Top

news

Stories

 
Next month's election could change the future of Denver Public Schools

This November's Denver Public Schools Board of Education election might be the most important political race you're not paying attention to. Why is it so important? Because even if it's unlikely to make headlines on CNN, it could serve as a referendum on Denver's trend of aggressive school reform and set the course for DPS and similar districts nationwide.

If the candidates who back this "reform" movement sweep the election and maintain or increase the board's 4-to-3 pro-reform majority, as they did two years ago, it will be a win for strategies such as closing and replacing failing schools, encouraging charter and innovation schools, and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

If not, it will signal that Denver voters have lost confidence in those tactics and want to head in a new direction, one that isn't as quick to label schools as failing, invests more money into neighborhood schools, and uses test data in a less punitive way.

Reformers like board president Mary Seawell believe that changing directions now would be devastating for students. "I think we'd have more failing schools," she says. "I do think we would really step back in the improvement and changes we've made."

Kristi Butkovich, head of a new group called the Denver Alliance for Public Education, disagrees. She fears that district reforms such as charter schools are "privatizing" public education, and she believes that DPS should be spending its money to improve the schools in which every neighborhood child is guaranteed a seat.

"If the board doesn't turn over, we'll be nearing the end of what we've always known as public education," she says. "This is the opportunity now to save our schools."

Nine candidates are running for four open seats on Denver's seven-member school board. The winners won't face an easy job. The DPS board, known for being dysfunctional and divided, made headlines four years ago when its members, along with the superintendent, met with a marriage therapist in an attempt to heal the rifts among them.

Of the four outgoing boardmembers, one, Jeannie Kaplan, is term-limited. Two more, Seawell and Andrea Merida, are not seeking reelection. Seawell has said that her increasing family and work demands — she took a job last year as a program officer for the Gates Family Foundation — have made it difficult for her to find the time to fulfill her board duties, which she describes as a full-time job.

And the outspoken, controversial Merida, who butted heads with administrators and boardmembers alike and who first made a splash when she had herself sworn in early in 2009 so she could vote with the board minority against the co-location of a charter school, announced in August that she would not run for reelection, either. "I cannot, in good conscience, serve on a board whose only function now is to give tests," she wrote in a blog post. Two months earlier, in June, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which supported Merida in 2009, revealed it was not endorsing her again.

The fourth open seat was vacated by Nate Easley in January, when he became head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. The full board couldn't agree on a replacement, so Seawell appointed reformer Landri Taylor, president of the Denver Urban League, to take Easley's place in March. Taylor is now running in a contested race to keep that seat for another four years.

Three of the current boardmembers aren't up for reelection. Two of them, Anne Rowe and Happy Haynes, generally favor the district's brand of reform, while the other, Arturo Jimenez, doesn't. If voters fill at least three of the four open seats with candidates who agree with Jimenez, DPS could undergo a big shift.

The nine candidates are roughly split along ideological lines.

Four of them — Taylor, Mike Johnson, former lieutenant governor Barbara O'Brien and former city councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez — agree that the district is headed in the right direction.

Four others — Michael Kiley, Rosario C. de Baca, Meg Schomp and Roger Kilgore — think the district is not.

The ninth candidate, Joan Poston, is more of a wild card.

**********

So what does school reform look like in Denver?

The discussion escalated in 2005, when then-superintendent Michael Bennet introduced the Denver Plan, the district's "blueprint for progress," which was updated in 2010 by Tom Boasberg, who had taken over for Bennet when the latter left for the U.S. Senate a year earlier.

The Denver Plan is a lengthy document. Among its goals and strategies: define what it means to be an effective teacher and hold teachers to that standard; revise the curriculum and frequently test students' progress; expand preschool and full-day kindergarten; and develop programs for dropouts and students struggling with behavior and health issues.

The plan includes more controversial policies, as well. One of the biggest is the idea of "turnaround schools," which involves making "immediate and dramatic" changes to chronically failing schools. Those changes can include firing the principal, getting rid of a majority of the teachers, or closing the school altogether. The Denver Plan also calls for creating more "promising new schools" and specifies that all schools — whether district-run or charter — should have access to district buildings and funding.

