Denver Public Schools says it's the fastest-growing urban school district in the U.S.

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Denver Public Schools is projecting that it will once again be the largest school district in Colorado, a title it hasn't held since the 1970s. With an estimated 88,208 students enrolled this year, up from 72,188 students ten years ago, DPS calls itself the "fastest-growing urban school district in the country." At a press conference held in a fourth-grade classroom today, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the growth in enrollment is due to Denver's school reforms.

But will those reforms continue?

As we explained in our recent cover story, "Drawing the Line," next month's school board election could change the direction of DPS. Four seats on the seven-member board are up for grabs -- and about half of the nine candidates don't think DPS's aggressive reforms are working. If they win a majority of the open board seats, the district could undergo a shift in policy.

Today, in a bright classroom full of attentive fourth-graders (and news reporters) at the Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment in east Denver, Boasberg credited teachers and school leaders for "driving the improvements we're seeing in the Denver Public Schools. And those improvements...mean that we're seeing thousands and thousands more families in Denver choosing the Denver Public Schools."

Attracting and keeping great teachers is "the number one priority" of the district's reforms, known formally as the Denver Plan, Boasberg added.

"Seven or eight years ago, at the start of the Denver Plan reforms, we had a status quo that wasn't working as well as it needed to work for too many of our neighborhoods and too many of our kids," he said. "And the Denver Plan reforms were aimed at challenging the status quo, changing that status quo, and bringing about the kind of changes necessary to improve our schools -- to focus first and foremost on attracting, retaining and developing great teachers, great school leaders. But it also meant being a much more decentralized and innovative and flexible system of schools."

Montclair is a great example, Boasberg said. In 2009, it became the first school in the state to be granted innovation status, which means the school can request waivers from certain district policies. For example, Montclair can choose its own curriculum instead of using one dictated by the district, it can hire teachers whenever it needs to and employs teachers on a year-to-year basis rather than following the hiring-and-firing provisions in the teachers' union contract, says assistant principal Emily Zabroski.

Continue for more about today's DPS event, including another photo. A few years earlier, in 2006, Montclair also underwent a reinvention in an attempt to increase its enrollment, which had dropped to fewer than two hundred students. It changed its name and put more emphasis on field trips and exploration. For instance, teacher Sarah Johnson, in whose classroom the press conference was held, said that her students meet every Wednesday to learn about a topic they've chosen themselves.

"One of the students said, ever so brilliantly, that we are an out-of-the-box school, and I loved the way that was stated," Johnson said. "We don't just do things exactly by the book but we're able to extend our learning and make that learning fun and engaging."

Today, Montclair has 480 students, Zabroski said. About 25 percent of them do not live in the neighborhood but rather "choice-in" through DPS's school-choice process.

DPS has about thirty innovation schools, which have been lauded for their flexibility and potential for creativity. But they have also been criticized for depriving teachers of certain rights normally afforded by the teachers' union contract.

Scott Esserman, a parent at Montclair and chairman of the school advisory committee, credits Montclair's growth to its reinvention and innovation status. "Montclair, seven or eight years ago, was not the burgeoning school you see before you," he said. "And through a revitalization effort, through moving in to being an autonomous school, an innovation school, an enrichment model...the school drew in people like myself who have choiced-in to Montclair from neighboring communities."

In addition, Boasberg pointed out that DPS's enrollment growth is outpacing the population growth of school-age children. Between 2000 and 2010, Denver's school-age population grew by just 2 percent, while DPS's enrollment increased 8.5 percent. However, DPS also notes that population booms in Stapleton and far northeast Denver have contributed to the district's growth; forecasts show that 1,900 more students from Stapleton will enroll in DPS in the next five years, the district says.

"What we'd seen for decades in this city, and in cities throughout this country, are cities losing population and city school districts losing enrollment to suburbs," Boasberg said. "And that trend has now been reversed."

More from our Education archive: "Meet DPS District 4 candidates Roger Kilgore and Landri Taylor."

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

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