There is a battle going on for the soul of Denver Public Schools. It has been happening so quietly that you might not have even noticed, but lately the combatants have been getting louder and the battle lines have become clearer.
On one side are the current administrators within DPS, along with their supporters and adherents, who have implemented and continue to champion a market-based reform model for the district, which promotes school choice; school privatization; standardized-test-based rating and ranking; and young, underpaid, frequently unlicensed teachers in classrooms. On the other side stands a coalition of parents, educators and community members who advocate for a neighborhood-school based model and demand experienced, diverse, adequately trained and paid teachers. They seek an end to the monopoly of test-based accountability.
The difference between these views has come into stark focus as Denver chooses a new superintendent to replace the departing Tom Boasberg, a staunch advocate for the reform model. Boasberg and his supporters point to Denver’s increased graduation rates as evidence that the current system is working; opponents point to the increased achievement gap, one of the largest in the country, and the low proficiency rates of black and brown children, who make up almost 70 percent of the District, as evidence that it is not.
As part of the ongoing superintendent search, DPS engaged an outside consultant, Dimension Strategies, to conduct a survey of the wishes, concerns and desires of the community through a series of public forums held throughout the city. The report of the community engagement sessions has recently been released, and the conclusion is quite clear: Closing the educational opportunity/achievement gap across race, income and ethnic lines was named as the most important issue when selecting a new superintendent for a full 45 percent of survey respondents. The ability to choose a school from among the myriad models across the city ranked far lower in community priorities, with only 4 percent of the the 4,500 respondents feeling that this should be a policy priority for our new superintendent.
Now that the report has been completed, the board has promised to take the public’s priorities and concerns into account when selecting Denver’s new school superintendent. Yet a major concern raised at almost every superintendent forum was the community’s feeling that the board has historically been opaque and unresponsive to community input and desire. Unlike the recent superintendent searches in both Jefferson and Douglas counties, both of which had community representation when discussing and choosing superintendent finalists, there is currently no community presence built into the Denver superintendent selection process. The seven-member board will review and interview all candidates by themselves, without input or even observation by educators, parents or community members.
The board says this is being done out of concern for candidate privacy, but résumés can be given numbers and anonymity retained even if the selection process is opened to a wider committee. Our Voices, Our Schools, a broad coalition of parents, teachers and education activists from across the city, has requested a community voice in the selection process, and a petition is currently circulating to that end. Giving community a legitimate seat at the table will be a step in the right direction in ensuring DPS moves forward in a manner that benefits all of its children and helping to bridge the divide between community desire and district policy.
Eve Cohen is a Denver resident and parent who has been involved in education issues for the past six years. She has been a member of numerous groups seeking to make education more equitable, democratic, personal and inclusive, including Uniting 4 Kids, United Opt Out, Our Denver, Our Schools and the Public Education Action Team.
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