Making the Grades

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For the most part, the mood at the Colorado State Board of Education's last work session of 2000 is polite, collegial, even chummy. Until the end, that is.

The change takes place with the final item on the December 13 agenda, a typically offbeat resolution proposal by Patti Johnson, whose six-year run with the board will end next week. Johnson likes to put forward such declarations, even though they attract criticism from finger-waggers who think the boardmembers have more important things to do than debate non-binding decrees that represent nothing more than their opinions -- stuff they just want to get off their collective chest.

And why not? Board chair Clair Orr has no problem with them. He has even offered one of his own -- a document urging Colorado public schools to post the phrase "In God we trust" -- that garnered plenty of attention.

Besides, Johnson believes that her 1999 resolution regarding "psychiatric drugs" such as Ritalin, which she charged some teachers and administrators with pushing as a solution for behavior problems when non-pharmacological methods are readily available, was worth each and every one of the attacks made upon her by educators and health-care pros. In her mind, the subsequent nationwide debate over the prescription (many would say "over-prescription") of Ritalin might not have taken place without her efforts. So viva la resolution!

This time around, Johnson has her sights trained on programs of the sort funded by the School to Work Opportunity Act of 1994, a piece of federal legislation that provides grants for vocational curricula directing students toward in-demand careers. It sounds benign, but Johnson sees the courses the act spawned as insidious, robbing Our Nation's Kids of the freedom to do whatever their hearts desire. This kind of thing might fly in Germany, whose efforts helped inspire the bill here, or maybe the late, unlamented Soviet Union, but not in America -- which is why she's raising her voice in objection to it. Never mind that the program is on its last legs: It's set to expire this October, and since it was one of Bill Clinton's pet projects, the odds that George W. Bush will embrace anything like it are about the same as his appointing Jesse Jackson to the Supreme Court.

But Johnson's not deterred. As she tells the rest of the board, she's already obtained informal endorsements from a bevy of legislators: Colorado representatives Tom Tancredo, Joel Hefley and Bob Schaffer and Senator Wayne Allard, conservatives all. Now she just needs the votes of her fellow boardmembers to start a fire that, with luck, will burn all the way from this conference room in the Department of Education building, across Colfax from the State Capitol, to Washington, D.C.

Not that she's so blinded by passion that she's incapable of compromise. The board's Randy DeHoff, among others, previously recommended that Johnson trim some of the more controversial portions of the resolution's text ("lightning rods," he calls them), and she did -- hacked the thing in half and slapped a headline on it ("Commitment to a Strong Academic Education") that nobody could find objectionable. Likewise, the School to Work Opportunity Act isn't identified by name, and the language -- "Whereas, children are not a resource for the state"; "Vocational directions shall be exclusively the free choice of individual students" -- is awfully vague.

Yet Johnson was able to retain ideological asides such as "Whereas, government controlled economies have historically failed and free market economies have flourished" and "Be it further resolved that the Colorado State Board of Education uphold the American Free Enterprise System." Bet those are gonna stick in the craws of all the communists out there.

It's clear, though, that most of Johnson's peers have no problems with her offering. "I know we've taken some flak over our resolutions," chairman Orr acknowledges, "and maybe I don't put as much weight on these as I should. But it's just a statement that doesn't carry the weight of rule or regulation."

That falls far short of placating Gully Stanford, the sole Democrat on this seven-member board. Stanford's otherness doesn't bother him: A native of Dublin, Ireland, he's accustomed to being an outsider, and he's got an unforced sense of humor about, among other things, his occasional inability to get the board to so much as debate topics he raises. ("Some people tell me my epitaph should be 'He died for want of a second,'" he says in an accent that remains pronounced despite the more than three decades he's lived outside his homeland.) But just because he's outnumbered doesn't mean he's willing to withhold his views about Johnson's resolution.

"Is your purpose to discourage school-to-career programs?" he asks.

"My purpose," Johnson replies icily, "is to address some of the things coming down from federal programs."

"So that's a yes?"

Johnson glares at Stanford. "What you see is what you get," she says before adding, "You've had ample opportunity to talk to me about this for a month."

