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Jeffco School Board update: Restart model, charter applications, superintendent search

This fall’s Jeffco School Board meetings have focused on the Jeffco Restart model, two charter school applications, and the upcoming superintendent search after former Superintendent Jason Glass resigned this summer.

Restart Plan in light of new Safer at Home – Orange designation

Board members met with representatives from Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) at the Nov. 5 meeting to discuss Jeffco’s current in-person and hybrid learning models in the face of new Safer at Home levels.

Jeffco moved into Safer at Home – Orange on Nov. 9 due to rapidly increasing case counts and hospitalizations.

According to Jody Erwin, JCPH deputy director, Jeffco has the largest total of hospitalized cases that he’s seen throughout these eight months. Intensive care hospitalizations are going up as well.

The challenge there is the staffing, not the beds or space, Erwin said. “Not everyone is trained to take care of critical care patients in hospitals,” he explained.

Erwin said the biggest impact on Jeffco Schools is that schools can no longer use targeted contact tracing. Instead, they will have to revert to putting an entire cohort on quarantine if someone in the classroom tests positive.

Julie Wilken, Jeffco Schools director of health services, said the district had been using targeted contact tracing in recent weeks to reduce the impact of quarantines.

“There are lots of questions on whether [targeted contact tracing] is a safer method or not. We don’t know the answers to that,” Wilken said. Of the 58 times they used it, there was only one outbreak at a middle school.

Now, anyone in a classroom with a positive individual for 40 minutes or longer will need to quarantine.

“This will be a hard and unsustainable measure for our school district,” Wilken said.

How Safer at Home – Orange may impact in-person learning

Most of the discussion centered around whether Jeffco Schools would be able to keep using the current in-person learning options.

Rupert asked whether Jeffco could treat individual geographic areas differently depending on numbers. Erwin responded that while two weeks ago that would have made sense, he didn’t think the state will give them that options with the current number of cases and hospitalizations.

“Right now, projections and the modeling, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Erwin said. He added that if the trends continue, Colorado will be on Stay at Home statewide, likely through the holidays.

Schooley noted that pivoting from in-person to remote due to quarantines and back is difficult on students. She asked how Jeffco could best minimize those impacts in light of the new quarantine rules.

Rupert echoed her comments. He said Jeffco needs a plan in place so families and educators have plenty of time to prepare.

“I really don’t want to be making this call and announcing it so they have to change their lives in two days,” Rupert said.

Interim Superintendent Kristopher Schuh said they’ve been having these conversations with principals and the COVID team, talking about the trends in the county and in the schools.

However, Schuh also pointed to the change in case counts that happened in seven days to show how quickly things have escalated. He added that elementary teachers probably need the most time to pivot because most have been teaching in person, whereas secondary teachers have already been doing hybrid.

Board members will discuss the Restart Plan and any potential changes again at their Nov. 11 study session.

Jeffco Schools COVID-19 numbers

As of Nov. 5, Jeffco Schools reported 611 positive cases among in-person staff and students, and an additional 10 among remote staff and students.

According to a later slide in that presentation, 471 students overall have tested positive since the beginning of school, though the breakdown of remote students vs in-person students testing remote was not defined. Numbers of positive cases per grade level were listed, with the largest number of cases among high school students.

Wilken said that cases had begun to increase sharply. Three cases among remote students and staff and 328 among in-person staff were reported in the past two weeks. According to the Jeffco Schools COVID-19 dashboard, another 188 positive cases were added between the board meeting and Nov. 10, bringing the total number to 799.

At the board meeting, Wilken clarified that the dashboard only includes verified, positive COVID-19 cases. However, the dashboard does not include positive cases among staff who work in non-school locations.

In addition, Jeffco Schools had 22 outbreaks as of Nov. 5, defined as “two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases among students/teachers/staff from separate households with onset within 14 days in a single classroom or cohort.” Of those 22 outbreaks, 20 remain open. In order to close an outbreak, there has to be 28 days after the onset of symptoms of the last case, Wilken said.

At the time of the board meeting Jeffco Schools had had 48 closures for a 24-hour deep cleaning, and 13 closures of either the entire building or of specific classes and programs because too many staff are quarantined to open the school safely.

Cases in Jeffco Schools reflect overall numbers in Jefferson County. At the school board meeting, JCPH reported a two-week cumulative incidence of 462 per 100,000, with positivity at 8 percent.

