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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Will Neighborhood Schools Flourish In DPS Era Of Change? | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Tom Boasberg points with pride to improvements in the district’s four-year graduation rate.

DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS (DPS) SUPERINTENDENT TOM BOASBERG has the dual-pronged task of bringing innovative new programs on line in an attempt to expand and improve student options, while supporting continued improvement of neighborhood schools across the city.

It's now 51.8 percent, up from 46.4 percent in 2009 and increased enrollment is currently 81,438, up 2,000 from 2010, and over 80,000 for the first time since 1974.

“The changes we’ve made since the launch of the Denver Plan in 2005 haven’t always been easy,” he stated. “But they were necessary to improve our schools and dramatically increase our enrollment. We still have much work to do. We need to continue the improvements to make sure we have great schools for our families in every Denver neighborhood.”

While the district appears to be making gains in the graduation rate, DPS is still well behind the state rate of 72.4 percent, and even farther behind high performing districts like Cherry Creek and Boulder, each getting 85 percent of their students to matriculate in four years.

Denver also has the dubious claim of the highest remediation rate among the state’s 10 largest school districts. The Colorado Department of Education reports that 59 percent of DPS students attending state-funded community colleges and four-year institutions require post-graduation remediation classes to prepare them for their chosen college curriculum.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., the 47-year-old Boasberg came to DPS as chief operating officer in 2007, with an impressive resume spanning the worlds of business (eight years as a senior executive handling mergers and acquisitions for  Level 3 Communications); government (serving as legal advisor to Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission); international politics (three years as chief of staff to Lee Chu-Ming, chairman of Hong Kong’s largest political party, working on constitutional and political issues as Hong Kong again came under the sovereignty of mainland China in 1997 after 150 years as a British colony); and education (a speaker of Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Boasberg also worked as a junior high school English teacher in Hong Kong’s public schools). He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale College, and a law degree from Stanford University.

When then-superintendent Michael Bennet was appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar in 2009, Boasberg was plucked for the job of superintendent, and has been an aggressive supporter of the Denver Plan “education reform” agenda begun by his predecessor.

“It takes much more than improving student scores on standardized tests,” to chart the path to a brighter future for Denver Public Schools, said Boasberg. “You can’t rely purely on how many students succeed on the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) tests to evaluate our schools. Sadly, CSAP results will correlate with the wealth of your family. A critical part of our job is to break the predictability we’ve had for many years, that not just your family wealth but your race predict the academic success of your kids.”            

Much of the energy DPS has directed at eradicating that predictability, and closing the achievement gap between socio-economic and ethnic groups has been focused on the establishment of magnet programs, charter schools and a variety of new categories such as performance schools and state mandated innovation schools.

The DPS Board of Education has voted in lockstep support of Boasberg’s agenda in recent years by a slim 4-3 margin. Though seats on the board are unpaid volunteer positions, a massive $1 million was raised to fund the recent election to fill three school board seats. The reform movement balance was maintained with the help of some $300,000 that came from six wealthy donors – including University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, former University of Denver chancellor Daniel Ritchie, and several developers and financiers. Those dollars were funneled to the campaigns of the trio of Happy Haynes, Anne Rowe and Nancy Draper Carson, who were seen as supportive of the Boasberg agenda. Haynes (At-Large) and Rowe (District 1) emerged victorious, with Carson falling by less than 150 votes to incumbent Arturo Jiminez (District 5).

While non-traditional schools such as Denver School of Science and Technology (charter), Cole Arts and Sciences Academy (innovation) and Denver Green School (performance) receive high marks for their creative curricula, many parents and educators believe that DPS support for Denver’s traditional neighborhood schools has been given short shrift in the midst of the drive for reform.

“I strongly believe in neighborhood schools and feeder patterns,” said Boasberg. “You want a strong school in every neighborhood that is open to serve all kids regardless of language, income and ability.” Unfortunately, the ongoing restructuring of the school district has Boasberg and his staff needing to put out fires that spring up as parents and other concerned people object to proposed changes.

Fidel “Butch” Montoya, former manager of Denver’s Department of Safety, complained recently about the process that is leading toward changes at Kepner Middle School in west-central Denver. DPS is altering the boundary lines for attendance at Kepner (now at 1,200 students) with plans to relocate hundreds of kids to a pair of 6th-to-12th grade programs opening on the campus of West High School next year.

While Boasberg and his staff see a 1,200 student middle school as “simply too big,“ Montoya insists that, “Parents in the Kepner community are upset with proposed changes that may end up sending their children farther away from their neighborhood school. This is just another example of Boasberg and ‘the reform-minded school board’ who don’t bother to listen to the community or parents and just go ahead and implement their unilateral ‘school-reform plan.’

“No input needed or necessary,” continued Montoya. “No assembly required, comes completely built by school board members who know nothing of your community or the specific educational needs of your children. Sorry, but there are no returns or guarantees that the new reforms will actually impact your children’s education.”

