changing times

The four-day week, once a tool of rural districts, is coming to a Denver metro school district

Tom Ritter holds up a globe as he teaches his students during a Political Science class in August of 2017 at Brighton High School. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

The Brighton-based school district is likely to become the first district in the Denver metro area to move to a four-day school week.

The announcement comes after voters turned down a request this November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for the fast-growing district north of Denver.

Brighton is hardly the first district in Colorado or the country to consider taking this step, but it would be the largest and most urban. More than 100 districts in states including Wyoming, Florida, and Montana have already gone to a four-day school week. According to the Colorado Department of Education, 87 districts in Colorado have four-day school weeks, but until recently, the phenomenon was confined to rural districts.

Right now, the Garfield Re-2 School District in western Colorado, where 4,898 students are enrolled, is the largest district in the state where all schools are on a short week. In contrast, the Brighton school district has more than 17,800 students, with 37 percent of those qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The district has grown rapidly as new housing developments pop up, often more affordable than those closer to Denver.

Changing the school calendar to four-day weeks is expected to save the district $1 million in the first year, but it’s not only a financial consideration. It’s also a way to try to retain teachers who won’t be getting the raises they would have if the tax increase had passed.

“The primary benefit is to attract and retain teachers,” said Chris Fiedler, superintendent of the Brighton-based School District 27J.

The average salary for teachers in the school district is one of the lowest in the metro area, but teacher turnover, which was about 12 percent last year, is one of the lowest.

Teachers will continue to make the same amount of money, but may have a more “professional” schedule with planning days built into the calendar on some Monday’s when schools won’t be in session, officials said.

The calendar change was first discussed by the superintendent with the school board in December. Wednesday night, the district launched a round of community meetings to inform the public and gather feedback. About 175 people showed up to the first meeting, a district spokeswoman said.

District leaders are negotiating with the teachers union to plan out the details. So far, Fiedler said the plan is to create a calendar for school Tuesday through Friday. Teachers would work at least one Monday a month for training and planning.

Fiedler said he believes creating a calendar where teachers “can be professionals” will be attractive. He said the district is already tracking an increase in calls from teachers wanting to know how much they would make if they were to transfer to work in the district.

Kathey Ruybal, the president of the Brighton Education Association, said the union surveyed members and found “overwhelming support” for the change.

“Teachers are already working a long day,” Ruybal said. “This will give teachers more time for planning but also to spend with our families.”

The school year won’t be longer, but classes on the four days that students are in school would run longer. For example, the day would be about 40 minutes longer for elementary students. The proposed calendar removes other interruptions in the school week such as planning days.

“One of the things we like most about this calendar is how pristine it is,” Fiedler said. “Right now there are already relatively few weeks where kids are there five days a week.”

A final decision will be announced in March. The change will not require a school board vote, Fiedler said.

Some parents say that process feels like their opinions won’t be taken into account.

“It just feels like this whole conversation is a smack in the face because the school district didn’t get the money they wanted,” said Salina O’Connor, the mother of a first-grader in the district. “There has to be another way. Why couldn’t the community choose?”

The district asked voters to increase local funding 16 times between 2000 and 2017. A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved since 2000, and once again failed in November.

Tax increases in the form of bond requests, which is money slated for buildings, have been approved about half of the time. The latest bond program was approved in 2015, just after the district moved its high schools to a split schedule, saying it was not possible to accommodate the larger number of students in the existing buildings at the same time. That change was also met with many parent concerns.

With this year’s calendar changes, many parents are concerned about finding or paying for child care on the fifth day, or about athletics suffering because of one day less for practice.

And others, like O’Connor, whose daughter has learning disabilities, worry children won’t do well with a longer school day.

The district is exploring the idea of providing child care for Mondays when school would be closed, and Fiedler said sports teams will have the opportunity, if they choose, to practice Mondays just like they do on Saturdays. He also said schools will have the flexibility to plan the use of their longer day, including offering extra recess or another type of break if that’s what their students need.

According to a report from the state, surveys done in school districts that already have four-day school weeks show broad support for keeping the calendar that way once it’s in use. Research done nationally on the effect that a shorter week has on students is limited. Studies in Colorado haven’t found a negative impact on school performance, but that’s also still a concern for some parents.

Adding time to the days might mean the student time in class is about the same, but Kayla Cook, the mother of two students in the district, asks: “Is that learning the same quality?”

Most districts that make the change cite budget strains as the reason for cutting the school week. The 27J district expects to save money in part by needing fewer substitute teachers and spending less on utilities.

The $1 million won’t be enough to give teachers a raise, but Fiedler said he would like to be able to use it to add staff so that every elementary school has a counselor. The decision will be part of budget discussions.

Although the city of Brighton is growing rapidly, the tax base remains low. That means to generate the amount of money the district says it needs — to update curriculum, pay teachers more, and add school counselors — the tax increase that residents have to approve is larger than it would be in other districts.

In fact, some recent bond requests in the metro area didn’t actually require an increase in the tax rate, in part because increased property values were already generating more revenue. But for the 27J district, the latest tax measure voters rejected would have raised their property taxes by more than $73 for every $100,000 of home value. The average homeowner would have had to pay almost $300 more in taxes per year.

Fiedler says he’s now heard the community “loud and clear” that it’s too much to ask.

“We’re never going to tax our way to equal,” Fiedler said. “We want to provide our own solutions, solve our own problems.”

Fiedler said that for the next few years, he has no intention of recommending the school district pursue another mill levy override. He expects, however, that the district will have to ask voters to approve another bond in the near future to build more schools as the district continues to grow.

This story has been updated to correct the number of people estimated to have attended the district’s first community meeting. A spokeswoman said there were about 175 people.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”