School Board discusses snow days, mental health resources, preschool

Jeffco Schools will premiere a two-hour delayed start pilot in March as a potential option to a full-closure or regular school schedule for hazardous weather days, Superintendent Jason Glass told board members at their Feb. 7 regular meeting.

“The question frequently comes up, ‘Why doesn’t Jeffco have a delay?’” Glass said.

Several metro-area school districts already use delayed starts, ranging from 60 minutes to two hours, as a way to avoid a full snow day closure when weather permits. Those districts include Cherry Creek, Denver Public Schools, Douglas County, Adams 12, and the Westminster School District.

All of those districts used their delayed start on Feb. 7, when a snowstorm blew through the metro area. Jeffco Schools, on the other hand, canceled school due to the snowy conditions and temperatures that hovered below 0°F early that morning with wind chill factors well below 0 degrees. The snow moved off by mid-morning and temperatures eventually rose to a high in the mid-teens in the metro area with wind chill still hovering around 2 degrees later in the day.

Glass said the district had a lot of moving parts to think through, ranging from how they manage district operations to what happens at the school level if they call a two-hour delay.

“I can tell you right now, this is not a perfect solution,” Glass said. “None of these are perfect solutions. If you call off school, it causes problems. If you have school, it causes problems.”

“It’s just which set of problems do you want to deal with,” Glass said.

The two-hour delay pilot will be run when March weather conditions warrant it, and then the district will evaluate what worked and did not after the pilot.

Schools ask for flexibility in mental health staffing

Several parents and educators addressed the board to express concerns about mental health staffing in elementary schools for the 2019-20 year.

Money from 5A, the mill levy override passed by Jeffco voters in 2018, allocated some money to expand mental health staffing in schools. District staff recommended adding a half-time Social Emotional Learning Specialist (SELS) to each elementary school. However, many elementary schools only are funded for a half-time school psychologist or social worker.

In response to increased mental health needs among their students, many of those schools have used additional dollars from student-based budgeting (SBB) to afford a full-time position and were hoping the addition of 5A money would free up SBB funds to be used elsewhere in their school budgets.

Several parents and educators from Lukas Elementary addressed the school board and asked for flexibility in the plan. They told the board the school could not afford to continue using SBB funds to pay for the full-time mental health coverage that their students need. They also pointed out that currently their mental health worker has been doing the social emotional education work with students as well as fulfilling the needs of students with IEPs, etc.

“I’m trained to be a whole-school provider to do full interventions from general education all the way through special education, crisis intervention,” said Karie Phillips, school social worker at Fairmount Elementary. Phillips told board members that she has experienced both working full-time in a single school and being split between two schools half-time. “Being part-time in two buildings, I felt like my  hands were tied behind my back all the time.”

Kevin Carroll, chief student success officer, told board members that the district wanted to ensure that schools were taking both a reactive and proactive approach. The SELS are part of the proactive piece.

Carroll added that schools can still use their SBB dollars to have a full-time mental health worker on staff, in addition to a half-time SELS position. He emphasized that the district wanted to use the 5A money to see a net gain of mental health support for students.

However, Carroll also suggested that an “option B” might be a possibility to allow individual schools to apply for a variance from the policy if they can demonstrate that they are providing the social emotional learning piece to all students.

“Option B makes sense to me because it creates an opportunity for schools to make the case,” said board member Amanda Stevens. She added that Jeffco Schools wasn’t quite ready for a fully autonomous or fully systematic model yet either.

“There always is a struggle between systemness and autonomy,” board member Ali Lasell said.

“Empowering our schools is critically important,” board member Susan Harmon said. Harmon added that she wanted to see staff use an approach that is both systematic and flexible, because not all schools have enough SBB funds to buy up to a full-time mental health person.

“We are a district where we put a lot of faith in the expertise of the people in the schools and the people on the ground,” said board member Brad Rupert. “I think we shouldn’t change our attitude at this stage and create rigid requirements.”

“My suggestion is that we be a little more flexible based on the circumstances of every school,” Rupert added. “I absolutely want to be sure that we do the hiring because I think no matter what, we need the additional professional bodies. It’s how it rolls out in a school that I’m a little more concerned with.”

Board members agreed that district staff should create a variance process for schools to have the flexibility they need to meet their students’ needs and also offer proactive social emotional learning. Board members also agreed that the variance process should be tried for a year, at which point they will revisit and re-evaluate the process.

Jeffco Schools makes plans to expand preschool programming

Board members also discussed the district’s plans to increase the qualifications for the district’s preschool teachers.

Currently, Jeffco’s preschool teachers have a wide range of qualifications. Some have a human services license, some a Colorado Department of Education (CDE) license, and some have a master’s degree in early childhood education. The minimum requirement to be licensed by human services is for a candidate to have a high school diploma and two early childhood education classes, said Dawn Odean, director of Early Learning.

Jeffco plans to expand the number of preschool sites, and as it hires staff for those additional sites, will hire more teachers licensed through CDE. Staff stressed that the move will not hurt existing staff because the district needs all the staff it currently has plus new staff to expand programming.

Jeffco preschool classes are staffed at an eight students to one teacher ratio, usually with two teachers and 16 students per classroom.

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, musicologist and Jeffco resident since 1999 with two children attending Jeffco Schools. Lisa earned a BA from Valparaiso University, a Masters in Music from Colorado State University, and her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not working, she can be found running (ideally on mountain trails) with Midnight, her miniature poodle. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Lisa and our other writers.