"I don't have a great track record of success in convincing you to change even a comma or a syllable," Stanford responds. To him, the removal of specific school-to-work references from the resolution hardly disguises its intent, and he notes that "this is not our program. And I would hope the board would resist the urge to thrust ourselves into debate over a national program."

Wrong. DeHoff is solidly behind the resolution, fellow boardmembers John Burnett and Ben Alexander, the former Colorado state senator who was defeated in his recent bid to remain on the state board by attention-getting at-large candidate Jared Polis in November, sing its praises as well, and their colleague Pat Chlouber mostly keeps her opinions on the topic to herself. As for William Moloney, the state's education commissioner, who was appointed by the board, he doubts that it will make much difference one way or the other. "Someone once said, 'The world will little note nor long remember what we've resolved here today.'"

But Stanford isn't ready to let go. He directs his gaze at bulging folders of material Johnson has accumulated to support the resolution, as she usually does; an entire room of her house is dedicated to storing her voluminous research. But when he asks if he can borrow her bundle, she says, "I already sent you one."

"I don't think so," Stanford responds.

Johnson's resolve stiffens. "You have one of these at home."

"No, I don't," Stanford insists.

Several more parries and thrusts later, an exasperated DeHoff snaps, "You can have my copy," and tosses the folder onto the table in front of Stanford, where it lands with a thwack!

Soon thereafter, the politeness and collegiality, if not necessarily the chumminess, return. After all, the board's got a formal meeting the next day, at which it will once again make decisions affecting many thousands of schoolchildren throughout Colorado -- the enrollment total for the fall of 2000 is expected to add to the 708,109 on the books in autumn 1999 -- as well as many, many, many thousands of dollars: This past October, Governor Bill Owens (Colorado's latest "education governor") announced that the education budget for the 2001-2002 fiscal year would be $4.3 billion, up more than $200 million from the previous year.

And that's not kid's stuff. That's power.

With the arrival next week of Johnson's replacement, Evie Hudak, and Polis, who are set to be sworn in on January 9, the dynamic that produced this testy exchange will be altered -- but there's every possibility it will mean more tension, not less. For the past two years, the board has virtually been a philosophical monolith, with Stanford sometimes breaking ranks but more often voting with the majority: Moloney proudly declares that "on the big issues, the board has been unanimous." With Hudak and Polis, however, the Republicans will hold only a 4-3 advantage, meaning that at the very least, the odds of Stanford getting a motion seconded should improve dramatically.

The wild card in all of this is Polis, an Internet magnate in his mid-twenties who leapt into the electoral fray so suddenly that in the beginning, even his name was in doubt: Just over a year ago, about the time that he was selling bluemountain.com, a Web venture that he co-founded, Polis went by Jared Schutz, the surname used by his parents, Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz ("Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?" November 11, 1999). He won't go into detail about why he switched names for his candidacy, saying only that both monikers are his and he simply picked one of them.

Polis's campaign for the at-large seat on the state board was hooted at by critics who claimed his oft-expressed goals -- "Some of my top priorities are teacher recruitment and retention and making sure quality textbooks are in the hands of children across the state," he says -- are legislative and don't even fall within the board's purview. Moreover, his refusal to recognize these limits and his decision to spend nearly $1 million to win an unpaid position caused many observers to speculate that he sees the job as a stepping stone to a more prestigious post -- like something in the U.S. Congress, perchance? Polis doesn't go out of his way to squelch these murmurs: He initially says that he intends to serve his entire six-year term, but a few minutes later, he asks that the time element of this statement be omitted "because you never know what could happen."

Whether or not the choice will be his is another question. The Colorado Constitution calls for an odd number of boardmembers in order to prevent tie votes, with each elected from one of the state's congressional districts -- and when there are an even total of districts, as there are now (Colorado has six), the constitution provides for the election of an at-large member. But the final tally of the 2000 census, announced last week, brought with it confirmation that the state's population explosion -- more than a million new citizens arrived during the just-concluded decade -- will result in a seventh congressional district, probably in 2002.

At that time, would such citizens, most of whom are apt to be Republican (the areas that have experienced the most population growth in the previous decade are conservative enclaves), vote for their own boardmember, thereby eliminating the at-large seat? Or would they have to wait until 2006, when Polis's term expires? As expected, predictions as to what will happen break down along strict party lines on the state board, and the Colorado Secretary of State's Office offers no more clarity: Spokesperson Lisa Pitts says the department isn't ready to express an opinion on the subject. But expect a fight either way.