As of Nov. 10, Jeffco’s two-week cumulative incidence had risen to 627.4, with positivity at 10.5 percent.

Disruptions caused by shifts between in-person to remote

Rupert asked about the disruptions caused by moving students from in-person instruction to remote and then back again due to quarantines at the elementary level.

“Because of the disruptions and interruptions to learning, if we were able to focus primarily on remote learning we would be doing a better job than we are right now,” said Renee Nicothoids, chief of schools, elementary.

She explained that although in-person learning is always their preference, currently the district is scrambling to cover classrooms with different people in the last minute.

“We’re not, in my opinion, providing the best educational environment that we could be. At this point in these conditions, a pivot to remote would allow us to focus on delivering that really well,” Nicothodes said.

Harmon said she was concerned that there will be a lot of challenges with a pivot to remote learning, including engagement among remote learners. She added that credit recovery options will be important for struggling high school students.

School board considers two charter applications

Members of the Jeffco School Board voted on two charter applications for schools that would serve students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at their Oct. 1 meeting. Board members first discussed the charter applications at their September meeting.

Typically, board members vote on charter applications at the next monthly meeting. However, Prospect Academy had instead written the school board, asking to be released to apply to the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI) while also receiving a proportional share of Jeffco Schools mill levy dollars.

Prospect Academy

While board members were very interested in adding a school to better serve the needs of ASD students in Jeffco, concerns were raised about whether Prospect Academy’s funding model is sustainable. The release to CSI was also a point of debate, especially with mill levy dollars attached.

Funding model concerns

Prospect’s revised application required $15,000 in per-pupil funding, which is nearly twice the level Jeffco receives from the state ($7,891 for the 2020-21 year), noted board member Brad Rupert.

“I don’t see Jeffco being able to make up the difference out of our funding mechanisms to make that work,” Rupert said.

Board members Ron Mitchell, Stephanie Schooley, and Susan Harmon echoed the concerns about funding, especially with budget cuts likely in future years.

“If we were to approve this as a charter school here, I do believe that would deplete the funding across the board to the point where we would not be able to provide adequate services for all our special needs students,” Harmon said.

Harmon said she favored the cabinet recommendation supporting a pilot program in an existing charter school to see if it would grow. Prospect Academy, however, had rejected that recommendation.

Mitchell and Rupert noted that funding Prospect’s current budget would dilute money for another facility without adding students to Jeffco as a whole. This would be especially difficult if funding drops as predicted next year, Mitchell added.

Population served

Rupert also pointed to confusion about the population that Prospect Academy would serve. Prospect’s application said it intended to serve students on the autism spectrum, as well as students who are less impacted and students with other learning challenges. A newer letter, however, talked about cost savings from out-of-district placements, Rupert noted.

Support letters from families also seemed to confuse the level of services the school would be offering. Some of the parents talked about students with very high needs, others less so, Rupert said.

Renewed application welcome

Rupert, Schooley, Harmon, and Mitchell said they would welcome a renewed application with a more sustainable budget.

“I feel like there’s such a need for this type of program that’s rooted in Jeffco with Jeffco parents and Jeffco community members. I would like a C option,” Schooley said. “Is there a possibility of continuing to work toward something that would be successful ultimately?”

Schooley added that she was troubled by the timeline of the charter applications review, noting that she felt like some people had information that she didn’t have as a board member. She added that she had looked forward to talking with Prospect Academy at the meeting. Instead, she received the notification that Prospect was asking that the application be released.

Mitchell said that he didn’t agree with abdicating Jeffco’s responsibility as a charter school authorizer.

Board member Susan Miller agreed that Jeffco needs a school like Prospect, but said that if Jeffco can’t provide that opportunity, the school should be released to CSI.

Miller also suggested that Jeffco had previously allowed mill levy dollars to go to a CSI-authorized charter school. However, Nicole Stewart, interim chief financial officer, clarified that the agreement to let mill dollars go to a CSI school was only for a limited number of years.

The request to have mill levy dollars follow Prospect students was also discussed. Harmon noted that these are Jeffco kids. Allowing mill dollars to follow Prospect creates equity to honor those students and their families and provides the best pathway forward for success at CSI.

