This week's cover story, "Drawing the Line," delves into the Denver Public Schools Board of Education election -- possibly the most important political race you're not paying attention to.
The future direction of DPS is at stake, with about half of the nine candidates in favor of continuing the district's aggressive brand of reform and the other half looking to try something different.
We spoke with all nine candidates and will post our interviews on this blog. Today: the District 2 race.
In District 2, which covers southwest Denver, two candidates -- Rosario C. de Baca and Rosemary Rodriguez -- are running to fill the seat being vacated by Andrea Merida, who gave this explanation for why she's not running for re-election: "I cannot, in good conscience, serve on a board whose only function now is to give tests."
In all, four seats are up for grabs on the seven-member DPS board, which is known for being dysfunctional and divided. If the candidates who back the "reform" movement sweep the election and maintain or increase the board's 4-to-3 pro-reform majority, 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 so quick to label schools as failing, invests more money into neighborhood schools and uses test data in a less punitive way.
Here are our interviews with the District 2 candidates, in alphabetical order. We'll publish our interviews with the District 3 and 4 candidates in the coming days.
ROSARIO C. de BACA
- Age: 59
- Volunteer and community organizer
- Five grown children, all graduates of DPS schools
- Website: rosariocdebaca.com
Two things motivated de Baca to run for the school board: an appreciation for the teachers who helped her own children, and a belief that as a whole, parents are being left out of the conversation about how to improve Denver's schools. According to her, the decision-making process "never really reaches the community until things are said and done. Education can be better if we involve the parents and listen to what the real barriers are that they're facing."
De Baca grew up in California, the bilingual child of immigrant parents. From a young age, she helped organizers like César Chávez fight for better working conditions. She and her husband moved to Denver in 1993 so he could take a teaching position at Metropolitan State College. De Baca stayed home with their five children and volunteered to help with issues such as voter registration, education and better health care for Latinos.
She's disheartened by what she sees as the standardization of public education; she'd like teachers to have more autonomy over their lessons. "I feel that there's a huge loss of academic freedom," de Baca says. "If we're going to have strong schools, you have to create an environment where the faculty have the ability to build their departments."
De Baca frequently says that public education should remain public. Although she's not against school choice, she says she is opposed to "parents and teachers and the community not having a voice on what they would like as options.... Somebody else markets a concept and they get approval. It's just a violation of the democratic process."
De Baca doesn't like that charter schools such as STRIVE Prep serve mostly minority students -- even if those schools are getting good academic results. "We're failing when we're willing to pay a company to run a school and that school is segregated and we're happy that the scores look good," she says.
"It's not that there aren't a lot of wonderful, creative ideas," she adds, referring to charter and innovation schools. "But at some point, are we going to just cannibalize the resources of the school district to have all of these different little options when there were programs that were working and were dismantled?"
She says she would never close a school against parents' wishes, and she was disappointed with the way DPS decided to shutter low-performing Manual High School in 2006. (The school has since reopened.) "You had a lot of parents petitioning, appealing to keep their school open, and what the kids saw was that their parents were powerless to defend them," de Baca says. "Boy, was that a slap in the face."
De Baca would like the district to recognize the role that art, music and athletics play in education, and she believes DPS may have to adjust its definition of success, which is "defined differently for different kids," she says. "For some of them, it's being responsible and getting a job. Should the school be blamed because those are the expectations?... There are people who became plumbers or electricians. Do we call them failures because they didn't go to a four-year institution?"
Continue for our interview with Rosemary Rodriguez.
- Age: 58
- State director for U.S. Senator (and former DPS superintendent) Michael Bennet
- One grown son, a graduate of East High School
- Website: rosemaryfordenverskids.com
Rodriguez grew up in southwest Denver and, aside from a two-year stint in Washington, D.C., where she served on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, has lived there all her life. She has held several public positions for the city, including clerk and recorder from 1997 to 2002 and city councilwoman from 2003 to 2007. In 2012, she briefly worked for the Obama campaign.
Rodriguez thinks serving on the school board is the most important job in Denver, and she likes the direction DPS is headed in, though she says the district isn't improving quickly enough.
Parents in her district want more options for where to send their kids to school -- and it doesn't matter whether those options are neighborhood schools or charter or innovation schools, as long as they're high-quality, she says. One thing good schools have in common is a strong leader. "The principal can really make a difference," Rodriguez says, "and that's why we have to work so hard on training them and giving them the resources they need."
As for teachers, Rodriguez says she believes the district needs to respond immediately with help and mentoring when a teacher is struggling. "If, after providing support, they're unable to meet our expectations and, most importantly, bring their kids along, then I think everybody appropriately would ask, 'Is this the right situation for them?'" she says.
She's in favor of co-locating charter schools with district-run schools, especially if buildings are being underutilized. And she supports taking drastic steps to improve a school. "The idea that we would let a school not serve its kids for indefinite periods of time to me is unacceptable," Rodriguez says, though she adds that she could envision keeping a neighborhood school a neighborhood school if that's what parents wanted.
DPS doesn't always do a good job of communicating with parents about how a school is failing and why change is needed, Rodriguez says. If it did, controversial proposals might not be so controversial. "I think the more you educate people about the reasons, the more likely you are to agree on the facts. And then once you agree on the facts, you take the next step."
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Rodriguez believes one of the biggest issues facing DPS -- and her district, in particular -- is how to educate Latino students, who make up more than half of the district's students. "We have a lot of exceptions out there who are doing very, very, very well," she says, including STRIVE Prep. "We need to do it to scale."
For more candidate interviews, check back in with our cover story, "Drawing the Line."Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org