Nevertheless, the potential adversaries on the board do agree on something: the need for their organization to extend its already considerable reach. Instead of just implementing dictates passed by the Colorado Legislature, they'd like to serve as a de facto lobbying group that could go to lawmakers with suggestions about what educational areas need to be addressed and how to go about doing so. "I think we can become a body that can go to the legislature and say, 'We've given this a lot of time and study, and we think this is what needs to be done,'" Orr says, while Polis advocates "being more proactive."

Not every legislator feels that's such a swell notion. State senator Bill Thiebaut, a Democrat from Pueblo who's also majority leader-elect, says, "The new members may change things, but in the past I've been a little skeptical about what the state board does. Some members have given me the impression that they're not really trying to improve public education, but in some ways trying to dismantle it."

State senator John Andrews, an Englewood Republican who, as minority-leader elect, is Thiebaut's counterpart across the aisle, is similarly cautious about offering wholesale backing of this concept: "It's just as appropriate for the state board to bring concerns to the legislature as it is for local school boards to bring concerns to the legislature," he says, but notes that "the temptation is to function as philosopher kings and think from the top down -- and I don't believe we'll ever do right by the schoolchildren of Colorado until we have a school system that relies more on competition and choice and less on bureaucracy and coercion."

State senator Stan Matsunaka, a Loveland Democrat who's both Senate president-elect and the incoming chairman of the education committee, is a trifle more encouraging. "I'm not sure how well we'll work hand in hand, but in terms of them telling us the nuts and bolts of what's going on over there and how that effects our proposals for changing public policy, I think that's great," he says. Yet Matsunaka also believes the current board suffers from a credibility deficit: "They could be a powerful body, but because they've been tied up doing resolutions, they've lost a lot of their effectiveness."

Reservations like these may be either shattered or reinforced before the month is out. The Colorado Legislature's Joint Budget Committee met with the board in early December and has scheduled a second get-together on January 30, at which time boardmembers have been invited to make proposals about how to spend some of the money that will be generated by Amendment 23 -- and because that measure, just okayed by voters after a high-profile campaign largely financed by Polis, will fund schools at the rate of inflation plus 1 percent for the next decade, that's a lot of simoleons.

If boardmembers fail to convince legislators that their suggestions have value, they may have a hard time making as large an impact on education as they'd like. But if their ideas are embraced, it will be one more indication of the board's growing muscle. "And that," says Polis, "will help the board show that we're an ally of public education, not an adversary."

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the modern board of education, but the organization's history actually predates Colorado's statehood.

Back in 1858, a territorial provision was passed to elect a "superintendent of public instruction" -- the equivalent of today's education commissioner -- by popular vote. The winner, Henry H. McAfee, was put in charge of "general supervision" of education in Colorado, which included the recommendation of a uniform series of texts and the preparation and distribution of a course of study. The supervisor position was briefly eliminated in 1865, but five years later the Eighth Territorial Assembly re-created the office. When Colorado became a state in 1876, the superintendent was part of the mix, serving as one of three members of the newly founded board of education alongside the attorney general and the secretary of state. And so things remained until 1948, at which point the constitution was amended to provide for a state board whose members would be elected by the people in their respective congressional districts. The first board was chosen by voters in November 1950 before being sworn in the next January.

The board only intermittently made headlines during the first four decades of its existence, in large part because its obligations weren't exactly sexy: Responsibilities included oversight of the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind and the Colorado Regional Library Services System (the education commissioner is officially the state's librarian), plus supervision of K-12 instruction and the GED (General Equivalency Degree) programs, teacher certification and so on. But along the way it gathered significant power, including the ability, granted by the legislature in 1989, to waive many of the regulations embedded in Colorado statutes -- as well as any of its own rules -- if doing so would allow school districts to better serve the children in their trust. Some strings were attached to this right, but not all that many, giving the board scope it would use to its advantage in the future (not that many people were aware of it at the time).

