Jeffco schools await stimulus funds

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By AJ Vicens

Jeffco Public Schools officials are still waiting for direction on how federal stimulus money will flow to the district nearly two months after President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion package into law.

But Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson says the district will be ready to move on several programs once the money hits the district’s coffers, which may be sooner rather than later.

Colorado's largest school district has several programs it wants to expand once the estimated $23 million in federal stimulus money shows up.

For instance, READ 180, a program designed to help struggling readers, will be expanded to more schools; it is currently a pilot program in two schools. Stevenson would also like to expand full-day tuition-free kindergarten.

She also talked about "continuing school reform efforts" to better help students who aren’t meeting state standards, and ongoing training for district teachers. The district also needs more investment in technology, Stevenson said.

"We are always focused on creating highly skilled teachers," Stevenson said. "So we'll keep up with staff development and additional training. We believe that's certainly allowable (under stimulus guidelines)."

More than $4.3 billion of the $100 billion in education money in the stimulus package is set to go to states on a competitive basis through the Race to the Top program. Race to the Top funds will be awarded to states based on "innovative" ways of tracking students and teachers and raising the bar to meet international standards. Stevenson says Colorado will likely be one of the few states to get money through the program, and Jeffco may be able to grab a piece.

The district has been studying a pay-for-performance plan for teachers, "which is where Jeffco would be the most ready," Stevenson said.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said April 2 that tracking teachers and their performance with individual students is key.

"Part of what has ailed us as a country for many, many years is we've had absolutely no theory on how to track or support people that want to teach our kids," said Bennet, the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools. "It's long past time for us to update all of our approaches to human capital if we're going to have hope of doing the most important things a school district can do: supply education for our children."

Legislation in the state Senate would expand a system that tracks teachers and principals as they move from school to school based on their students’ performance. Supporters of the bill say the tracking system would make it easier to spread the good teachers among schools, rather than having experienced teachers in high-achieving schools with middle- and upper-income students, and young, inexperienced teachers in the lower-performing schools.

The Colorado Education Association, a union representing 38,000 Colorado teachers, opposes the bill.

Dan Daly, a lobbyist for the CEA, told the Associated Press March 26 that other states with similar tracking programs have more protection for teachers, and that the bill's supporters have no proof the law would help the state earn Race to the Top dollars.

"We're all for evaluating teachers and having good teachers in the classroom and eliminating bad teachers," Daly said. "But this isn't the best mechanism to accomplish that."

Stevenson supports the plan.

"I think they should do it with superintendents," Stevenson said. "Everyone in our profession should be held accountable for the results we're getting."

She said the bill not only makes it more likely Colorado will get additional federal money, it would help teachers and administrators determine best practices.

It remains unclear whether the infusion of stimulus funds will ease the budget crunch faced by Jeffco schools in the wake of the failure of a mill-levy boost and a bond measure on last November’s ballot. The district said previously it would have to cut 630 jobs by the end of 2012 school year through layoffs or attrition, even with the stimulus money.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.