This fall, voters will determine the future direction of Denver schools.
Three of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for election. No incumbents are running, making a shakeup on the board all the more likely.
If candidates backed by the Denver teachers union win at least two of the three seats, union-backed members will have a majority on the board for the first time in recent history. That could set the stage for a shift away from encouraging school choice and school autonomy to more heavily investing in traditional schools.
All Denver voters may cast ballots for the at-large race, because that school board member represents the entire city. But only voters who live in southeast Denver may also cast ballots in the District 1 race, and only voters who live in northwest Denver may also cast ballots for District 5.
Each of the three races features three candidates, for a total of nine. Chalkbeat sent the same set of questions to all nine candidates. Below are their answers, which have been edited for clarity.
Chalkbeat: Tell us a bit about yourself and your connection to the district.
Tay Anderson: I am a recent Denver Public Schools graduate and current DPS educator. Denver Public Schools changed the trajectory of my life in a good way, but I also saw many of its shortcomings firsthand.
I faced a lot of obstacles in my life, like many Denver public school students do. I never knew my father. My grandmother raised me, but then she got sick so I ended up taking care of her. At one point I was homeless. For a few years, I tried to cover up my pain and struggles by acting tough and acting out.
It wasn’t until some educators really sat down and got to know me that things changed. They helped me find my passion. ROTC gave me structure, and student leadership programs taught me how to express the problems I saw and their solutions.
Now I am a restorative justice coordinator at a DPS high school. I try to do what my educators did for me — connect with students and help them find their passion and their voice. I’m running for school board because right now DPS’s structure doesn’t support that kind of approach to education and students’ lives.
Natela Manuntseva: When my family immigrated to Denver I spoke almost no English. I was a straight-A student before coming to America, yet I couldn’t even read my homework when I started at Merrill Middle School.
I kept asking my teacher for help after class with my schoolwork. This was not going to work for long. There was a DPS after-school program that specifically focused on assisting immigrant children with their homework. That program changed the outcome of my life.
Later, I wanted to give back to the community so I began volunteering at that same after-school program to help fellow immigrants understand their assignments. To my knowledge, that program no longer exists as that library had been moved, but because of that foundational knowledge I received, I knew that there are always resources out there and people willing to assist a student.
Students like me who are not native English speakers can and should become successful. I want to pay it forward and make sure every student has an opportunity to thrive.
Alexis Menocal Harrigan: My name is Alexis Menocal Harrigan and I am running to serve all students as Denver Public Schools' next at-large board member. Growing up in Denver, I remember watching my mom, who had to work several jobs at a time so that my brothers and I had food on the table, and also had to fight twice as hard for us to receive a basic education.
I am eternally thankful for the support of my mother, my teachers, and my community. Because they believed in my brilliance, I was able to succeed. I became the first one in my family to graduate high school and worked tremendously hard to be the only one to receive a college degree. Today, myself and fellow parents are having to fight just as hard as my mother did for a basic education that supports their individual student.
Family, it is 2019. We shouldn’t have to fight for a basic education anymore. High-quality education must be a right, not a privilege, for each and every student.
Why are you running for school board?
Anderson: I’m running for school board because I don’t think DPS is structured in a way that encourages students to thrive. There is too much emphasis on test scores and "market-based choices" and not enough on community integration and mental health supports. It treats teachers as expendable labor instead of professionals and experts.
The budget isn’t transparent and the school board meetings aren’t accessible to many parents or community members. Our system doesn’t do enough to teach our LGBTQ students and students of color that we value them for who they are, not despite who they are. It treats its LGBTQ teachers and teachers of color the same way.
I am running for school board to reshape DPS so the rare life-changing experience I had in DPS is common for all our students.
Manuntseva: I truly want students to have a better chance. I work with many different kids from different backgrounds from all across Denver and things are not the same. When I went to Denver schools I was prepared to enter the real world. These students are not. Our teachers are stressed and focused on so many variables in the classroom that they cannot teach. Our parents don’t feel involved. Something needs to change.
We need better schools for all. That only happens when someone with outside knowledge and experience can come in and make realistic changes to how our schools function. I will listen to students, teachers, and families to keep all the great parts about DPS and fix all the things that are wrong so we have better schools for all.
Menocal Harrigan: I have spent my life as an advocate for access to high-quality education for all children. As a first-generation college student with the Daniels Fund Scholarship, as an educator at Greenlee Elementary, a DPS employee, an education adviser to the governor, and most recently an advocate for equitable access to technology in the classroom, I have been preparing for service on the DPS Board of Education for over a decade.
