Originally Posted by Denver Post on February 17, 2013. Copyright © Denverpost.com. Written by Van Schoales and Terrance Carroll. Read here.
The future of Denver as a thriving and appealing urban center depends not on high profile projects like the light rail expansion and Five Points renewal project, but on something much more mundane, something you’d probably never image: who is appointed to a vacant seat on Denver’s school board.
Over the past six years, the Denver Public Schools have made academic gains unlike any time in the past 20 years. As recently as 2000, it was a failing school district caught in a downward spiral. Students were leaving the district; half empty buildings languished; and achievement was persistently low and flat. Fewer than half of DPS students graduated from high schools.
Then, starting in 2006, then-Superintendent Michael Bennet (followed by Tom Boasberg) began a turnaround. They overhauled teacher compensation and evaluation; added high-performing charter schools and good, district-managed schools to the mix; and turned around schools in far Northeast Denver.
The tide has turned. The graduation rate has increased by 20 points since 2006; more than 9,000 students have returned to the district; buildings are better utilized; and achievement has improved more than any metro district in Colorado. By proving that transformative change is possible, Denver is now a national leader among urban cities struggling to improve their public schools.
But there’s more that needs to be done, and this is where the November school board election comes into the picture. In many of those difficult and pivotal decisions that helped turn around Denver’s schools, the vote was often a slim 4 to 3 victory among the seven members of the board. This fall, four of those seats will be open, putting the future of the board, and of Denver’s schools, into question.
We’ve seen other cities, including Seattle and San Diego, falter once transformation began, pulled back by the gravitational force of a 100-year-old school system designed for the needs of the last century. The current DPS administration is positioned to continue to move forward, but their hold on power is fragile.
The open swing seat has not gone unnoticed. In January, when an unusual mid-term vacancy appeared, 25 people submitted their names for the opportunity to represent far Northeast Denver. (The position, recently vacated by departing member Nate Easley, will be filled by appointment, but whoever fills it will have an advantage in the fall election when four positions become available.)
The interest in becoming a board member is bizarre given that 10 years ago, school members were actively recruiting potential replacements just to fill the boardroom. The field of candidates will only grow between now and November.
Perhaps the interest in the school board is a sign that we are finally recognizing the pivotal role the school board plays in the future of Denver’s schools and, by extension, our city, culture and economy.
In fact, Denver’s School Board is one of the most powerful in the state. The unpaid volunteers oversee one of the largest, poorest and most ethnically mixed districts in Colorado. DPS operates on a $1.3 billion budget (approximately the value of the New York Times Company) and is the second-largest employer in the city. While the superintendent and his administration are charged with the day to day, in-the-weeds work of operating this complex system and producing results for 84,000 students, it is the school board that sets the vision for the future of education in Denver. Ultimately, this board answers to voters and taxpayers.
As the old canard goes, you can argue opinion, but not facts. There is no disputing that Denver Public Schools is much better off now than it was just a few years ago. However, we are nowhere near where we need to be. Now isn’t the time to stop, slow, or change course. Rather, we need to redouble reform efforts. Academic gains are much too sluggish — only about 1 or 2 percent each year.
By 2020, about 70 percent of Denver’s jobs will require a college or post-secondary degree, and yet just 42 percent of low-income students in this predominantly poor district are academically prepared for the most basic level of the military, let alone college. Sixty percent of those who do go to college are unprepared for college-level work.
By providing Denver’s kids with a great education, we will lower crime, create well-rounded and informed citizens, generate jobs, increase wages and provide kids with an opportunity to compete globally.
So it is no overstatement to say that the future of Denver Public Schools is the most important issue facing the city. Key to that future is having a school board that believes in continuing the progress that is underway and not lurching in a different direction or slamming on the brakes.
Voters are in the driver’s seat here, and we urge you to pay attention to not only what the school board is doing, but also these crucial school board elections. Such important positions should not be decided by the fewest of us.
To encourage community engagement, A+ Denver surveyed all of the people who sought the January vacancy (the field has since been narrowed to nine). One of these candidates will be appointed in the coming weeks, but some of the initial 25 (and others) will run for election in November.
The survey results, which cover their position on many of the issues facing DPS, are available at www.aplusdenver.org. We urge you to be informed about the candidates for the four board positions up for election this fall. And then, vote — like our future depends on it.
Van Schoales is CEO of A+ Denver, and a former teacher and principal. Terrance Carroll is co-chair of the A+ Denver board of directors, an attorney with Greenberg, Traurig, LLP, and a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.
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