Education: School chiefs share concerns at forum

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School superintendents from around the state converged on Denver Nov. 19 to address a myriad of issues facing Colorado schools — and it was clear from the discussions that there are no easy answers to any of those problems.

Concerns over funding, student and teacher assessment testing and parental involvement were among the many issues tackled by 10 superintendents during “The State of Our Districts” forum inside the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

The timing of the forum, which was put on by the Public Education & Business Coalition, was apt. It was two weeks removed from an election where a major, statewide school funding initiative was rejected by voters.

Superintendents who supported Amendment 66 — which sought to overhaul public school funding by way of a tax hike — are still stinging from the defeat, as they continue to deal with budget shortfalls.

“Opportunities for kids across the state should not be determined by the property tax in their area,” said Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Not everyone was upset over Amendment 66’s failure. Douglas County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said that full-day kindergarten — one of the key selling points behind the funding measure — would have caused facility issues in Douglas County.

“Frankly, for us, it was a significant issue that we would have had to deal with,” she said.

Much of the discussion centered around reform initiatives, and state and national assessment mandates, and the challenges districts face surrounding their implementations — something to which each of the superintendents could relate.

For example, Adams 12 Five Star Schools Superintendent Chris Gdowski said abiding by certain online assessment standards means that the district has to come up with up to $15 million to ensure that its information technology systems can adequately support the testing.

“It’s a classic example of wanting well-intended outcomes,” Gdowski said. “But $10 (million) to $15 million is an enormous investment for a district that’s really struggling right now.”

Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson talked about those same challenges and how they can result in “tension” among Jeffco teachers. Stevenson said that the district is trying to juggle multiple assessment mandates on a budget that is below 2009 funding levels.

“We ask more and more of our teachers and principals, and we’re giving them fewer resources,” she said. “We tell them, 'Here’s a reform to implement, and we’re not going to give you any more resources. By the way, you’ll have new training, as well.’”

Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Scott Murphy blasted what he calls the “Washington D.C.-ing of Colorado.” Murphy said that many of the national assessment mandates simply aren’t good fits for every state.

“(Those mandates) may not apply to a state that’s rich in agriculture, mining and, frankly, independence,” he said.

One key national assessment mandate that will be implemented next year will be tied to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which will require that K-12 students receive instruction under more rigorous standards. Over the summer, the Douglas County school board rejected implementation of the Common Core standards, opting instead to institute its own.

“Common Core standards are not high enough for what we’re aiming for in Douglas County,” said Fagen.

Boasberg said he appreciates the standards that are put in place through Common Core, but said that there’s a reality that districts face.

“The standards are wonderful,” he said. “But you don’t just wave a magic wand and say to a kid who is struggling to read something in seventh grade that you should be doing this in fifth grade.”

The superintendents were also asked about the challenges associated with getting parents more involved in what’s happening at their schools.

Boasberg said that Denver Public Schools reaches out to Spanish-speaking parents through a daily Spanish program, and through a home visit program, where teachers ask parents about their child’s “hopes and dreams and what we can do to help.”

Gdowski said that poor parents are highly involved at Adams 12 schools, but acknowledged that there are challenges in fostering greater involvement. “We haven’t quite yet figured out the tools to provide them to support their kids academically,” he said.

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