Category Archives: education

Why We Send Our Daughters to the “Worst Performing” Jeffco Schools

One of the education advocacy groups in our county posted the following tweet:

Would you send your children to the worst performing #JeffcoSchools?

I thought I would take the opportunity to answer their question and explain why we send our daughters to two of the “worst performing” schools in Jeffco Public Schools.

First, I disagree with the jump to call our schools “worst performing.” Through our nonprofit Edgewater Collective we have dug deep into school achievement data in our area. When 9 in 10 students are in families that struggle against the roadblocks of poverty and start school without the head start that more wealthy families do, then test scores will reflect this. So when people jump to call our schools “worst performing” I take offence. The teaching profession is hard at any school but especially at schools where students start school behind and teachers play the role of social worker and teacher. Do our schools need to improve? Of course! My full-time job is bringing together resources and organizations to make sure that all students in our area succeed from cradle to career. We have to do better. It is important that with accountability comes support and resources. Do we have the right resources and supports to help these students catch up? No. Across the street in Denver Public Schools, students who are growing up in poverty receive more money from the district to help them catch up academically. This is not true in Jeffco Public Schools. Before we call our local schools “worst performing” we need to take a hard and honest look at the stories and realities facing students in our schools.

Second, I disagree with the notion that just because a school has low test scores that great teaching and educational practices are not happening inside the school. When we started both our daughters at Lumberg Elementary we were a bit worried about the schools because of the test scores. But our worries were proven wrong as we quickly learned that Lumberg is full of great teachers who excel at their craft. Because of the high poverty at Lumberg, teachers take on even bigger challenges. Over the past five and a half years, our girls have continued to grow academically and each year they exceed expectations on the state tests. They have received a great education at Lumberg Elementary and now at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School. Along with the great education they are also learning about the full range of the human experience. Their friends struggle against the roadblocks of poverty and immigration. This past summer Anna went to camp with her Latino friends and saw racism firsthand as suburban students yelled racist statements at her friends.

We are proud to send our daughters to Lumberg Elementary School and Jefferson Junior/Senior High School. They are receiving a great education from talented and caring teachers and staff. They are learning first hand the challenges and inequity that face members of our community.

I firmly believe that our communities and country would be better if there was more integration like this. Middle and upper class families need to live and go to school with those that have more challenges. It creates a more caring and empathetic community. We live each other’s stories instead of just reading about them or watching them on the news.



Teachers: Saints Not Heroes


Tonight our home is filled with equal parts nervous excitement and anxiety. Our oldest daughter, Anna, starts 7th grade at Jefferson Jr/Sr High School tomorrow and Norah starts 5th grade at Lumberg Elementary. Hillary continues her role as a preschool teacher at Lumberg. After a summer of a quiet office at Jefferson, my workspace will get much louder tomorrow as school is back in session.

As summer ends tonight and a school year starts tomorrow, my thoughts are with teachers and school staff like my wife. Some call teachers heroes but I disagree. I think we do teachers a disservice when we call them heroes. I truly think they are saints.

Being a hero brings with it a pressure to save students in a way that no one else can. But teachers are not heroes. They alone cannot turn a student into a fully functioning, successful graduate. Because far too many people with no experience in the classroom pass laws and make decisions regarding education, teachers feel this pressure and expectation to be a hero. To save the kids in their classroom and save their school. But they cannot do it alone. It truly takes a whole community to raise a graduate.

Instead of seeing teachers as heroes I think they are truly saints.

Teachers give of their time and energy sacrificially. We expect them to change the lives of students but we pay them a wage that doesn’t even allow them to find a safe place to rent or a home in the community they serve. Teachers give of themselves each and every day with the hope that they are making a difference in the lives of the next generation. Saints are revered. Teachers should be too. They should be treated like professionals.

So as teachers, staff and students in our Jefferson County Public Schools start school tomorrow, know that your community is behind you. Parents are behind you.

May this school year be one that you feel the support of your community and parents

May this school year be one that you see brief glimpses each day of the impact you are making in the lives of students, especially in February

May this school year be one that you grow in your professional skills and receive positive feedback from your administration

May this school year be one that you grow in your collaboration and sense of team with your school staff

May this school year be one that you feel encouragement instead of heavy expectations

Thank you for investing in our children!

My Support for the Jefferson Plan

Below are my remarks to the Jeffco School Board tonight in support of the Jefferson Plan to reorganize our local schools:
My name is Joel Newton and I am a father of two daughters at Lumberg Elementary School in Edgewater. We live within walking distance of Jefferson High School and I hope our daughters will graduate as Jefferson Saints. 
I am speaking tonight in support of the Jefferson Plan to invest in the uniqueness of our neighborhood schools. 
The Jefferson Plan presents local solutions instead of district solutions. The ideas within the plan grew out of conversations between local principals in our area. Teachers, staff, parents and community members have been part of a Staff Advisory Committee, Area Accountability Committee meetings as well as School Accountability Committees. Success comes when those on the ground investing in students are part of the decision making process. 
Second, the Jefferson Plan recognizes the uniqueness of students in our area. A majority of the students in our area schools are Latino and many of them are learning English. This plan focuses on what is working in the Dual Language program and expands this excellent program beyond just the elementary level.
Third, the Jefferson Plan provides an innovative 7-12 model for multiple educational pathways. Too often students trying to overcome the roadblocks of poverty and language acquisition are not expected to excel like students in the suburbs. Our Jefferson Area schools are full of students who can excel if given the right resources and motivations. Our most well-attended parent meeting at Lumberg was a meeting for parents of gifted kids and the room matched the demographics of our school. A 7-12 school gives Jefferson staff six years to invest in the uniqueness of each student in a culture of excellence.
As the Jeffco School Board, this is a time when you can come together in a 5-0 vote to lift up the work of the teachers, staff and principals in the Jefferson Area and approve this plan. Together we can see all kids in the Jefferson Area Succeed.
My dream is that one day a graduate from Jefferson High School will work on the Orion Project at Lockheed. I truly believe this is possible. A student at Jefferson High School should have an equal chance of working at Lockheed as a D’Evelyn student. 
This Jefferson Plan, along with investments from the surrounding community, will make this dream a reality.