A great education changed my life and I am running for school board to fight for all students in Denver Public Schools to have access to a great public school in their neighborhood. As a mom and an active parent at my son’s school, I recognize how strong public schools can transform communities.
What is the most important issue facing Denver Public Schools?
Anderson: The most important issue facing our schools right now is safety. I’m part of the generation who has sat in classrooms and wondered if someone with a weapon of war is going to blast through the door. I’ve been part of too many anxiety-inducing lockdown drills and real lockdowns.
I’m also part of the generation who knows that bullying no longer stops at the end of the school day. It can carry on 24/7 via social media. How our school system thinks about safety hasn’t caught up with technological advances.
Colorado had the highest increase in youth suicide rates this year. The emphasis we place on “performance” and “achievement” puts incredible stress on our students. We have to change our education structure, culture, and get more mental health professionals in schools.
Parents of students of color have even more safety concerns regarding their children. Will their student’s learning disability be punished instead of identified? Will a police officer in the classroom cuff them and put them into the school-to-prison pipeline?
The issue of safety is multifaceted and it is the most important issue facing DPS today.
Manuntseva: We need to build communities where everyone feels safe, and has a voice at the table. As a school board director, it is imperative to integrate the community involvement in schools and make sure the teachers are receiving the support they need to better schools for all.
Menocal Harrigan: We must increase resources that are going directly to our classrooms. I believe in this idea of a community empowered school. When our communities are empowered to set common expectations, be partners in improvement, and when we have the resources to meet them, we can truly build the schools our children deserve.
Right now, our district's bureaucracy is limiting innovation and limiting local control over school improvement strategies. I am proud to support Prop CC and will advocate for more school funding to be spent close to our classrooms and empower our teachers to spark the curiosity and joy in learning our students deserve. [Read more about Prop CC here.]
Leaders have acknowledged that institutional racism exists in DPS. Black and Latino students are less likely than white students to be reading or doing math on grade level. What should the district do to better serve students of color?
Anderson: First, we must recruit and retain more educators of color. We must do a better job of identifying students who want to be future educators, and help them concurrently enroll on the Auraria Campus to accelerate their degree. We must be intentional about recruiting educators of color and improve our reputation of how we treat and retain teachers of color.
Second, we must move away from hiring teachers who come from alternative licensure programs. Those programs are not accredited education programs.
Third, I will mandate ongoing cultural competency and implicit bias training for all of our educators. I will make sure that educators’ feedback is taken into account so that we are getting high-quality, useful training.
Fourth, we must end the school-to-prison pipeline. I will push the city of Denver to move its funding away from police in schools and toward mental health professionals.
Fifth, we must improve our individualized education program screening and implementation [for students with disabilities]. Too many times, children with disabilities are punished instead of supported.
Finally, we must finally bring our English as a second language programs up to meet federal standards. We have to improve how we teach and evaluate non-language classes for ESL students.
Manuntseva: The education system needs to reflect the fact that over 50% of the students are Latino, as well as one out of every three students in DPS speaks English as their second language, therefore we need to make sure that every student understands the information that is given to them, and to provide the necessary tools for them to understand the school material.
Menocal Harrigan: We must confront our academic and opportunity gaps head on. Equity should not happen by chance, but by design. I commend the efforts of Dr. Sharon Bailey, Dr. Antwan Jefferson and School Board Director Jennifer Bacon for their insistence around assessing disparities in staff retention, in student opportunity, and in ensuring that all schools are actively confronting implicit bias and oppressive school practices. [Read more about the work of Dr. Sharon Bailey here, Dr. Antwan Jefferson here, and school board member Jennifer Bacon here.]
The district is in the process of reimagining a controversial school rating system that is largely based on test scores. How would you change the “school performance framework?”
Anderson: I think we need to do away with the school performance framework (SPF) as it is in its current implementation. We have seen that it is not an accurate measurement of student achievement.
I believe that teachers care deeply about ensuring the quality of their profession. I believe in peer reviews and peer support. I believe educators should be evaluated based on the progress of their students, not their performance. I believe educators should be credited for working with students on their social and emotional learning.
I know that the teachers who helped me the most were probably dinged because I didn’t get great test scores while I was homeless. That has to change.
Manuntseva: Each school needs to be approached with the community in mind. Once we create a strong community that participates and cultivates the success of every student, we can focus on making sure each student has the adequate resources they need to succeed.
The community in which each school is located plays an important part in the success and the performance of that school.
Menocal Harrigan: We have a commitment to families across the district to ensure that our students are making the yearly progress that they need to be making. We also have an obligation to families to be transparent about school performance in order for them to be true partners in improvement.