Since 2009, the district has closed sixteen schools. Of those, seven were low-performing charter schools and nine were traditional district-run schools. Ten of the schools were replaced by new-school options. In all, fourteen schools have undergone the turnaround process, including West, North and Montbello high schools, Lake Middle School and Green Valley Elementary School.

The district has also opened fifty new schools in that time, not all of which were the result of turnaround. Thirteen of those fifty are traditional, 22 are charters and fifteen are innovation schools, which means they are district-run but can request waivers from certain district policies; an innovation school may seek to increase the length of the school day, for example, or to employ its teachers on a year-to-year basis rather than follow the hiring-and-firing procedures in the teachers'-union contract.

Those who champion reform say DPS's strategies are working. As proof, they point to statistics. For instance, DPS enrollment has steadily increased, from 72,500 students in 2005 — a time when families were fleeing the district's failing schools — to more than 85,000 this year. The number of graduates has increased, too, from 2,664 in 2006 to 3,493 in 2013. In addition, more kids are taking and passing Advanced Placement tests, and ACT scores are rising.

Reformers also focus on the district's academic growth rather than its raw test scores; DPS boasts that it's gone from having the lowest growth rate among the state's twelve largest school districts in 2005 to now having the highest growth rate.

But those who question the reform agenda say those statistics mask serious failures. The district's graduation rate is still only 59 percent. As for ACT scores, the average in 2013 was 18.0, which is below what's required for admission to most four-year colleges. Of the graduates who do go to college, 60 percent take remedial classes.

And while DPS students may be growing academically, that growth has been slow. In 2013, DPS students' scores increased by just 2 percent in reading, 3 percent in math and 1 percent in writing. And considering that only 54 percent of students are proficient in reading, 46 percent in math and 42 percent in writing, the district has a long way to go. Furthermore, non-reformers point out that the achievement gap between free-lunch and paid-lunch students is actually widening; in other words, middle-class students are gaining ground faster than poor students.

As for the district's turnaround schools, the results are mixed. Charts compiled by the advocacy organization A Plus Denver show that while some turnaround schools are experiencing above-average growth, others are failing to catch kids up.

"Denver is all over the map," says A Plus Denver CEO Van Schoales.

**********

One way to separate the two groups is by looking at who supports them.

Reform groups, including Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, have endorsed O'Brien, Rodriguez, Johnson and Taylor.

"The folks we've endorsed represent an opportunity to bring the board to a different level," says Sonja Semion, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which contributed tens of thousands of dollars' worth of canvassing support to reform candidates in the DPS board election two years ago. (This year's campaign-finance reports aren't due until mid-October.) "If we can get these four elected, the conversation won't be should we or shouldn't we go forward with reform policies, but it will be debating the details of those policies."

Those four also enjoy support from past boardmembers Theresa Peña and Bruce Hoyt. "Because everybody's been a parent and everybody went to school, they think they're an expert," Hoyt says. "But that in and of itself doesn't qualify you to become a boardmember. I would look at the (candidates') professional credentials, and here's why: It's a seven-member board that manages a budget of almost a billion dollars."

Hoyt also points out that the district has received millions of dollars in grant money from national foundations over the past several years "because people have such confidence in our reforms." If the district switches directions, "I could see a lot of that money drying up and causing budgetary problems for DPS," he says.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has endorsed an entirely different slate of candidates: Kiley, de Baca, Schomp and Kilgore. The union believes its candidates are best because they're connected to the community. "All of these people are authentic voices from the field," says union head Henry Roman. "True community activists that truly, truly care about Denver Public Schools."

Jeannie Kaplan, who regularly votes with the minority, agrees. "One of the main differences between the two sides is truly grassroots candidates versus selected candidates with great name recognition," she says. "The so-called reform candidates have a national agenda at stake here, and they're willing to keep going a myth that we're actually on the right trajectory."

The rhetoric in this race is another way to sort the candidates. Reform candidates often say they want to continue the direction of DPS but accelerate the pace. They talk about how we "can't let schools fail another day" and believe that swift action is needed. They believe that if the district truly explains how a school is failing, parents will come to see that it should be closed or turned around. They're big fans of school choice and frequently talk about how every child learns differently and should have the opportunity to go to a school that best meets his or her needs.