Jeffco Schools and the Search for Leadership


I am a parent of two daughters in a Jefferson County elementary school. My wife is a paraprofessional at that school. I substitute teach in Jefferson County Schools on occasion. The nonprofit I lead trains and mobilizes reading tutors to work with K-3rd grade students who struggle in reading.

Though I am not a Jeffco graduate myself (Go Arapahoe Warriors!), I care deeply about Jeffco Schools and want to see all 85,000 children succeed in school and in life.

Since the election of three conservative Board of Education members in November and the early resignation of Superintendent Cindy Stevenson this weekend, things are starting to get interesting.

The divisive climate of politics has become local and it is very hard to stay in the middle. The camps are forming. Either you are supportive of the new board majority or you are not. You are with the unions or you are not.

The sad part is that many of us are in the middle. We don’t think charter schools are the magic antidote for education and we support our neighborhood schools.

But we also think that education is due for some reform. Any organization or company needs to remain on the cutting edge to innovate and keep ahead of a changing culture.

I also believe in education innovation when I look at our Edgewater schools. At our three Edgewater schools, over 90% of the children receive free or reduced lunch because of poverty in their families. Yet when you compare the test scores at these three schools with three schools in southwest Littleton where we used to live, you see a big achievement gap.

This is a moral wrong. Children growing up in poverty have every right to a great education. The achievement gap should not exist yet in reality it does.

We have some great teachers and school leaders here in Edgewater but we can do better. I believe that if we can rally our community around our schools and change the education paradigm, we could see the achievement gap bridged.

Continuing to do things the way we always have done it doesn’t cut it anywhere. My daughters’ friends deserve better. Don’t lower your expectations just because we are poor. Right now a Jefferson (our local high school) graduate is on the Colorado Supreme Court, another is a Congressman and yet another is the bodyguard for Peyton Manning. With a great education, imagine where the next Jefferson High graduate might end up.

So circling back to the events of the weekend, I am frustrated on many levels with what happened. What I am most frustrated with is that the focus is now away from the 85,000 kids in our district. Union members are spreading fear and rumors. The three board members are demonized and any change they bring up is automatically thrown out. And because this new majority is silent on their agenda, then people assume the worst.

Finding common ground is possible. I’ve seen it happen in Jeffco Schools in the last month. I am part of the Choice Enrollment Steering Committee and have seen people from different education philosophies work together for 85,000 kids in the district. We sit down and listen to each other without jumping to conclusions. We have built relationships and stay focused on the task that unites us.

To each of the current Jeffco Board of Education members, I implore you to lead and focus the district on the common good of 85,000 children. To the Board majority, build bridges and start to dialogue in public about your ideas for the district. Board President Ken Witt has already started to do this by appearing on KHOW on February 11 (listen here). To the unions in Jeffco, don’t fall to the level of spreading fear and speculation. To quote the wise Yoda, ““Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

What we need right now in Jefferson County Schools is a leader.

Someone to unite our community around the common good of 85,000 children with hopes and dreams.

At this point that leader needs to be one of you sitting on the Board of Education.

Ken Witt. Julie Williams. Lesley Dahlkemper. John Newkirk. Jill Fellman.

Which one of you will step up and lead?

Doing Justice: Education and the Cycle of Poverty

Yesterday I wrote a guest post over at Ed Cyzewski’s blog “In a Mirror Dimly” on our experiences so far in Edgewater. Ed was a classmate of mine at Taylor University and we’ve stayed in touch since then. He has some great insights on theology, parenthood and writing.

You can read the post here.

Education, Economics and Why Great Teachers Aren’t Enough

What would you do to make sure your child received a quality education? Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman, enrolled her 5 year old son, in a great school even though she didn’t live in that district. She used the address of the child’s babysitter so that her child could attend Brookside Elementary School. Now she is charged with first degree larceny because falsely enrolling her son cost taxpayers in that district over $15,000.  Read more about the story here.

Here in Champaign, Illinois we have an interesting system for enrolling children in kindergarten called “Schools of Choice.” Parents indicate which five elementary schools they would like their child to attend and rank them one to five. A computer program then decides if they get their first choice or not. According to the school district, “Factors and priorities which will affect student assignments include: parent choice, building capacity, socio-economic status, availability of special programs, presence of siblings in the school, and proximity preference.” Starting in 2002 our district was under a Consent Decree to ensure that children received a quality education at all schools in the district, not just the schools in the middle class areas of town. The Consent Decree is now over but the district uses the Schools of Choice process to ensure that each child gets a quality education. Read the rest of this entry