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August 06, 2008 06:16 PM UTC

Polis-run schools fail students, cheat taxpayers

  • by: mordantliberal

(And only a week before the election–impeccable timing! – promoted by Colorado Pols)

It looks like ‘education reformer’ Jared Polis’s school thinks that if you show up for class 50% of the time, you deserve a Colorado diploma.  Is Jared’s plan to give out diplomas without earning them, setting these kids up for failure all the while taxpayers foot the bill?

Below is an exposé from 9News.

Students miss school but still pass some classes

KUSA – New America Charter schools across the state have been failing to enforce their attendance policies, according to records obtained by 9NEWS. As a result, 504 students at the Lowry campus missed 17,499 full or partial days of school last year. Most of those absences (16,167) were unexcused.

Half of the students missed more than 30 days of school, records show. Fourteen of those students were absent more than 80 days and two students missed 101 days.

“I think you have a choice to do it, to keep going to school or just stay at home and do nothing,” said senior Janeli Gomez who was absent 90 days last year at the Lowry Campus. “They give you that choice.”

Senior Mary Pedroza missed 93 classes last year at Lowry partly because of work and partly because she just didn’t want to go.

“Sometimes I ditching the school, but not much, like maybe one day per week,” said Pedroza. “This year, I don’t want to be missing the class. I want to go to school for reals [sic].”

The students say they never received detention for missing school and ended up passing most of their classes.

New America School founder Jared Polis, a Democrat who is running for Colorado’s second congressional district, said he expects high absentee rates in the schools because they serve troubled students and new immigrants who don’t speak English.

The schools, based in Aurora, Lakewood, Northglenn and Eagle Valley, are often the students’ only chance to earn a high school diploma. Many of the students are parents, full-time workers and the heads of households and don’t have time for education, according to Polis.

“We would have 100 percent absent if the school didn’t exist. We’re serving students who aren’t in school otherwise,” said Polis. “Really, every day any student is coming to our school, it is a win for us.”

New America School’s attendance policy says if students are absent more than 10 days they can be expelled. However, records show that almost never happens. Instead, four former teachers told 9NEWS they were supposed to give students make up work and allow them to pass their classes.

“It was not uncommon for kids to miss 50 days and then expect to be able to make up that work,” said Molly Hetzel, who was fired after teaching science at the Lowry campus of New America School for three years.

“We didn’t fail them because that was frowned upon,” she said. “We were required to give kids the benefit of being in an alternative school. While in theory, it may look OK on paper, in practice, it was a disaster.”

“These students were still getting credit, we were still passing them and I found it to be non-educational,” said a teacher who wants to remain anonymous because he’s looking for work after resigning from the Lowry campus. “I think we’re setting them up for failure, I think we’re setting them up for an environment out of school that doesn’t exist.”

The superintendent of New America School says in order to receive credit, students must demonstrate through testing or work that they successfully pass the requirements set by the state and district.

“If they can make up the extra work they’ve missed, then why wouldn’t we give them credit for it?” said superintendent Dominic DiFelice.

In a statement to 9NEWS, DiFelice said that the information given by the students who claimed to have passed most of their classes even though they were absent is “misleading and inaccurate.” He said credits were earned and obtained by fewer than 5 percent of students who missed more than 16 classes.

The attendance rate on the Lowry campus is 66 percent, according to records.

“You might say that’s atrocious. I would say we are dealing with the most at-risk kids in Colorado all in one building and this is their last chance,” said DiFelice. “We take them here, we nurture them here and we try to give them credit and we certainly give them the language acquisition which is very important.”

The superintendent says the administration left it up to the principals and teachers on each of the four campuses to determine how the absentee policy would be implemented during the last three years.

This year, the absentee policy has been revised. When school starts on August 20th, the schools will use one uniform “pyramid of intervention” policy. That policy says that teachers and the school will intervene when students miss several classes.

Officials in the Aurora Public School district, which holds the charter for the Lowry NAS school, say students need to be in class to learn.

“Nothing really replaces being in a classroom, being with an educator, being with someone who has been taught how to teach students and work with students and interact with them on a daily basis,” said Barbara Cooper, Director of School Services for Aurora Public Schools.

