Denver Superintendent Invites Reform Discussions

Published January 1, 2007

A few months after the new school year began, Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Michael Bennet and other administrators invited community members from Denver’s northwest side to sit down and chat. Their hope was that a series of community-centered meetings will lead to serious education reform.

In northwest Denver, where public school enrollment has been shrinking for years, the meetings were designed to solicit the community’s feedback on ways to improve struggling North High School and its feeder elementary and middle schools.

“We simply ask, ‘What can we do to help keep your child in this community?'” said DPS Communications Director Alejandra Garza. She noted that in the North High School community, 42 percent of the 8,200 public school students do not attend their neighborhood schools.

Some of the area elementary schools have waiting lists of students who want to enroll, Garza added, but by the time students reach high school, the combination of poor reputation and limited academic choices prompts families to seek out other options.

As a result, North High School has room for nearly 1,000 more students.

Recurring Themes

In early November–midway through the series of 17 meetings held several times a week from October 23 to November 29–Garza said administrators were pleased that approximately 30 people had attended each meeting.

Administrators are hearing common themes. Parents want increased academic rigor, a dual language program, more electives for students, and a revamped perception of North High School. DPS administrators will compile the feedback and present it to the school board in early 2007. The board will then decide how to proceed.

“We don’t want anything to come top-down,” Garza said. “Parents are our constituents and our clients.”

Defined Roles

Van Schoales, program officer of urban education at the Piton Foundation, a private group that works to expand opportunities for low-income families, has studied urban education reform nationwide and believes people are starved for honest dialogue about the problems in their schools. He gives Bennet credit for being frank about the problems in some of Denver’s schools.

But he also said the district needs a central notion of what makes a good secondary school, and he likened Bennet’s relationship with the community to the relationship between a doctor and a patient: The patient should understand the diagnosis and weigh in on treatment, but the doctor has unique expertise on how to treat the ailment.

“While the community is a critical partner, it’s really important to define what the role of that partnership should be,” Schoales explained.

Cultural Change

Schoales said community members might want “sexy” reforms–such as the notoriously rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, a two-year curriculum that gives students the opportunity to delve into a few specific areas of interest and write extensively about them–but administrators should look first at a few strategic solutions to address fundamental problems.

For example, Schoales said, he’d like to see “comprehensive instructional support” for each student–support that goes beyond things like doubling literacy classes for a student who isn’t reading at grade level. Such students should automatically get additional resources such as tutoring or mandatory summer school, he said.

“Strategies for breaking the school culture and turning the culture around are very hard,” Schoales said. But because Bennet’s honesty puts him in a position to address some of the problems, Schoales believes city residents likely feel hopeful that real solutions are at hand.

Good Options

State Sen. Bob Hagedorn (D-Aurora) applauded Bennet’s innovation.

Hagedorn, the lone Democrat to vote with 17 Republicans to pass a voucher bill in 2003–which the Colorado Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional later that year–believes public schools should provide more choices for parents and students.

“I’m a firm believer that children do not all learn in one single way,” Hagedorn said. Bennet’s decision to listen to community members suggests to the senator that Bennet is open to reforms for different types of students. Hagedorn described Bennet–an attorney who spent half his career in the private sector before becoming DPS superintendent two years ago–as “entrepreneurial,” not an “education establishmentarian.”

“Half a century ago, hospitals realized that just because someone was a good doctor, he wasn’t necessarily going to be a good administrator,” Hagedorn said. “The education systems are just now figuring out the same is true of teachers.”

As for the conversations with community members in northwest Denver, the senator believes Hispanic voters are keenly interested in educational options for their children, including school choice.

Garza hopes the community meetings and subsequent reforms will lead to better educational choices for families.

She noted, “We want to be able to tell families, ‘If you do choose to send your children elsewhere for school, we want you to make the choice between two good options.'”

Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Evanston, Illinois.