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Meet DPS school board At-Large hopefuls Michael Kiley, Barbara O'Brien, Joan Poston

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 rest looking to try something different.

We spoke with all nine hopefuls for the Latest Word. Up first: the At-Large race.

Three candidates -- Michael Kiley, former Colorado lieutenant governor Barbara O'Brien, and Joan Poston -- are running to fill the At-Large seat being vacated by current board president Mary Seawell, who has said that increasing family and work demands contributed to her decision not to run for re-election.

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 three At-Large candidates, in alphabetical order. We'll publish our interviews with the District 2, 3 and 4 candidates in the coming days.

MICHAEL KILEY

  • Age: 46
  • Project manager at software company Kronos Incorporated
  • Two children: a seven-year-old at Edison Elementary School and an eleven-year-old at Skinner Middle School
  • Website: kileyforkids.com

Kiley was born in Denver but grew up in California. He returned here in 1994 and eventually settled in northwest Denver. A few years ago, he became concerned about Skinner Middle School, which was suffering from low enrollment.

"There weren't a lot of positive things being said about it at barbecues and parties," he says. "A handful of parents and myself...didn't understand why. We met with the principal, we met with the teachers, and we were very impressed. But what we learned was that Skinner was attracting primarily below-proficient students."

Kiley and other parents pressed the school board for grants to increase Skinner's music, sports and honors programs in an effort to bring students back. It worked, Kiley says. "Once those programs were brought in-house, the enrollment started to climb."

Now Kiley would like to see a comprehensive school like Skinner in every neighborhood. "The majority of kids and parents are probably going to gravitate toward that neighborhood school if it's a quality option," he says.

Kiley isn't against choice, though he says he "has a huge disagreement with the premise that charters inherently are better schools." He thinks it's unfortunate that the popular magnet schools, like Denver School of the Arts, tend to have fewer low-income kids. "Are we not understanding what those families expect from public schools?" he says. "What I'm hearing from them is they want the school down the street."

Kiley believes that test data is important in determining whether a school is failing, but he doesn't think it tells the whole story. He worries that in a race to improve scores, schools will strip their curriculum of anything that's not on the test. "If I've got three years to show success as a principal, would I waste any time on sports?" he asks.

When it comes to improving low-performing schools, Kiley likes the approach taken at West High, where the community had a big say in how to turn around the school. Even though the process was long and sometimes messy, and he thinks it's too early to tell if the plan is working, the fact that the community supports it bodes well.

"They believe it's going to work," he says. "As long as the community doesn't walk away from the school, that school has got a much better chance."

Kiley disagreed with the co-location of a STRIVE Prep high school at North (he thought the district should have put the charter school in another building) and he voted against 3B, the $466 million DPS bond on last year's ballot. Though he supported most of the proposed projects, he opposed spending money on a new administration building. He says his hope was that 3B could be reworked and put on this year's ballot.

Asked whether he's in favor of reform, Kiley says, "I feel like I'm the one that's looking to bring some real change. I guess I can't use the R-word for myself, but I feel like I am the person who's not defending the status quo."

Continue for our interviews with O'Brien and Poston.

 

BARBARA O'BRIEN

  • Age: 63
  • President of Get Smart Schools; former Colorado lieutenant governor
  • Two grown children who graduated from East High School
  • Website: barbaraobrien.com

Of all the candidates, O'Brien has the most professional experience. For sixteen years, she was president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, an advocacy group that was instrumental in establishing a statewide preschool program for at-risk children. Starting in 2007, she served a four-year term as lieutenant governor, during which time she helped create the ASCENT Program, which allows high-school students to take college courses. And this past December, she landed at Get Smart Schools, which trains aspiring school leaders to start new charter or innovation schools or turn around low-performing schools.

So why is she interested in a volunteer seat on the DPS board? "My heart is in Denver," she says. "I'm at this lucky position where I can pick what I want to do, and I just wanted to help make my town and my school system as good as they could be."

(As for whether her job with Get Smart would present any conflicts of interest, O'Brien says she consulted with DPS's attorney, who told her she'd have to recuse herself from votes related to the handful of schools headed by Get Smart alumni.)

O'Brien thinks DPS is headed in the right direction but says it's not moving fast enough to close the achievement gap. "I don't think that it's actually focused enough on the places along the way where it could make the biggest difference fastest for kids," such as making sure all students are reading at grade level by third grade, she says.

