Findings of a comprehensive new survey show that about two-thirds of high school students and parents believe that Douglas County schools are offering a "good" or "very good" education.
But some other findings from the $220,000 survey commissioned by the Douglas County School District show a less-positive experience.
Almost 40 percent of parents and guardians with children in the district do not believe the district values their opinion, according to the survey conducted late last year and in early 2017. And 30 percent of parents and 40 percent of other community members do not believe the district appropriately spends tax dollars.
The survey of 16,968 people — parents, high school students, district employees and community members — was presented to the school board and community April 18. Parents of children attending DCSD schools made up 63 percent of those surveyed.
“I think a lot of this information and data is not exactly a surprise to us,” board of education President Meghann Silverthorn said. “Some of it is very critical, and I think the board has already started to try and be more responsive to what the community has told us.”
Board member Anne-Marie Lemieux said the survey will inform how the district makes decisions in the future.
“I think we got some good information on the direction we need to go as a board, not just for what the community wants, but what our students need,” Lemieux said.
In July 2016, the board of education approved the money for Corona Insights, a Denver-based research and strategy firm, to conduct the extensive community survey. While the district conducted surveys in the past, this was the first time DCSD contracted with an outside firm for an in-depth, scientific survey.
The Douglas County Federation, the teachers' union, conducted its own surveys in 2012 and 2015.
“We sincerely hope that DCSD will realize that their employees need a seat at the table, and that their voices need to be heard," said Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation. "Employees offered similar feedback in multiple surveys over the past several years, but DCSD discounted each of those surveys. We are grateful that the district finally conducted their own assessment to validate the previous results.”
School board member James Geddes suggested that a similar survey be conducted every few years to help guide the district and keep it connected to the desires of the community.
"It seems to me that a serial measure, maybe every two to three years, would help us to know if we're doing the right thing when we're making some of these changes," Geddes said.
The following is a look at survey results among the various groups.
Kevin Raines, president of Corona Insights, said the two biggest concerns revealed by the survey were the need to retain quality teachers and whether or not the district is using taxpayer money wisely.
Almost a third of parents rated the district as poor or very poor in terms of appropriately spending taxpayers’ money.
Forty percent of parents rated the district poor or very poor when it comes to retaining quality teachers.
Thirty-nine percent of parents and 50 percent of community members indicated that they do not believe the district values their opinion.
The group Douglas County Parents said it hopes the district will use the new information to “make the appropriate corrections.”
“We are pleased to see the district requesting community feedback again,” said Jason Virdin, spokesman for the group. “The reform-minded board and superintendent have spent much of the last eight years forcing a reform agenda on the schools in DCSD while dismissing the concerns of parents, teachers and community members.”
The survey also found that community members without children feel more negative about the district than parents do.
Views about the district do seem to be trending more positively, Raines said. Those views included “a lot more positive comments about the new superintendent.”
When asked to rate the quality of their education in the district, 65 percent of students responded with “good” or “very good.” Among parents, 67 percent responded that way.
“It's the ultimate customer service question,” Raines said.
Overall, Corona found that students are having a very positive experience in Douglas County schools, but feel like they could be better equipped to move on to the real world after graduation. This was especially true of students who reported they did not plan on attending a four-year college or university.
According to the survey, 41 percent of seniors “strongly agree” that they feel ready for the next phase of life and 60 percent of seniors “strongly agree” that have a plan to achieve their goals after graduation.
With large numbers of students indicating they did not feel as though they were prepared for the next phase in life, saying they wished their schools had taught them more basic life skills, the board highlighted this as an area of concern.
Almost 70 percent of students said they want to be involved in helping design what they learn in class.
“We give a lot of support to our juniors and seniors, but I think our students are telling us they need that a few years earlier,” board of education Vice President Judith Reynolds said.
Board member David Ray agreed.
“That's a fairly significant message for us in a district that says every student should be college-bound,” Ray said.
When it comes to retaining quality teachers, students are less concerned about teachers leaving than the community or their parents — just 18 percent indicated they were concerned.
The survey found that when it came to curriculum changes that took place under former Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen — such as the Guaranteed Viable Curriculum, 21st century Skills and World Class Outcomes — the majority of employees generally supported the concepts but not how they were implemented.
“People really don't know what guaranteed and viable curriculum or world-class outcomes are,” Raines said. “People are open to the concepts, they just don't understand them enough to support it.”
In 2009, county residents elected school board members who voted for numerous reform policies over the next several years. The board hired Fagen in 2010.
Fagen left the district in the summer of 2016 to take the same position in Humble, Texas, near Houston. The board of education hired Erin Kane as interim superintendent at the start of the 2016-17 school year and recently extended her contract through the 2017-18 school year.
On the most contentious reforms was the implementation of a performance-based pay system.
Seventy percent of district employees either "somewhat disagree" or "strongly disagree" that the current pay system is fair and that it helps retain employees, attract employees or motivate employees to increase work quality.
More than 40 percent of employees said they feel that there’s more competition in the district than collaboration. Only 20 percent said they believe there’s more collaboration than competition.
However, 60 percent of employees said they are proud to work at the district.
"The morale in the district is higher than it may seem," Raines said.