Similar complaints were heard from parents in the Merrill Middle School (1551 S. Monroe St.) catchment area regarding the public engagement process that led to co-location of C3 (Creativity Challenge Community) a new elementary school program that will be co-housed at Merrill this fall.

Boasberg defends the district’s outreach to parents and educators alike in the formation of district policy. “We wouldn’t have 8,000 more kids than four years ago if parents didn’t feel we’re welcoming of their children and their opinions. We have all kinds of monthly forums to reach out to families. And everything we do depends on having great teachers. I meet with the faculty of every school every year. ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do – what do you think?’

“You need to have dialogue. These are difficult issues we deal with. Do we make mistakes? Yes, we make mistakes. In all decision-making processes does everyone feel they’ve had their voice heard? No. Vigorous debate leaves people upset. That’s what a democracy is. When we recognize our mistakes, we do our best to make changes to make it better in the future.

“I agree fully there are longstanding legitimate concerns about giving Merrill the support needed to be a great school,” said Boasberg. “Whether it’s investment in marketing, or facility upgrades that will be good for the school, we need to make the investments. They will more than pay for themselves. It’s not an either/or, where we either work to improve Merrill or use the space for a needed program. We need to do both.”

Boasberg was not pleased with voters’ rejection of, and Governor Hickenlooper’s lack of support for Proposition 103, a school funding measure that was defeated by a 65 to 35 percent margin last November. Put forward by State Senator Rollie Heath (D-Boulder), the measure mandated a fiveyear increase in state income and sales taxes that would have brought in $3 billion to fund public education at every level .

“I strongly supported 103, and was very disappointed to see the margin of defeat,” said Boasberg. “And it wasn’t unique to Denver. The vast majority of district-based measures went down statewide. It’s a stark reminder how compelling is the case we need to make about investment.”

DPS “very much intends to go to voters in the fall of 2012 with a bond package and a mill levy increase,” he stated. “Having added 8,000 students over the past four years, we’re the state’s fastest growing district. But, it is without question we’ll need to show very clearly where the money is needed, as well as to assure taxpayers that we’ll spend their dollars well.”

Boasberg was pleased with the recent ruling in Lobato vs. Colorado, which declared that the state’s current system for funding public education is “irrational, inadequate and unconscionable,” and in violation of the constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools.” Colorado regularly ranks near the bottom of the list of states in per capita spending on K-12 education.

“DPS was involved in this case from the beginning,” he stated. “We were not named defendants, but were involved with evidence around the case and the central arguments. The judge’s decision heightens awareness about the inadequacy of the funding for our schools, and hopefully will push the community debate forward at both the city and state levels around the need to stop this brutal cycle of cuts and instead invest more in our kids.

“There is no single silver bullet here, but there are crying needs for additional funding,” Boasberg explained. “Start with early childhood, and the need to be sure that every four- and five-year-old has access to quality preschool and kindergarten. Then look at more time for our students in schools, both for basic curriculum, and increased enrichment opportunities in the arts, music and sports. We need more time for students who are behind to catch up, and more time to provide opportunities for gifted students to continue moving forward.

“We’ve worked hard to decentralize what we’re doing. We’ve got 160-some schools, and the idea you can operate them solely through a command and control center is folly. Empowerment at the school level is the key. Schools are so different. Cookie cutter policies don’t make sense. The people on site have the clearest sense of how to best meet the needs of their kids.

“It used to be that school budgets were basically boiler plate,” he said. “We now give individual schools the cash. ‘You’ve got 500 students, you get $2.5 million. Spend it wisely.’

“How do we make sure ‘best practices’ are being shared, and people are being supported? There’s an accountability piece to the puzzle. If individuals and schools aren’t performing, you have to support and help them.”

The central question is, he believes, “How do we build capacity in our principals, our teachers and our schools? The work is really, really hard. To be a teacher with 250 kids of different abilities and backgrounds, or to be principal of a 2,000- student high school is damn hard.

“There’s no greater single force that we have at our disposal to make our community better, than our public schools,” Boasberg said. “Education not only prepares individuals for employment, it plays a major role in creating a community of thoughtful, decent human beings with the ability to work well together. Education helps to overcome historic differences of race and religion. I care passionately about making our community a better place, and there’s no better way to do that than through the schools.”

Graduation And Remediation Rates For Colorado’s Largest School Districts

Jefferson County
Graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 78.1%
Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 25.8%

Denver Public Schools
Graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 51.8%
Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 59.0%

Douglas County
Graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 83.1%
Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 20.5%

Cherry Creek
Graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 84.7%
Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 26.8%

Adams 12 Five Star
Graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 61.7%
Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 31.0%

Aurora Public Schools
Graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 45.5%
Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 55.1%

Sources: Colorado Department of Education, Colorado Department of Higher Education

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