CHARTER MEMBERS

WHEN TWO DPS TEACHERS DECIDED TO OPEN A NEW SCHOOL, THEY DISCOVERED THEY HAD A LOT TO LEARN.

Noblet Danks loved to teach. She loved the children she taught--their energy, their enthusiasm, their eagerness to learn.

In the Seventies she taught in Bolivia as a member of the Peace Corps. Back in Colorado she worked in a small Catholic school for two years. In the early Eighties she took a break to earn her Ph.D., bear four children and see them get started in Denver Public Schools. And then, in 1986, with her youngest in kindergarten, Danks became a DPS teacher.

She still loved the children. But every year there were more and more of them in each classroom, and she felt less and less able to teach.

The packed classrooms were necessitated by equally tight budgets, according to district administrators. As class sizes continued to grow over the years, though, Danks decided to see for herself. She went through the district budget line by line. And when she'd finished, she calculated that far too much money was going to DPS administration and far too little to the education of children.

Danks simply didn't understand the budget process, DPS officials responded. But Danks believed she did: The school district was wasting millions of dollars that could be used to hire more teachers.

Frustrated, she and fellow teacher Cordia Booth looked into a new state law that allowed the creation of charter schools. Unlike some proposals, theirs did not target a specific population. Instead, they envisioned a school with the same racial, ethnic and economic makeup as in DPS schools--but with a better student/teacher ratio and almost no administrative costs.

They intended to prove that with smaller class sizes and better classroom discipline, inner-city students could thrive. They decided to call their school Thurgood Marshall, after the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, who championed integrated schools.

Two years later, Thurgood Marshall has yet to enroll a single student.
The school district twice rejected the charter school's application. After each rejection, the state Board of Education ruled in Thurgood Marshall's favor--but DPS still failed to approve the application.

Last month the school's supporters finally filed suit against DPS in Denver District Court, asking the court to force the school district to obey the state board and grant a charter to Thurgood Marshall.

At this point, it could take someone with the legal acumen of the school's namesake to settle the matter. At stake is not just the status of Thurgood Marshall, but whether the state Board of Education has the authority, under the Colorado Charter Schools Act, to force its will on local school boards across the state.

Even after Judge John Loughlin ruled Monday that the Denver school board must grant a charter to Thurgood Marshall by mid-April, the antagonists have different ideas about what his decision really means.

The argument is almost certain to wind up in the Colorado Supreme Court. But while the lawyers argue, Danks has dropped out. Drained by her budget battle and the subsequent struggle to establish Thurgood Marshall, she is on unpaid medical leave from DPS. Although she doesn't blame her condition on all the acrimony, "it certainly didn't do me any good," she says.

All Danks wanted was a class size small enough that she'd have a reasonable chance of successfully teaching her students. Now she's not sure she'll ever go back to the classroom.

In early 1993 the papers were filled with headlines about anticipated budgetary shortfalls at DPS. The stories that followed those headlines predicted the school district would try to bridge the gap with still larger class sizes.

"By 1992 my class sizes had grown to 38 children in each class for seven classes," Danks remembers. "I was really burned out. I had none of the enthusiasm I had when there were 24 children in a class. You end up watching children instead of teaching them."

So when her classes were finished for the day, the Hill Middle School social-studies teacher took on an unusual extra-credit project: studying the DPS budget.

Contrary to the figures fed to the public, Danks says, she learned that DPS actually spent 26 percent of its budget outside of the classrooms, compared with 11 percent in Jefferson County and 7 percent in Littleton. If DPS cut its $80 million administrative budget in half, she determined, the district would have $40 million to spend on more teachers.

Danks shared her research with Cordia Booth, a science teacher with 22 years of DPS service and a Ph.D. in education administration. Together they studied ways that DPS might use its scarce resources. Increasing class sizes was counterproductive, they decided, because teachers spend less time teaching and more time as disciplinarians, often with their hands tied by a litigation-squeamish school board.

Booth and Danks worried about the high dropout rates for minority students in inner-city schools and the fact that those who stayed were rarely encouraged to take the classes necessary to go on to college. "We were giving up on a lot of young people," says Booth.

The two teachers presented their findings to the school board, which passed them on to the budget steering committee--the bureaucratic equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. "Basically, the reaction was defensive," Danks says of the boardmembers. "Instead of, `Good, let's make some changes,' they gave a whole lot of reasons why things needed to stay the way they were."

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