Likewise, educational issues before the state House were hardly newsmakers during this period -- but that changed during the early '90s, when the legislature and then-governor Roy Romer jumped headfirst into what became known as Colorado's educational-reform movement. From the beginning, the board was in the middle of the uprising. Take the Licensure Act of 1991, which ordered boardmembers to develop and institute training and testing standards in some forty areas for all educators in the state and approve every school district's induction program for the training, support and supervision of newly hired teachers. This was followed by a slew of legislation known to members of the education community by their bill numbers, which they toss around like bits of code. Deciphering this secret language reveals just how powerful the state board has become.

Herewith the key laws, and the authority the board derives from them:

· House Bill 1313, from 1993, which, after some wrangling, empowered the board to develop model content standards in twelve core subjects (from math to art) that Colorado schools would then have to meet or exceed; it also obliged school districts to assess student performance in these areas and asked them to demonstrate how learning reflects the standards, in an effort to make them more accountable. The bill led directly to the board's development of the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, a series of annual standardized tests intended to measure students' progress, or lack thereof, much more precisely and accurately than past fill-in-the-dot examinations, as well as the Colorado Basic Literacy Act of 1994, which required that any student not reading to proficiency in the third grade be provided with an individual learning plan, or ILP, and remedial programming.

· Senate Bill 83, also from 1993 and better known as the Colorado Charter School Act, which allowed the creation of charter schools that might "operate free from specified school district policies and state regulations." And which group was sanctioned to grant the waivers that made charter schools possible? The state board of education. Today the board also serves as the appeals body to which charter schools can turn if their applications are rejected at the local level.

· House Bill 1267, from 1998, which expanded the board's powers regarding school accreditation by linking approval to student performance and specifically spelling out requirements in a statute for the first time. (The Senate sponsor of the bill was Ben Alexander.) The board came up with thirteen "indicators," including the CSAP, and required officials at schools seeking accreditation to show what they had done in each of these areas. "It put some teeth into accreditation as far as academic achievement goes," says Clair Orr. "It's the main hammer that the state board has."

· Senate Bill 154, from 1999, which required fifteen institutions that train teachers in Colorado to meet standards fashioned by the state board by this June or face having their programs eliminated. The board, in Orr's words, "dissected" teaching programs to find out whether they lined up with previously established content standards.

· Senate Bill 186, from 2000, which expanded the assessment programs under the board's umbrella to include testing in reading from third to tenth grade and math from fifth to tenth grade in order to produce a sequential database to gauge student achievement. Just as important, it also put the board in charge of overseeing school report cards. Last month, in a masterful bit of spin, Governor Bill Owens backed away from the most controversial part of the latter provision, substituting words (excellent, high, moderate, low and unsatisfactory) for A through F letter grades.

· Senate Bill 124, from last year, which gave the board approval power over so-called read-to-achieve grants to be divvied out to schools across the state.

· Senate Bill 133, a 2000 "safe schools" measure, which focused on issues surrounding the expulsion of disruptive or dangerous students. Gully Stanford sees much of it falling under the board's accreditation responsibilities.

· Senate Bill 181, also from last year, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a handful of rural Colorado counties and their supporters over the disastrous condition of their schools. The law asks that the board come up with parameters for dividing capital construction funds among local facilities, then oversee distribution of the loot. Orr says this is the first time that such monies have been made available at the state level.

And that's not all, folks. Thanks to House Bill 1153, the board watches over a professional-development program for teachers -- and there's more clout where that came from. "It's amazing," Orr concedes. "There've been so many bills giving us authority over things that I can't hardly keep track of them."

Still, the media mainly notices the board when it does something controversial, or just plain nutty. Last October, for instance, the Rocky Mountain News wrote about the board's standard press release celebrating a district's accreditation -- the equivalent of a form letter, with blank spaces left for up to two of four canned quotes from which the area's board representative could choose: "I know how hard everyone has worked on behalf of our children," "This shows that our smaller districts are leading the way in meeting the challenge of accountability," "None of this has been easy -- everyone wanted the best results for the schools," and "This is something for everyone to be proud of," which ends in a preposition but sounds good anyway.

