A normal back-to-school season ... almost

Michael Alcorn
Posted 9/20/22

Ahhhhh…. As I’m sitting down to write this, the rain is falling on the end of the first day in months that the temperature didn’t (or barely) climbed out of the 50s, the sky was a haze shade of grey the whole day (and not from the fires in Oregon and California), and I was able to walk from the car to the grocery store without slathering sunscreen on my pasty Irish forehead.

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A normal back-to-school season ... almost

Posted

Ahhhhh…. As I’m sitting down to write this, the rain is falling on the end of the first day in months that the temperature didn’t (or barely) climbed out of the 50s, the sky was a haze shade of grey the whole day (and not from the fires in Oregon and California), and I was able to walk from the car to the grocery store without slathering sunscreen on my pasty Irish forehead.

Fall is here.

Oh, don’t kid yourselves: by the time you’re reading this, the mercury will probably have floated back up towards 90. But it’s great to get that reprieve to remind us of the cycles of life. One of those, of course, is the return of the kids to school. And, perhaps for the first time in two and a half years, school the way we knew it to be.

Well…almost.

Jefferson County Schools made big news in the last few weeks by announcing plans to “consolidate” – i.e. “close”— 16 neighborhood elementary schools. Of course, that’s a normal part of responsible governance. School district buildings have capacity for 96,000 students; current student enrollment is 69,000. Peak enrollment was back in the early 2000s; since then, the drop has been steady, and inexorable, leaving some buildings with an enrollment around 100, and that’s with the daycare facility included. Those closures could save the district around $12 million.

But, that’s not all Jeffco is dealing with. In August, the results of last year’s State Assessments came out, and the numbers were grim. In fact, one point you probably didn’t hear is that those numbers were actually skewed upwards, because a significant number of students from the “at-risk” population opted out of testing, as was their right while we were dealing with COVID. Statistically speaking, those students’ scores on such tests tend to be on the low end, bringing the overall averages down.

And this is not unique to Jeffco—not by a long shot! One recent headline trumpeted that the learning losses from COVID have undone 20 years’ worth of progress in bringing overall scores up and reducing the endemic disparities that show up on standardized tests.

Two years. A virus, coupled with a set of policies that were, at the very least, controversial, and some of which we’re coming to learn now, completely pointless. And 20 years of progress wiped out, disproportionately impacting our most endangered students.

Here’s the thing: these two crises are not unrelated. Natural demographic trends were always going to bring Jeffco’s enrollment down. But in the 19 years between 2000 and 2019, JeffCO lost approximately 22,000 students; in the two years of COVID, more than 5,000 students disappeared from JeffCO classrooms.

Where’d they go? Well, that’s a complex question that I don’t think we fully understand yet. Did some families realize that online learning worked for them and was more efficient, so they stayed home? Did some opt for private schools or home schooling to escape COVID protocols? Were some of them driven to move away by the economic difficulties of COVID? Did some realize that “big education” (the intersection of unions, PTAs, and other interest groups) was not necessarily acting in the students’ best interests, and so they pulled away? And did some of them, their eyes opened by the chaos of the pandemic response, reassess their default position of trusting the schools? No doubt, some combination of those factors is at play.

Now, JeffCO is dealing with strategizing around recovering all that learning loss. But you gotta wonder if the schools are truly going to focus on “reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic,” or if their focus is going to be on the alphabet soup of non-academic concerns that drive the zeitgeist.

Oh, and, just to add to the fun: early budget projections for 2024-25 have the district operating at a $61 *million* deficit. And that’s before the total assessment of the new teacher contract is fully calculated in.

Welcome back, kids! Buckle in.

Michael Alcorn is a former teacher and current writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at mjalcorn@comcast.net. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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