drag our finance model into the 21st Century, I’m willing to be patient.”

One possible bill that could emerge from the committee’s work is a change to how the state counts its students. Right now, schools receive funding based on how many students are present for school on a specific day in October. Lawmakers could come up with a new system that better tracks student attendance and mobility to send a more precise amount of money to schools.

While some lawmakers are content with taking their time to develop a new formula to fund schools, a group of superintendents is preparing to charge ahead with its proposal.

The group, led in part by Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, has been working with state Rep. Dave Young, a Democrat from Greeley, to put the proposal into a bill.

Among the changes the superintendents seek: fully fund kindergarten students and increase funding for students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

However, Cooper said the superintendents and Young have not decided whether to introduce the bill.

“We’ll know by January if it sees the light of day,” Cooper said.

A major update to the state’s school accountability law is unlikely. But one lawmaker wants to give struggling schools another option.

Last year Lundeen and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, were working behind the scenes to update the state’s school accountability system. The state education department and leaders of struggling schools had identified where the 2009 law was ambiguous and needed clarification. But the two lawmakers could not get the bill into fighting shape.

“We continue to talk about this,” Lundeen said. “But I don’t know if we’ll have a bill.”

Meanwhile, Zenzinger, the Arvada Democrat, said she will introduce a bill that will give the State Board of Education an additional option for schools that don’t improve test scores within five years.

Currently, the board can order a school to be closed, converted to a charter school, develop an “innovation plan” that would free the school from some local and state policies, or hand over all or some managerial duties to a private third party. Zenzinger wants to include a “community schools model” to the mix.

The model, which is growing in popularity thanks in part to an endorsement by national teachers unions, transforms schools into hubs for community organizations to provide so-called “wraparound services” — such as English language classes for parents, medical care, and additional resources for families.

The idea behind the model is that learning can improve by first tackling poverty and other challenges facing students and their families.

“It’s going to offer more resources and a different approach,” Zenzinger said.

Here are a few other storylines and bills to watch for:

  • Taking on the teacher shortage is a top priority for House Democrats on the education committee. And they could have up to $10 million if the budget committee approves Hickenlooper’s request. But they don’t have any specific bills yet. Expect Republicans to push back on any policy that doesn’t alter the status quo — especially on teacher licensing.
  • This could be the year lawmakers send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms. State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is carrying a bill that would nearly fully fund kindergarten without spending any more tax dollars. That’s because his bill would reduce some funding for upperclassmen in high school.
  • Look for a big push to expand concurrent enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit at state universities and colleges, from Lundeen and Garnett. If the bill passes, it would be the third year in a row the bipartisan duo score major education legislation. (See data privacy, the committee studying school funding.) However, there’s also concern coming from the budget committee staff that some schools are abusing the “early colleges” model to score extra funding for students and not delivering on the promise of an associate’s degree within six years.
  • Just when you thought the debate over early childhood literacy was over, it’s back. Hamner, the Dillon Democrat, was one of the original sponsors of the READ Act, a bill that reformed how the state catches reading disabilities in its youngest students. She wants to double down on parts of the policy that are working and scrap what isn’t. Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican and member of the State Board of Education, also has expressed interest in pushing legislation that aims to boost early literacy. Durham and Hamner have been on opposing sides on a similar issue before. Can the two work together? Hamner says she hopes so.
  • One of last session’s biggest surprises was the death of a bipartisan bill that would have prohibited the state’s public schools from suspending its youngest students in most cases. The bill would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, but it was killed over objections by some of the state’s rural schools. Look for the bill to come back but perhaps with different sponsors in the Senate.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.