If the December 13 work session, which was open to the public, is any indication, average folks aren't keying into the board's activities either. For most of the day, the only person in attendance without business before the board (with the exceptions of spectators Hudak and Polis) was Jill Brake, newly appointed president of the Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB), a group that represents the vast majority of boardmembers in the state's 178 school districts. Brake is hanging out and taking notes, because she wants to start her interactions with the board on a positive note. "If they get to know you and you build that relationship," she says, "they'll hopefully be more willing to listen to differing views than if they don't know you at all."

Alliances like CASB have seldom been part of the board's cheering section, in part because of the perception that boardmembers don't mind blaming teachers and schools for poor student performance even when factors such as poverty, crime and the disintegration of the family unit are clearly in play as well. But the accusations go both ways. Deborah Fallin, spokesperson for the Colorado Education Association, an organization made up of 32,000 teachers and educators, frosted many boardmembers with comments she made in a December 4 Rocky Mountain News article: "Why do they need to exist if they are not a legitimate voice for public education in this state?" she asked. "Other than the couple of controversial pieces that they've gotten some ink on in the last couple of years, I think a lot of people would say, 'Who are they, and what do they do?'"

Fallin doesn't repudiate these remarks, but she now tries to soften them, acknowledging that the board does other things besides warn teachers that they shouldn't be preaching to parents about the glories of Ritalin. Still, she says, "they just don't seem to get as much attention on those issues." At the same time, she, like CASB's Brake and Steven Pratt, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE), which represents about 2,000 school administrators, has no shortage of concerns about the educational reforms the board ballyhoos. Among those listed by the threesome: a severe shortage of teachers; regulations that usurp or lessen the authority of local school districts, administrators or teachers; procedures that require the kind of laborious hoop-jumping that's exceedingly difficult for rural schools or districts that lack the resources in bigger cities; and the regular failure of most boardmembers to ask them what they think should be done to help solve specific educational problems, or to listen when they volunteer their views.

The resentment felt by many educators over politicians who've decided that they're qualified to tell teaching pros how to do their jobs -- a common lament among teachers is, "Everyone thinks they're an expert on education because they've gone to school" -- is magnified by what they see as their purposeful exclusion from the process. "With Senate Bill 186, we had no input with that at all," says CASB's Brake. "And then all of a sudden there's this huge bill, and we're like, 'Wow. Where did this come from?' You kind of get shell-shocked thinking, 'What's next?'"

Because Polis and Hudak, as well as Stanford, can mention organizations like theirs without emitting an audible shudder and even suggest that they'd like to get more feedback from them, Brake, Pratt and Fallin all express optimism that the new board will be friendlier than they feel past ones have been. Indeed, Brake was particularly heartened when nearly the entire board traveled to Colorado Springs in early December to participate in seminars and discussions at CASB's annual convention. Even DeHoff -- whose comments have convinced many that he regards such groups as roadblocks to reform that he'd love to roll over -- turned up. Things got heated at times, Brake acknowledges, "but we were very pleased that they came. It was a start, anyway."

The board is trying to change its reputation in other ways as well. At the December 13 session, an hour is devoted to "closing the learning gap" between advantaged and disadvantaged youngsters, during which the all- Caucasian board is joined by representatives from the minority community: Reverend Gill Ford, Denver City Councilwoman Allegra "Happy" Haynes, Boulder Valley School District boardmember Bill De La Cruz, and Richard Garcia, founder of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, a parents-advocacy group for people of color. Education Commissioner Moloney uses their presence as an opportunity to wax poetic about the importance of this issue, which has often been lost amid other parts of education-reform packages, mixing tough talk ("This is a cause we have paid lip service to," "CSAP has revealed some things about us that perhaps we don't want to look at") with flowery speechifying. Toward the end of his fifteen-minute monologue, he even utters, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Reverend Ford and company courteously refrain from laughing at the baldness of this gesture, but they also don't seem confident that the board is ready to do something tangible about this problem -- and when Alexander later hints that a voucher system might be the answer to many of their prayers, their reticence makes sense. De La Cruz pushes for the board to "put your collective weight behind this. Hold a press conference saying 'This is an issue we have to deal with.' That doesn't take anything other than your will to tell the public that we're not going to tolerate this gap in our state." As of yet, no such press conference has been held.

Afterward, Garcia has nice things to say about the boardmembers; at least they seemed to be listening. But he's understandably vexed at their delay in attempting to bridge the gap. He formed the Statewide Parent Coalition two decades back, "which shows how long this has been going on. We should have had this meeting twenty years ago."