Cooper says students need rules to learn and those rules need to be enforced.

“You have to make sure that what you put in policy is enforceable and that you’re going after it and enforcing it,” said Cooper. “Students learn very quickly whether or not we are serious about having them in school each day.”

The charter schools rank among the lowest in the state for testing scores, according to records.

“We’re willing to wear that as a badge of honor and say, ‘Guess what, we don’t care that we’re going to be at the bottom of the barrel,'” said founder Polis. “We’re actually going to try to teach these kids English and give them a high school education.”

The New America charter schools receive $6,500 to $6,800 per student from state and federal funds. In 2007-2008, the Lowry camps earned $3.1 million, according to Colorado Department of Education records.

The schools encourage students to bring friends during enrollment by offering them $50 gift certificates to places like Target, according to DiFelice.

“We try to recruit kids, it’s a marketing thing just like you have products on the shelves,” said superintendent DiFelice. “We have a very important product, and that product is education and we think we do it better than a lot of other places.”

Half of the students who enrolled at the Adams campus during October 2006-2007 dropped out. Because of that, some teachers say it feels like the school is playing a game to get students enrolled for the funds.

“We’re basically putting bait on a hook, dangling it in front of students and then, after the October count, it was like, well, we’ll just snip the fishing line and we don’t really care anymore because we have our money,” said a three-year teacher who wants to remain anonymous.

While the school has a high drop out rate from October, New America School enrolls new students throughout the year and the school is not paid for those new students. Sometimes the school enrolls nearly as many students as those who dropped out, making it a virtual wash when it comes to public funding, records show.

“The New America School is a non-profit. We’re not squirreling away dollars in the central office,” said DiFelice, school superintendent. “It’s through the generosity of the Jared Polis Foundation that keeps us afloat every year.”

The Adams 14 NAS campus was audited in September 2007 and forced to repay the state $376,775 for over counting students. The superintendent says the problem occurred because some of the student records were lost during a move to another facility. The Lowry NAS campus ranks 66th in state for the most absences.

The school with most missed days is Aurora Central High which in 2006-2007 had 63,701 partial or full days missed, according to CO Dept. of Education records.…


35 thoughts on “Polis-run schools fail students, cheat taxpayers

  1. This was such a bad move for the Jared Polis campaign. Why would they let Jared go on to 9News while being bad-mouthed by anonymous, silhouetted former teachers? The segment was the epitome of cliche investigative reporting, and it did NOT make Jared look like Congress-material.

    It’s funny that a family values senatorial candidate makes headlines because his kid posts offensive material on Facebook and now the pro-education congressional candidate is exposed as the founder of a school that doesn’t educate – how could, it when the students don’t even bother to show up?

    1. Wow. I wish I’d only had to go to class 50% of the time. Think about all the free time I’d have to create random start-up businesses and then sell them off… heck, I’d have time to run for congress too.

      Boy, when I thought Jared hadn’t done anything for the gays, he said he was focused on education. Guess he was only 50% committed to that as well.

    2. you really think it would have turned out better if Jared had not shown up, and Debra Sherman (who was clearly out to impact the primary and nothing else) was allowed to say something like “Jared Polis refused to respond to these allegations.” It’s a lose-lose when a reporter, particularly a TV one, is out to get you. You have no cards and the best you can do is try and make your case. We have no evidence anything these students or teachers said was true (and the web version of the piece suggests it wasn’t, just a bunch of disgruntled failures). And frankly, having a short Pols discussion that is mixed on the merits of the story is about the best he could have hoped for. Non-story.

      1. But, by showing up and participating in the interview he is giving some credence to the validity of the story. He also did not take a strong enough position to counteract the segment’s angle. He should have been stronger in a denial or called for an investigation of the attendance policy.

        It was a lose-lose position to be in for Polis, but I think he could have sent a surrogate in his place who was very knowledgeable about the day-to-day runnings of the school. It would have made sense that in the last week before a contentious primary a candidate did not have time to personally deal with those allegations.  

        I do think that it is a story because a congressional candidate running on his credentials in education is being challenged on those very credentials. It also is a story because New America is a public school thus the public has a right to know if there are any allegations of fraud, whether or not the founder is running for election.    

