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The longest-standing objectors to the Douglas County School District’s education reform efforts repeat the same concerns now that they did from the start: The board of education and top administrators are too focused on their efforts to set a national model, and not focused enough on constituents’ concerns.
Parent Laura Mutton has spent hours researching DCSD data, releasing her findings on her Strong Schools Coalition website after she said district officials ignored her efforts to communicate with them.
“Our board is entitled to their vision of education, but when they are not accountable to it, that is when I have a problem,” she said.
School board member Judi Reynolds hears often from community members.
“It certainly informs some of my questions, whether that’s at a board meeting or in a conversation with (Superintendent) Dr. (Elizabeth) Fagen,” she said. “My hope would be there’s always an ongoing process of looking at what works well, what doesn’t work so well, and to always be evaluating. A large system like a school district has to be constantly evaluating. We should be consistent, but we shouldn’t be stagnant in what we do.”
Some community members point to what they see as a district pattern of presenting news in a flattering light, while leaving out relevant facts.
Among recent examples, Mutton and Douglas County Parents spokeswoman Cristin Patterson cite the district’s regaining of its “accredited with distinction” rating. The Colorado Department of Education assigned the ratings, and raised DCSD a notch after the state reviewed their calculation, excluding the performance of the district’s highest-risk students and factoring in improved ACT scores and graduation rates.
“They made it sound like it was due to teachers’ efforts and, of course, to their reforms,” said Patterson.
A news release issued by the school district about the improved rating didn’t mention the removal of the data from students at three of its alternative education campuses. An online article on DCSD’s website includes a link to the CDE’s letter explaining how it arrived at its decision to raise the district’s rating.
School board president Kevin Larsen spoke about the methodology used to reach the new ranking. Though their performances were excluded, Larsen told Colorado Community Media he is proud of the alternative education students because they improved their scores in 2014, and of the district for providing such students with educational options.
In another recent example, DCSD board members and articles on its website state that 100 percent of the teachers in its controversial teacher evaluation system rated as “ineffective” left the district — without including the fact that only nine teachers were rated “ineffective.”
“Ninety-four percent of teachers rated as Highly Effective remain at DCSD for the 2014-15 school year,” according to an article on DCSD’s website. “More than 90 percent of those rated as Effective stayed in the Douglas County School District this year. One-hundred percent of teachers rated as Ineffective have left the district prior to the start of the 2014-15 school year.”
The vast majority of teachers — 2,243 — were rated “effective.” Another 690 were rated “highly effective,” and 269 were rated “partially effective.” DCSD does not cite those numbers in its articles on teacher turnover.
“In order to fool the public into believing their strategic agenda is working, they leave off important facts or skim statistics to sound amazing, or just state something that sounds good but can’t be proven with data,” Patterson said.
“Instead of acknowledging parents and teachers aren’t happy and committing to fix that, they have hired a PR firm,” Mutton said. “They send out one-way communication to say everything’s fine.”
Paula Hans, school district public information officer, pointed out that press releases and stories are different.
“A press release is intended to build interest in a story, thus encouraging a reporter to reach out to that organization for more information,” she wrote in an email. “The purpose of our stories, on the other hand, is to provide our stakeholders with all relevant information.”
She also noted that new communications tools, including a radio show, social media, newsletters and telephone town halls, were born out of community demand for more communication.
Larsen is always looking for new ways to reach the community, he said. DCSD recently added live and archived video broadcasts of its board meetings, and he’s encouraged his fellow board members to get out into the community. “One thing the board has done this fall is to go out and attend a number of these school accountability meetings,” he said. “As a group, we have made a considerably large effort.
“For me, I find that being open and willing to meet in a small group affords everybody the chance to just have a true conversation. I think every board member has his or her own way of doing that.”
No matter what method DCSD uses, some maintain its messages too often skim over community concerns.
Among the community members’ longest-standing requests is a community survey. The last acknowledged survey was in 2011. DCSD discounted the 6 percent response rate of a 2012 survey as statistically invalid and hasn’t conducted one since.
District leaders announced in June 2014 they would conduct a community survey, using a third-party organization to ensure appropriate response rates. But Larsen said in December there is no specific timetable for it.
“We are continuing to examine the right way to proceed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hans said DCSD welcomes feedback from everyone.
“We frequently meet with our stakeholders and answer our own emails,” she wrote. “We are always available and we are committed to doing what we believe is best for our students.”
Patti Hickey, a Douglas County parent and former Littleton Public Schools teacher, urges Douglas County residents to learn about the changes in the school district from a variety of sources.
“Many parents have done so much research and can list links to show the facts,” she said. “When (the district) says everything’s great, everyone’s happy and our strategic plan is awesome — it’s not.
“Start reading and come up with your own conclusions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to become involved and pay attention.”
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