Changing the Grade

By Kathleen Vail

Outside Karen Jenks’ classroom window, the iron-gray sky foreshadows a rare fall snowstorm that will soon dump nearly three feet of snow in the Rocky Mountain foothills and close schools all over Colorado’s Front Range.

Inside Jenks’ classroom, students focus not on the impending storm, but on magnetic pizza slices on a white board in the front of the room. They are studying fractions.

It may not look like it at first glance, but a revolution is occurring in Adams County School District 50, which serves 10,000 students just north of Denver. If it succeeds, the district will overturn a public school icon: the grade level.

“All research shows when you do something new, it takes five years to show results,” says Jenks, a former corporate lawyer with a passion for math. “We said, ‘We don’t have five years.’”

That sense of urgency, prompted by persistently low achievement and a statewide open enrollment policy that was siphoning away middle-class families, led Adams 50 to make wholesale changes in the way students are taught. Starting this year, elementary and middle school students are being grouped by level, not age, and the reform moves to the high school next year.

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