  2. But this is a lame attack and I buy Jared’s argument.

    But politically?  More good news for Will as JP and JFG find ways to destroy each other.

    1. You’re right, Polis makes a compelling argument, and in a perfect world with unlimited funds, I’d say no problem. But the charters are taking money away from a limited public education budget to educate students who aren’t there.

      The New America charter schools receive $6,500 to $6,800 per student from state and federal funds. In 2007-2008, the Lowry camps earned $3.1 million, according to Colorado Department of Education records.

      If you’re going to take public money from existing schools, shouldn’t you be more accountable than only revising your attendance policy after the 9 Wants to Know cameras come calling?

      1. You’re saying that his Charter school is taking money away from public schools, but it’s been shown over and over again that throwing more money at the problem isn’t going to necessarily help public schooling. More ideas, experiments, and efforts – similar to Jared’s charter school – are needed to reform education.

        Also, if Jared is correct, these kids wouldn’t be in school at all if the charter program didn’t exist. Are you saying that it’s the gov’s responsibility to only spend money on those kids that make an effort to attend school regularly? Sounds similar to the view of the repubs.

        I think Jared’s argument is very sound. Like you’ve already said though, the issue politically, comes at a terrible time.

  3. The state finances these charter schools based on attendence.Public funding used without oversight and ignoring the Charters own policies on attendence is fraud. Charters receive $6800 per pupil from the state and the Charter administration takes the funding and does not bother to have students attend classes.

    The public schools are subjected to truancy laws. The public school must account for attendance or are guilty of fraud.

    The New America schools have set the bar quite low for attendence and curriculum. These youngsters are in a fool’s paradise and set up for failure.When the student transitions to the work world and does not show up for work, he is fired.

    This is typical of Jared – another red hot idea like 41 – just throw it out there – no planning, no oversight, no transparency, no responsibility, no incentive – just open ended, feel good and unintended consequences.

  4. I do feel for the students and what Polis is attempting to do with these schools, though.  These are not your average school kids, nor even your average under-achievers.  They have tough lives that don’t necessarily fit into a standard school model.  That New America Schools are willing to accommodate these students to try and get them the education they need is laudable.

    I hope all sides learn from the problems and mistakes found here, and work to best serve the students in the future.

  5. The claim is made here that kids are being “set up for failure” if absenteeism rules are not enforced.  Is there evidence for this?  In other words, do kids actually get fired for absenteeism at work because they “learned” it was OK to not show up in school?  Or are they smarter than that and understand that they won’t get paid if they don’t show up for work?  Remember, there is no salary for going to school; the only immediate rewards are grades and a diploma.  

    I would argue that being present in class will improve learning for most, if not all, students.  Most students probably won’t do well if they aren’t in class, but if a student can fulfill the educational requirements (homework, exams, etc.) without being in class, why should the student be punished for absenteeism?  Is forcing students into the industrial-worker model important enough to society that we must expel them and deny them an education because they can’t or won’t conform?

    1. What you learn in school is carried over through the rest of your life.  Some colleges attempt to “rehabilitate” students who are having problems but are capable of doing the work; many of the classes they offer to these students are in skills they may have missed in grade school.  The principle is that some students have learned things that don’t really “work” in the real world; they’ve managed to avoid certain lessons and it’s affecting their future…

      Learning that it’s okay to be “flexible” in your work schedule is something that’s going to get you in trouble later on.

      1. Sure, there are all sorts of bad work-related habits that one can pick up in school (I’ve got plenty).  But is there any actual evidence, not opinion or anecdote, that shows expelling at-risk students for absenteeism is better than allowing them to stay in school?

        1. I’d also like to know the justification for passing and awarding diplomas to students who miss half their classes, especially when the schools are taking millions from public schools that actually adhere to those standards.

          That’s the formula: Launch a great idea with fine intentions, decide the rules must not apply because the intentions are so fine, excuse the shoddy execution because … well, because the intentions are so fine. Repeat.

  6. If Paula Woodward shows up at your school, you have problems. How many public school teachers are working so hard day after day and get crapped on by the media for doing a lousy job, yet a guy running to represent them is running a school attendance program based on Target Gift Cards? What a crock. How many public schools in your area could use the millions that polis is getting for these unaccountable schools? But, like everything Jared does Unaccountable and Unacceptable.  