The next day, December 14, the board assembles for its official monthly meeting. The attendance is a sizable improvement over that at the work session: Around forty people are here. But that's a bit deceptive, since almost all of them are present to testify before the board. They have to be here.

The meeting begins, appropriately enough, with a prayer delivered by Orr, who asks for guidance from the Heavenly Father for, among others, George W. Bush and Al Gore, who conceded the night before. Orr then leads a recitation of the pledge of allegiance, and after Stanford reads the consent agenda (actions the board has already agreed upon), the chairman talks about the impending departures of Johnson and Alexander and gives each member a collectible coin to commemorate their work together. Doing so makes him emotional, but Stanford lightens the mood by announcing that he's turning his coin over so that he sees only the "E Pluribus Unum" side, not the one that reads "In God we trust." That's followed by verbal reports by the other boardmembers, most of which are nostalgic in tone -- but John Burnett takes a moment to declare that "I would like to see schools, if they're not doing it already, teach more Oscar Wilde." Could a Picture of Dorian Gray resolution be in the offing?

The next two hours of the meeting are mainly pro forma. Experts file to the lectern in front of the board's dais to talk about the importance of preschooling; the board votes unanimously to continue using McGraw-Hill for the CSAPs; a stamp of approval is placed on a plan to divide $61 million in read-to-achieve grants among over 400 Colorado schools.

It's all very smooth, very regimented, until a public-comments segment, when Elizabeth Johnson and Yamile Reina, two staffers from Denver's Valdez Elementary, a school in which much of the instruction is offered in Spanish, step forward to share their aggravation about an unanticipated result of reform. They say they've been told that any student who has been in Colorado for two years must take the CSAP in English, even though many of the kids who fall into that category aren't even close to fluent in this vernacular. As a result, they're fearful that intelligent children who are actually writing poetry in their native language will be deemed illiterate by the CSAP and cause Valdez to be declared a failing school. (Sorry, Governor Owens, but to them, an "unsatisfactory" is no better than an "F.") They wonder: Isn't there anything the board can do to prevent their school from being punished simply because it's bilingual? Or is this interpretation of the regulations a back-door attempt to turn Colorado into an English-only state?

The answer they receive isn't especially encouraging. Boardmember Chlouber, in particular, sympathizes with their distress, and she, along with her fellows, promises that they'll look into the complaint and get the teachers some clarification. But if that's the law, Orr tells them, well...and then he shrugs.

Once the teachers depart, seeming no less frustrated than before, it's finally time to discuss Patti Johnson's last resolution as a member of the state board. But, as it turns out, there isn't much discussion at all. Burnett makes special note of the line about "government controlled economies," citing as examples "the Marxists -- Cuba -- Boulder..." (Everyone guffaws at that.) Stanford says that he won't be voting for the resolution because of a couple of things in it to which he objects, but doesn't bother spelling out his gripes as he did at the work session. And Chlouber votes no as well, but only because she doesn't feel comfortable discouraging financially strapped districts from applying for grants they desperately need. And that's pretty much it. The resolution passes 5 to 2.

In the days and weeks afterward, a funny thing happens: nothing. The Denver dailies don't write word one about Johnson's resolution, the local TV stations ignore it, too, and no major national publication either clasps the proclamation to its bosom or rails against it. And no wonder: Without all those lightning rods, the resolution doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. Who can get upset or excited about something he doesn't understand?

But no one on the board is boohooing about not having to answer questions about a disruptive resolution -- especially not Jared Polis, who dismisses both the Ritalin and "In God we trust" edicts with the curt declaration that "the state board shouldn't be in the position of offering medical or religious advice, or recommending how classrooms should be decorated." Instead, he's eager to go beyond what he concedes is the "general supervisory role" of the state board as conceived in the Colorado constitution and "be more aggressive lobbying as one body in the legislature."

Maybe Polis will be on the board for six years, and maybe not. But he wants to make as much of his present circumstances as he can -- and if that means pushing the board into the spotlight, so be it.

"We're in an excellent position to recommend particular reforms and ways to spend money more efficiently," he says. "And we need to make sure our voices are heard."

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