Board members voted to release Prospect Academy with mill levy dollars on a 3-2 vote. Harmon, Miller, and Schooley voted yes, and Mitchell and Rupert voted no.

Spectrum Academy

Board members also discussed two motions regarding Spectrum Academy’s application. The first motion was a vote to conditionally approve Spectrum’s application, which failed with only Miller voting in favor. The second vote was a 4-1 vote to deny the application, with only Miller voting against.

Rupert and Mitchell both said that Spectrum’s application was incomplete. They said it lacked a list of board members, a proposed location and letters of interest from families. Spectrum is the only charter school that has applied to Jeffco without any letters of interest in the past decade.

Mitchell said he wasn’t inclined to approve an incomplete application, even if Spectrum has successfully functioning schools in Utah.

“That track record of success shouldn’t be ignored, but I do need to see there is a measure of local control, engagement, and involvement,” Rupert said.

Harmon noted that although COVID-19 may have been an issue in getting letters of interest from families, Spectrum also had extended time to do so. Harmon also voiced concerns about Spectrum’s funding model.

Superintendent search

Jeffco’s human resources department is currently reviewing proposals from superintendent search firms, according to David Bell, Jeffco Schools chief human resources officer.

Bell’s department will interview firms in mid-November and select a firm in late November or early December, Bell said.

Mitchell announces resignation

Citing health challenges and a desire to spend more time with his family, Mitchell announced his resignation from the Jeffco School Board, effective Nov. 12.

“I want everyone to know it’s been an honor and a privilege,” Mitchell said. “I have enjoyed a very long relationship with Jeffco Schools and it’s meant a lot to me.”

“What I would ask is that our voters pay attention and make sure that we can make Jeffco a special place for kids and a school district that is continuously improving over time,” he added.

Mitchell has filled the District 5 seat since he was elected in November 2015.

Board members will officially declare the vacancy at their Nov. 11 meeting. They have 60 days to appoint a new candidate to the position.

Interested candidates will apply and be interviewed by the board. If a majority vote is reached on a candidate, they will be appointed to the seat. If a candidate is not appointed by Jan. 10, the board president will appoint a candidate. The candidate will serve until the next regular election for that seat, which will take place November 2021.

Fall student achievement data

Board members also discussed Fall 2020 student achievement data.

Students in grades kindergarten through third participated in testing at rates similar to Fall 2019. Those tests, however, showed fewer students performing at or above grade levels. They also showed more students performing below or well below grade level.

The largest increase in students performing well below grade level was in first grade, according to Carol Eaton, executive director of instructional data services.

These numbers are comparable to data showing similar performances throughout Colorado and across the nation, Eaton said.

Students in grades 3-10 did MAP testing this fall. Results showed some small losses in comparison to Fall 2019, mostly in math. However, MAP reading scores largely stayed the same or even showed improvement.

Eaton cautioned that fall MAP reading data may not be representative of overall district performance at the secondary levels. The issue, she explained, is that fewer middle and high school students took the MAP tests. Between 9 to 14 percent of middle school and about 25 percent of high school students did not take MAP tests this fall.

MAP participation among fully remote students was between 8 to 13 percentage points fewer than hybrid students in middle school. However, participation in high school was only 4-9 points below hybrid students.

MAP participation among students who quality for free and reduced lunch was 9-14 percentage points lower in middle school. It was 18-21 points lower in high school than Fall 2019. Similar drops in MAP participation were seen among students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Participation among that subgroup was 6-15 points lower in middle school and 18-19 points lin high school than Fall 2019.

Because the MAP quintiles were updated in July 2020, Fall 2020 MAP quintiles cannot be compared to previous years. Instead, Jeffco Schools relied on Rasch UnIT (RIT) scores because they are stable from year to year.

Jeffco Schools MAP scores, grades 3-10

MAP scores

Matt Flores, chief academic officer, said that classroom teachers report that students are making up ground quickly. Some of those gains may show up in winter student achievement data.

Miller asked for more data regarding performances in subgroups, and a breakdown of elementary remote vs in-person scores.

Eaton cautioned that there was a “lot of noise” in MAP data regarding remote and in-person status among elementary students. For example, some elementary students were on quarantine when they did MAP testing. Even though those students were remote at the time they were recorded as in-person learners. They’ve also had situations where families may briefly go remote to travel but are mostly in-person. That makes it difficult to provide an accurate label.

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.

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