    1. but “Paula Woodward” is a pretty good generic for “TV investigate reporter” in the Denver area.

      v. Deb Sherman is going Paula Woodward on his ass

  7. So Polis funds 5 schools that provide a stop-gap between total drop-out and normal student attendance and he gets crapped on because the individual school administrators decided on their own to be flexible with attendance policies???

    I don’t get it.  Who would ever do any philanthropic work if they are held responsible for every possible criticism of the thousands of folks involved in those endeavors?  Wouldn’t you rather support someone with ideas for change, willing to try them out even if they aren’t 100% successful than spending your time tearing down hope and building-up cynicism?    

    1. There’s taxpayer money and a school district charter involved, and those come with laws, rules, and restrictions.

      I wrote above that I find the work NAS does to be noble and worthwhile; however, attendance is important, and some of the teachers’ comments about pressure to pass students regardless of achievement deserve a proper investigation by both the NAS board and by the district school boards.

      At some point you have to impose minimum standards; otherwise, you’re accepting that 1+1=3 is okay if they’re trying.

      1. I agree…there should be standards and rules (as well as flexibility to help students who would otherwise fall through the cracks).  But my point is that none of those issues rise to a legitimate criticism of Jared Polis and that the attempts to make them so smack more of blind partisanship than political sensibility.

        1. With Jared so closely tied to the school, the operation of the school will resonate as an election issue whether it is or not.

          The operation of the school itself is, I agree, not an election issue, but rather an issue that needs to be resolved by the school to the benefit of society and the students being served.

          However, if we’re looking at the election, this hits too close to Jared to be ignored.  Worse, it could resonate with the 527 ad’s claims, leaving Jared looking like the only one running a “true” attack ad.  My guess is, it’s too late for that; most voters won’t connect the two, at least consciously.  Still, to say it’s not an election issue is to ignore the perception that this creates.

          1. He’s been touting his progressive vision in education by pointing to his role founding these schools. In his attack ad contra the Colorado Counts education ad, he holds up the NAS as a rebuttal. Pat Schroeder mentions the schools in her ad for Polis, too, saying they’re a reason she wholeheartedly endorses him. And that’s just the TV advertising that’s been running in the last month.

            1. …was my point.  And your treating it as such merely builds cynicism, rather than sensibility.  

              I mean, are you really saying that it would be better if Polis HADN’T funded these schools?  Are you REALLY saying that doing so is a strike against him?  Please.  

              Don’t let the perfect prevent the good.

              1. I simply said that it was Polis who made NAS an election issue. Bring it up as a sign of your qualifications in numerous ads, don’t cry foul when it turns out it actually is an election issue.

                It appears you’re new here (or at least this screen name is new), but I was the first to point out and argue strenuously that the Colorado Counts hits on Polis’s charter schools were likely to backfire, as the schools are nearly universally lauded, and rightly so.

                Of course I’m not saying it would be better if he hadn’t funded the schools. I’ve said nothing of the sort, but you’re free to imagine that if you like. But if you’re going to fund an enterprise like this and take millions of taxpayer dollars out of public school budgets, you can expect to be held accountable for how the schools are run. Are you suggesting otherwise?

                1. Yes, Polis should expect to be attacked on the schools since he lauds them as a success.

                  But then you have to praise his answer, that  these kids would not be in ANY school at all without his schools.

                  So we agree that the attack is expected, but misguided, right?  

                  1. It’s broadly laudable what Polis is attempting with the NAS. As taxpayers and education advocates, I believe we can expect better accountability on the ground from these schools. Honestly, if we’re forking over taxpayer dollars that would otherwise go to other schools, we have a right to expect they’re being spent on students who are actually there. And a right to expect diplomas mean more than bending over backwards to reward … well, not exactly success, not exactly effort, but good intentions. In a perfect world with unlimited resources, there should be a hundred New America Schools across the state. But we don’t live in that world and have to chose where limited money goes.