Non-reformers are disillusioned with DPS's direction and emphasize that it's not working. They often talk about the "privatization" of public schools, and although they're not necessarily opposed to some charter and innovation schools, they believe that every child should be able to go to a high-quality school in their own neighborhood rather than have to drive or take a bus to a better school somewhere else. They think that DPS has ignored parents' wishes, and that in order for drastic changes to work, the district must have the support of the community. Parents can help find solutions for failing schools, they say, if DPS would just ask them.

Westword interviewed all nine candidates. Click on a name below to go to that candidate's profile.

Michael Kiley

Barbara O'Brien

Joan Poston

Rosario C. de Baca

Rosemary Rodriguez

Mike Johnson

Meg Schomp

Roger Kilgore

Landri Taylor

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
10 comments
RobertChase
RobertChase topcommenter

By the way, there is no chance that Amendment 66 will pass -- with no prospect for improving outcomes and the same tired rhetoric coming from the educational establishment, Amendment 66 could fail even harder than Rollie Heath's ill-fated Proposition 103 of two years ago (which lost 63% to 37%).  To be sure, citizens put this measure on the ballot rather than legislators, but no better case has been made for the Amendment than the Proposition, Amendment 66 would raise taxes by almost a billion dollars a year (as opposed to Proposition 103's $500 million), and the economy has not drastically improved in the interim

RobertChase
RobertChase topcommenter

Of what do Denver's so-called "reforms" consist?  First, the bizarre pretense that, in an age in which teachers cajole rather than command, their competence should be measured not by what they know about the subjects they teach, but by the performance of their charges.  Second, that failed schools can effectively be reconstituted by rebranding them, firing most of the teachers in the process. Common to both is the false assumption that, of all the groups responsible for education, school administrators; teachers; parents; and students, teachers are the most culpable for students' failure, despite the fact that most are rated highly qualified to teach.  Third, that failing, incorrigible, and mentally-ill  students should all be "mainstreamed" together in the same classroom, and set to the same course of academic study.  There is nothing in this daft program unique to Denver, and that is why America's secondary education system as a whole is in collapse.  To describe this as "reform", or the people mouthing this nonsense as "reformers" renders the entire public dialog about DPS and its Board meaningless.

The supposed openness of the "reform" camp to charter schools reflects the difficulties the District has in falsifying student achievement institutionally; the task is being farmed out to charter schools less subject to public scrutiny.  The determination to retain students not achieving academically within the system reflects not a deep concern for the worth of every student, but the simple economic fact that tax revenue is apportioned based on the number of bodies in seats as of October.  I have seen this first-hand at a local charter, which attempts to bribe students to be in those seats on the day that DPS audits attendance.

Real reform of education would begin by assigning blame more appropriately; those administering education are not geniuses with a deeper understanding of learning and teaching than others -- they are far more akin to self-interested and promoting corporate executives being compensated out of all proportion to their competence.  It is striking that, in all the hand-wringing over our failure to educate our children, administrators seem to be beyond all reproach; even when principals have been implicated in the falsification of test results or grades, no one seems to suppose that  the problem might extend beyond the individuals caught, and no indictment of administrators' performance has even reared its head in public discourse about education, even as a national movement to "hold teachers accountable" has tied their compensation to the way students behave.  The real essence of educational reform would be to acknowledge that all students do not have equal ability and that compelling all students to attend the same classes and setting them all on a course of acamedic study does not serve their best interests or society's.  Schools' academic mission has been compromised by our need to socialize youth, but this can occur in settings other than a classroom.  Education should consist of parallel tracks of academic, vocational, and social programs which endeavor to impart academic knowledge to all, but allow those unsuited to still acquire social and work skills.  Such programs would resemble boot camp, Outward Bound, or Job Corps more than our present school system.  Such a system need not segregate or pigeon-hole students, who might move freely between these several tracks.