As we develop a new district accountability framework, we must hold the district accountable for giving every student equitable access to high-quality education — a school should not be "blue" or "green" [the two highest ratings on the district's color-coded scale] unless all students, not just white students, are meeting grade-level expectations.
The school board has in the past voted to close or “restart” schools with low ratings. Those decisions faced a lot of pushback. Do you think closure or restart are effective options when a school has failed to improve, despite extra resources and help? Why or why not?
Anderson: First, let me be clear in saying I will not vote to open or close any schools during my first term on the school board. Closing some schools and opening others haven’t benefited our students or our families. We need to address root issues, not create more instability and confusion.
Manuntseva: We can always take a look at why the school is failing, then approach each situation with the adequate amount of tools and resources. Every school has the potential to succeed, if the community is involved in the process.
Once we cultivate strong communities where everyone is empowered to thrive and has access to resources they need to grow, we can make sure that we have better schools for all.
Menocal Harrigan: We have to listen to what communities want and need from our schools. When schools have inconsistent leadership, are under-resourced or under-enrolled, we have to collectively come up with ways to better support the students at that school.
Abrupt school closure is traumatic and in the past has felt like a top-down approach — we have to honor the expertise and brilliance in our communities. If they want additional options, like the Warriors for High Quality Schools did, they should have the right to build those options until every student has access to a public school that meets their needs in their neighborhood. [Read more about the Warriors for High Quality Schools here.]
What role do you think charter schools should play in the district’s future?
Anderson: In terms of charter schools, I think our education system is starting to look like our health care system — a complicated “choice” system where private entities use public dollars, without much transparency, to control who gets what kind of service.
Education is a right. It is the duty of the school board to make sure every single community school is providing a high-quality education. Using a “market-based” system of winners and losers is an abdication of that responsibility.
I don’t judge students or parents who use school choice. I understand that decision. I still think utilizing “school choice” was the right decision for me. I’m just asking all of us to think a little bit bigger and figure out how we can slowly start changing to a system where every neighborhood has excellent and fully transparent public schools.
Manuntseva: Because we cannot expect each student to learn the same way, we ought to provide options for each student in order for everyone to succeed, and make sure we have better schools for all.
Menocal Harrigan: As a mom of two different types of learners, I believe that parents should have a variety of public options for school. I believe that when our charters are collaborative partners, who use their autonomy to build out more progressive practice in education, we see student progress.
I also believe that our charters must be transparent with public dollars and be accountable for student progress, just as district-run schools should be. I will not ever support for-profit charter schools and they are currently illegal in the state of Colorado.
What’s one thing you’d add to the district’s budget? What’s one thing you’d cut?
Anderson: I would add more funding for mental health professionals. I would cut how much we spend on our marketing department.
Manuntseva: We most certainly need to focus on the budget and approach it with precision. Teachers must have all the necessary tools in order to make sure they are providing our students with an amazing education.
Menocal Harrigan: As someone who believes deeply in fiscal responsibility, I would be committed to doing close audits of the district's nearly $1.1 billion budget to ensure that every dollar we spend has a direct impact on student wellness, student progress, staff development and retention. I think that decreasing the central office budget will likely result in that audit of our resources.
Demographers predict district enrollment will decline. Officials are worried that some shrinking schools won’t have enough per-pupil funding to pay teachers and other staff. How should the district prepare for a decline in enrollment?
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Anderson: I will not allow our schools to close on students and families who are trying to survive gentrification. I’ll continue to advocate at the state level to move away from using per-pupil funding, a model we know hurts traditional public schools who serve all students, regardless of need, and who have older buildings. As a district, we need to prepare by lowering our costs at the administration level. We need to be better stewards of the valuable property we own and make sure we are charging fair prices to charter schools who can legally raise large amounts of funds a variety of ways. We have to keep a close eye on how the combination of per-pupil funding and a “choice” system may be allocating more money to schools in affluent neighborhoods and starving our neighborhood schools in communities fighting gentrification.
Manuntseva: With Colorado being one of the most popular states to be moving to, we need to focus on making sure that our Denver public school system provides an amazing education so that it is desirable for everyone to send their students to DPS. Focusing on centralizing the school system will ensure that each school receives the adequate amount of funding and thrives. We can have better schools for all where students feel heard, the teachers are being supported, and the parents are included in their children's education.
Menocal Harrigan: We have to increase resources at our schools and when we are facing declining enrollment, we have to look to the community to problem-solve together to figure out how to do so. Our students deserve to have art teachers, music teachers, and technology resources. I believe that building collaborative communities who are empowered to make decisions about their schools is the first step to addressing issues of declining enrollment.