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.

Regents rundown

As elections approach, New York’s top education policymakers begin to outline legislative priorities

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse

New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up to discuss their legislative wishlist for next year’s session, just as the political balance of the state legislature could turn on its head.

The state’s Board of Regents will kick off the discussion Monday by reviewing last year’s priorities — everything from bullying prevention programs to expanding access to advanced coursework — and propose tweaks and additions.

They’ll also discuss what to prioritize in their overall funding request for education across the state (the board has not yet requested a specific dollar amount). Last year the Board asked for a $1.6 billion increase, which is less than the $1 billion boost that was ultimately approved. But the if the state Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans for years, flips to Democrats, it could reshape the annual budget dance just as it kicks into gear.

Also on the Regents agenda: a discussion of state test scores that were released late last month. However, state officials have repeatedly said the results do not offer much insight about whether student learning is improving across the state because of changes to the test that make results hard to compare to previous years.

Here’s what you should know in advance of the meeting.

Legislative chatter

Officials are set to discuss last year’s legislative priorities and how close they got to their goals.

One priority from that cycle, for instance, was to address the yawning gap in access to advanced coursework in different school districts across the state, a top concern of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well. Among wealthy suburban school districts, students were roughly five times as likely to have access to six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate offerings as students in New York City, according to a report released earlier this year. (The city is also launching a pilot program to allow virtual classes in advanced subjects at 15 high schools in the Bronx, under the new teachers contract.)

The Regents requested $3 million in grants to help expand offerings among high-needs districts, and wound up with $500,000, according to state documents. (Though the board doesn’t have any formal power over the legislature, they can help sway the outcome as the state’s top education policymaking body.)

They’ll also discuss a slew of other priorities, including how to support new intervention plans for New York’s lowest-performing schools that were developed as part of the state’s compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

And the Regents will talk about progress on their efforts to support English learners; they have previously asked for funding to translate Regents exams into Spanish so students can better demonstrate skills beyond their proficiency in English.

Other issues, beyond these priorities, may surface in discussions Monday as well.

The board isn’t expected to approve a full set of legislative goals until December, and it’s possible that a wave election could give Democrats control of the State Senate. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa previously told Chalkbeat said she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes will lead to more funding.

Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — would require significant additional investments.

Testing testing

State and local education officials have said it’s impossible to compare the newly released results on the state English and math exams to last year’s because the test was changed — it’s administered over just two days instead of three —  but several lingering issues could surface.

In New York City, there are still significant score gaps between white and black students. Almost 67 percent of white students passed their English tests, close to double the percentage of black students. And almost 64 percent of white students passed math, compared to about a quarter of black students.

And even though Regents reduced the number of testing days, opposition to the exams continued, with about the same percentage of New York students deciding to opt out as did the previous year. In New York City, where most kids usually take the test, there was a slight uptick in students who sat out.

This comes after the state agreed to soften certain penalties for schools where opt-out rates remained consistently high.

Some Regents remain committed to computer-based testing, and the state hopes to eventually expand the practice to all students. Some are concerned about the nature of the exams, whether they are fair to English language learners, and whether the tests help perpetuate disparities.

State education officials have shown some interest in different approaches to testing. Regents decided not to apply for a federal waiver to pursue “innovative” exams — involving essays, projects, and tasks — but they did form a work group that is partially focusing on testing.

2018 SPF ratings

Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings as the district raises the bar for quality

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

The Denver school district raised its bar this year for what it deems a quality school — and the number of schools meeting that bar plummeted, according to ratings released Friday.

Even though districtwide elementary and middle school test scores rose last spring, just 88 of Denver Public Schools’ more than 200 schools this fall are rated blue or green, the top two ratings on the district’s five-color scale. That’s down from a record 122 blue and green schools last year, and lower than the 95 schools that earned those ratings in 2016.

Twenty schools this year are rated red, which is at the bottom of the scale. That’s twice as many as last year but not as many as earned a red rating in 2016.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the lower number of top ratings doesn’t signal that Denver schools are getting worse but rather that the district is ratcheting up its expectations — something it has been planning for years. Now, to get the district’s highest ratings, schools need to show that more of their students can read, write, and do math at grade level.

The ratings system, Boasberg said, “really expresses our shared aspirations as a community for the academic growth and performance of our students.”

“We think it’s very, very important for us to articulate clearly those shared aspirations, to establish goals for people to strive for, and to be very public about how all of us are doing,” he added. “I know that’s not easy. Any time … you set an aspirational goal, you don’t always achieve it. I don’t think the answer is to water down your aspirational goals.”

The ratings — known as the School Performance Framework, or SPF, ratings — matter for several reasons. Many parents use them to pick where to send their children to school, a decision that’s both easier and more crucial in a district that prizes school choice. If fewer parents pick a particular school, the school gets less funding, which means it could be forced to cut the teachers or programs that would make it a desirable choice in the first place.

The district also uses the ratings to determine which schools are struggling and in need of extra money or support — and which are so consistently low-performing that they should be closed. The school board is currently reevaluating its policy for when to close red-rated schools.

Denver’s ratings have long been controversial because some people think the way they are calculated presents an incomplete or unfair picture of a school’s quality. The ratings are overwhelmingly based on how students performed on state literacy and math tests the previous spring. This past spring marked the third year students in grades three through eight took a set of more rigorous exams known as CMAS.

Their performance on those tests has actually improved over time. The percentage of Denver students scoring on grade level in both literacy and math has inched to within a few points of the statewide average, narrowing what had been a wide chasm.