Barbara O'Brien in a photo from her website.
Barbara O'Brien in a photo from her website.

When it comes to improving chronically low-performing schools, O'Brien thinks the board should be willing to make dramatic changes. "The board has to really insist that there's a serious plan for change and not to let kids languish in that school," she says.

That plan should include having a strong principal to lead the school through the turnaround, O'Brien says. "They need to know how to get the teachers all on board with a vision and a mission...and they need to know how to share leadership. We see a lot of principals in turnaround schools burn out because it's a gigantic job, but it's completely doable if you learn to empower the teacher-leaders in the building."

O'Brien helped pass the law that created charter schools in Colorado, which she believes "is teaching us a whole lot about how you can educate vulnerable kids." But she also admits that there have been some "horrible" charter schools and says charters alone aren't the answer. "Parents have flocked to charter schools, no question, but they also want a really strong neighborhood school," she says. She thinks the district should look at every school individually and figure out how to make it a great option.

O'Brien likes that DPS has been aligning its curriculum to its academic standards, and she appreciates that the district is willing to share its student achievement data, "even if it's painful to read sometimes." She also feels good about what's happening in northwest Denver with Skinner Middle School and North High School; North's principal came from Skinner, and she says the two schools have been collaborating on how best to help individual kids.

But she definitely thinks the district has room for improvement.

"Denver needs to be smarter about learning from what's working and sharing that across the whole district," O'Brien says, "and where something's not working, stop doing it."

O'Brien has been criticized for her support of a 2003 state bill that would have created a voucher program for low-income kids in failing school districts. She says she does not support vouchers now: "I strongly oppose vouchers at DPS, and I would never support such a measure as a boardmember."

Continue for our interview with Poston.

 

JOAN POSTON

  • Age: 57
  • Former microbiologist for Denver Health, Denver Zoo; former DPS paraprofessional
  • One daughter who went to DPS for elementary and middle school, and recently graduated from Littleton High School
  • No website

Poston, a Colorado native who went to Wheat Ridge High School, was inspired to run by a mid-July visit to a Dallas museum chronicling the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. "I was considerably moved by the experience," she says. After listening to some of his speeches, she says she realized that JFK's era "wasn't Camelot, but it was good. And a lot of people did things for their country. Then I came home and I was in the bathtub, and I was reading the newspaper and saw this little clip and it said the rules for running for school board."

So Poston signed up.

She's worked with DPS in the past, having served on the PTA of her daughter's elementary school and then on the district School Accountability Improvement Committee, which evaluates policies and makes recommendations to the district. She also worked as a reading-and-writing paraprofessional in DPS schools for five years.

Poston believes DPS is mostly headed in the right direction. She likes charter and innovation schools as long as the community supports them, believes in school choice, and thinks some low-performing schools should be closed. "There are certain situations where you open the doors and you let the flood waters through," she says.

But she's less supportive of the way DPS has gone about its reforms. Parent and community voices have often been ignored, she says. "I think change happens when you have buy-in from the community, and I don't see sometimes the buy-in happening."

Poston believes the key to turning around low-performing schools is "re-culturizing" them. Her theory, she says, "has a little bit to do with being a microbiologist and knowing that after you've been on antibiotics...your gut loses its normal flora and it becomes just one organism, and then it becomes bad. You have to have all sorts of things in your gut in order for it to work properly." It's the same for schools, she says. "It's not school uniforms; it's not a certain curriculum. It is a combination of them. And it can be as simple as one popular kid standing up and saying, 'I'm going to do this.'

"I don't have any magic potions for what to do when a school is burning down," she adds. "I do think that DPS sometimes doesn't give the stew enough time to cook." If a school is showing improvement, however incremental, Poston thinks it should be left alone.

Poston doesn't back the statewide Amendment 66, which would raise an additional $950 million for education, because she says it's a "global" initiative, not a local one. She did support 3A and 3B, last year's mill-levy override and bond for DPS.

Asked whether she's a reformer or a non-reformer, Poston says she's neither. Instead, she says, she makes decisions based on her experiences. To illustrate, she tells a story about how she once got out of jury duty by telling the court that she believes the police are always right because every time she's been pulled over, she was speeding.

"I'm an underdog and a very, very, very dark horse," Poston says. "My motives are different than other people's motives. I'm actually doing this because I want to serve.... I'm not doing it because I think I'm going to be governor one day."

For more candidate interviews, check back in with our cover story, "Drawing the Line."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com


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