                    I’d also like to see some actual facts, not just hope and dreams, whether all these kids would be on the streets without these schools. Aurora Public Schools, which charters the Lowry campus profiled in the piece, educates thousands of students in similar situations. In fact, the majority of APS students have profiles similar to NAS students. How many are dropping out of Central and Hinkley because they know they can get a diploma with decidedly less effort at the NAS? Again, best intentions, but I’d be more comfortable with the facts.

                    1. I think he already posted here that NAS schools  have the same diploma standards as any other school since they are established by the boards and not the school administration.  So, if NAS students are getting diplomas without being present in class, it can only be because (a) they are making up the work or (b) the standards are really lax for ALL schools.  

                      So he makes a good point about needing to make radical changes to NCLB.  

                    2. Though you ignored my entire second paragraph and its questions, which are equally valid. Listen, I’m a big fan of the NA schools, have been since the beginning, and think they definitely deserve some leeway. But not every Democrat is going to agree with that. The KMGH piece provides information those voters (and taxpayers, parents and educators) might find valuable, so I’m not going to label it a “misguided” attack.

              2. At least Jared is trying something. As FDR said, when you know something isn’t working, trying something else and if that fails, keep on trying until you find something that works.    

  8. When you run a school to get at-risk youth back into school, it is hardly a journalistic challenge to make it look bad by whatever criteria you want.

    Of course New America School has low test scores and low attendance. Our students wouldn’t even be going to school at all or taking any tests if it wasn’t for the New America School.

    Some students make more of this educational opportunity than others. Many students attend every class, despite working 50 hours/week and having two kids, but others are called away because of other urgent priorities in their life. In general, the more time our students are in school, they more they can improve their English literacy and fluency and even earn a high school diploma.

    The story didn’t discuss diplomas, but it’s important to point out that the graduation requirements are set by the school district, not the charter school (in this case, Aurora Public Schools) and that New America School has the same graduation requirements and standards as the district for graduation.

    In my view, this story highlights one of the (many) problems with No Child Left Behind. Ironically, a program designed to ensure that all children learn actually discourages districts from serving students who don’t test well precisely because of negative media scrutiny like this story as well as official sanctions from the federal government. Good federal education policy should do the opposite. We need to encourage districts nationally to serve all children, even students who might not test well or have stellar attendance records.

    Jared Polis

    1. I hit you hard on some issues, but I think you are generally correct on this one: these kids are tough, and require flexibility.

      However by defining down the requirements, they approach meaninglessness.  The moral of the teachers is eroded by Kids who only show up half the time.  The kids that are trying have less teacher time and see peverse incentives.

      Its a microcosm of the problems in education.

      I do think you need to look at the policies impact on teacher moral and on the students who are putting in the effort.

    2. Mr. Polis, I think you make a good point about NCLB. It’s a flawed system that does not help educators or the students they educate. If elected, would you then want to scrap NCLB entirely?

      Also, back to the New America school, what about the funding the students receive even though they are not attending on the same regular basis as students in more traditional public schools? Should those students who miss tens of days be given the same funding?

  9. Mr. Polis began NAS at the Lowry campus and soon expanded to Adams county.  At the time a variety of nonprofits had programs up and running to help immigrant children and adults learn English and earn GEDs.

    Over time, the open enrollment, that allowed students to enroll in NAS at any time, decreased the participant numbers from other programs.  Many of the programs have since modified their services or shut down.

    The other programs offered were funded by the CO Dept of Education, private/public funding or county/city workforce funding (mostly under TANF, if I remember).  Students in all programs could not miss more than three classes.  The programs had to show progress by testing students at the beginning and end of the classes.

    Mr. Polis should be commended for trying something new to help at risk students succeed.  We do need more creativity in how we address educational problems in Colorado.  This story, however, confirms the initial thoughts I had about the NAS years ago.  Great idea, poor implementation. A Polis representative at the time approached my organization to develop the curriculum for NAS.  It was obvious to everyone at the meeting, except the Polis representative, that the ideas floated were half baked.

    I do not believe that if students were not in NAS they would not be in school.  This statement does not give credit to the wide array of services available in the communities through nonprofits.

    1. Great idea, poor implementation. A Polis representative at the time approached my organization to develop the curriculum for NAS.  It was obvious to everyone at the meeting, except the Polis representative, that the ideas floated were half baked.

      Seems to be the story of Jared’s political life.

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