Denver students have also shown strong academic growth, a measurement that compares students with those with similar score histories. Strong growth indicates that Denver students, most of whom are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families, are making more progress in a year’s time than their academic peers across the state.

But because the district made it harder for schools to be rated blue, which means a school is “distinguished,” or green, which means it “meets expectations,” fewer schools earned top ratings. In fact, 37 percent of Denver’s 207 schools got lower ratings this year than last year.

Among them were some of the district’s large comprehensive high schools, including North High and South High. Both fell from a yellow rating, which means a school needs some improvement, to an orange rating, which means a school needs more improvement.

John F. Kennedy High went from orange to red, which means a school needs significant improvement. So did West Leadership Academy, one of two smaller schools that replaced comprehensive West High. The district has in the past closed schools with repeated red ratings.

However, it also targets low-rated schools for extra financial help, providing up to $1.7 million over five years to the schools officials deem most struggling.

Boasberg attributed the high school ratings slips to a poorer than expected showing on state tests. This was the first year Colorado ninth-graders took the PSAT test, a precursor to the popular college preparatory exam, and their growth scores were surprisingly low.

“The SPF reflects that,” Boasberg said, referring to the district’s rating system.

One high school principal expressed concern that the ratings put too much emphasis on test scores and not enough on graduation rates and whether a school’s graduates can go on to college without having to take remedial courses. Stacy Parrish, principal at High Tech Early College, said she believes those metrics provide a more accurate measure of high school quality.

“When we have an inaccurate assessment tool, we are at the mercy of the color we are given,” she said. “We need to be able to control our own narrative of what we’re doing in our schools. Because across the metro area, we are doing beautiful work.”

A smaller number of schools, 10 percent, earned higher ratings this year. They include the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, which went from green to blue.

The district raised its quality bar this year in several ways. For instance, it increased the percentage of elementary and middle school students who must score on grade level on the CMAS tests for a school to be rated blue or green. It used to be 40 percent. It’s now 50 percent.

If that doesn’t sound very high, consider this: Just 45 percent of students statewide scored at grade level on the CMAS literacy test this past spring, and only 42 percent of Denver students did. The percentages were even lower for the math test.

The percentage of students in kindergarten through third grade who must score at grade level on early literacy tests for a school to be rated blue or green increased, as well. That change came after parents and community leaders complained that last year’s ratings were inflated because the early literacy tests overstated students’ reading abilities.

The ratings of these schools were downgraded because of their academic gaps:
East High
Thomas Jefferson High
Northfield High
CEC Early College
Skinner Middle
DSST: College View Middle
Girls Athletic Leadership Middle
McKinley-Thatcher Elementary
Carson Elementary
University Prep — Arapahoe St.
Southmoor Elementary
Asbury Elementary
Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest
KIPP Northeast Elementary
Cowell Elementary
Lincoln Elementary
Brown International Academy
Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
McMeen Elementary
John H. Amesse Elementary
Columbine Elementary
Munroe Elementary

There is another factor at play this year, too: an “academic gaps indicator” that measures how well certain groups of students are scoring on the tests compared with benchmarks and with their peers. The demographic groups include students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language.

If students in those groups aren’t meeting benchmarks or if the gaps between, say, students of color and white students at a particular school are too big, the school’s rating will be penalized. Schools must be rated blue or green on the academic gaps indicator to be blue or green overall.

This year, 22 schools that would have been green were downgraded a step to yellow because they scored poorly on the academic gaps indicator. (See box.) The 22 schools include the district’s biggest and most requested high school, East High.

This is the second year the district has used the indicator. Last year, nine schools were downgraded from green to yellow. Three of them — Bromwell Elementary, Teller Elementary, and Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, a middle school — made enough progress toward closing gaps or boosting the scores of students in those groups to move back up to green.

As for the district’s lowest-rated schools, the Denver school board is set on Monday to discuss changes to its school closure policy, which has hard and fast rules for when to shutter or replace struggling schools. Board members agreed this year not to use those rules, which rely heavily on school ratings and have been criticized as harsh and inflexible. Instead, the board talked about taking other evidence into account, though it hasn’t yet decided how that will work.

It’s also not clear if the board will consider closing any schools this year. Back in June, board member Lisa Flores, who proposed suspending the rules, said school closure wasn’t completely off the table, especially if a struggling school also has low enrollment.

Under the suspended rules, nine schools with successive years of low ratings could have been eligible for closure or replacement if they earned a red rating this year. Only two did: Lake Middle School, a district-run school, and Compass Academy, a charter middle school.

The seven other schools did better. They include the large, comprehensive Abraham Lincoln High, which earned an orange rating, and Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school that jumped up to a green rating this year.

The district held a press conference about the ratings Friday at the Kepner campus in southwest Denver. That location is noteworthy because it represents one of the more controversial school improvement strategies deployed under Boasberg, who is stepping down as superintendent next week after 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools.

In 2014, the district began phasing out struggling Kepner Middle School. The district replaced it, grade by grade, with two new schools that share the building: Kepner Beacon, a district-run middle school, and STRIVE Prep – Kepner, a charter middle school.

Those two schools are green this year. Technically, so is Kepner Middle School, which doesn’t exist anymore. The last class of 132 Kepner Middle School eighth-graders moved on last spring, but their test scores were good enough to earn a green rating this fall.

“Turnaround is not an easy process and there’s lots of opposition,” Boasberg said. But he pointed out that in the case of Kepner, as the original middle school shrunk, the students who remained there thrived. “What turnaround is ultimately about,” he said, “is, ‘How do we get better opportunities faster for the students we serve?’”

Find your school in the spreadsheet below. Or look it up on the district’s website.