Mark Twain's hierarchy of lies:  "lies, damned lies, and statistics" surely applies to the sort of statistics cited by supposed "reformers", and those likely accurate and cited in this article -- "DPS enrollment has steadily increased, from 72,500 students ... to more than 85,000" and "The number of graduates has increased" -- are utterly meaningless in gauging DPS' performance.  Graduation rates are irrelevant when graduation is a reward for minimal attendance, as is now the case in DPS.   You cite an estimate of the percentage of graduates who must enroll in remedial courses in college of 60%, which suggests that the competence rate of college-bound DPS graduates is only 40%.  Considering that fewer than 70% of high school graduates go on to college, the competence rate of DPS' graduates is surely substantially less than 40%; this statistic is the proof that DPS' high schools have already failed catastrophically.  In this context, "reform" is clearly seen to be an inappropriate choice of words to describe what would need to be done to restore academic integrity to secondary education; "reconstitution" is closer to the mark.  At this point, all the mistaken assumptions which have led to the present disaster need to be thrown out -- it would make more sense to fire everyone responsible for DPS' administration of schools than to fire any teacher.  We must socialize kids and train them to perform useful work, but we have allowed these critical goals to usurp schools' primary function of academic instruction -- let schools teach, and create new institutions to work with them in the socialization and vocational training of youth.  We should not give up on kids' academic learning, but our pretence that all are equally capable of it has fatally compromised secondary education.  In shoehorning all kids into an institution which is supposed to impart academic knowledge, we have reached the stage where many graduates lack ninth-grade, much less twelfth-grade skills, and we are not adequately socializing or getting them ready to work either!

DenverDoughboy
DenverDoughboy

And the candidates for some reason don't seem to want us to figure out their positions either.   For example, I received a mailer from Meg Schomp, and I read it very carefully trying to figure out which camp she was in.   All there were were the usual empty statements and bromides about improving schools, supporting teachers and focusing on children.  And the same with campaign literature I got from Barbara O'Brien (a supposed reformer).  You could have swapped the names and faces of Schomp and O'Brien on their respective mailers, and I don't think I would have seen the difference.  How is it in the candidates' interests to keep the voters in the dark on what their views and positions are?

DenverDoughboy
DenverDoughboy

Thank you for this article and series of profiles.  I consider myself a fairly well informed voter (although I have no children in DPS) and I have no idea what the debate is between these two School Board factions. Although the articles about the bickering between Board members makes it into the paper, no one really describes where the battle lines are set and why this election matters.   We will all be better off if the media (and especially the Denver Post) does a better job of providing some context for this coming election.  

ohms30
ohms30

You know....these idiots have over a Billion dollars that they have not used. Why increase taxes because they tell us they are out of money????

A BIG FAT NO from me!!!!

Aaron Betcher
Aaron Betcher

sad but true, watch out DPS wants to privatize education and break up traditional schools, put more tests in classrooms and less instruction and critical thinking.

Alpine-Valley-Bruce
Alpine-Valley-Bruce

"Aggressive" reform? Agreed, our authoritarian, undemocratic schooling system disempowers and ignores its constituents. However, the forced changes cited in this article hardly qualify as substantive reform, as they leave us with the same basic model of one-size-fits-all, factory schooling. Instead of aggressive reform, how about implementing actual change? It's past time to surrender the illusion that we can pin down the one best way to teach and the one set of things all kids need to learn, and that we can definitively quantify and measure all this. 

At the metro Denver school where I've taught since 1998 (http://alpinevalleyschool.com), we know the power of fully individualized education driven by the powerful, innate curiosity of children. We understand that giving them a real voice in their education ensures that they will learn (and retain!) what they most need to learn, in the way that works best for them. 

Reform by fiat, without questioning the fundamental assumptions behind the system, will result in no improvement whatsoever. Bickering about this or that testing regimen, centralizing control of education in the hands of so-called experts, et cetera does nothing but leave all our children behind in a bureaucratic wasteland of government-run schools. Families need genuine options, not the mere appearance of reform.

fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

How about if we get rid of the NEA (the largest labor union in the USA), failing, lazy and inept teachers, tenure, and overpaid administrators?  How about if we start caring for educating our children instead of politics and political correctness?  Does anyone even remember what the three  Rs stood for?   

DRCinDenver
DRCinDenver

Denver Public Schools is getting it right!  The candidates need to see the schools, ALL of the schools, in action, and speak with the employees, before deciding to being upheaval where it isn't needed.  Have you checked on Douglas County schools lately?  Don't mess DPS up with political intentions . . .

 
Loading...