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Celebrating Denver’s Best of 2011 in Education

By Guest Blogger

I wanted to take the time to celebrate a short list of people and organizations that have made a difference in education reform in Denver for 2011.

It’s been a great year for Denver on so many fronts from the new world-class taco shop down the street, a brave new education reformy mayor and a cutting edge new art museum. I guess there’s also thatDenver quarterback.

I’ve watched Denver move from a sleepy second-rate public education city with a fair amount of self-satisfaction in the 90’s to being one of the country’s leading centers for education reform. This last year’s elections for school board and mayor proved that Denver voters are not satisfied and are demanding more from our public school system.

It’s clear that Denver Public Schools has finally begun to change positively. The question now is whether they can take it to the next level and dramatically accelerate progress. 48 years is too long to wait to close the 4th grade reading gap. We have some good policies in DPS but we need to better understand exactly what is working so that great schools can be in every neighborhood.

So here’s my list of some of the people that made a significant contribution to changing the public system so that not just a few but also possibly hundreds and even thousands of more Denver students might succeed.

My list is in no particular order of importance. For the last couple of years it has become more challenging to choose who has made the biggest difference in moving Denver Public Schools forward as more and more join the education reform movement.

Shannon Fitzgerald and her team at DPS for breaking the mold as paper-pushing bureaucrats to lead the district’s new school choice program so that low-income families have greater access to quality schools. Kudos also go to the Get Smart Schools team for making it possible for DPS to make such a bold change.

Chris Gibbons and Bill Kurtz for doing truly remarkable work in replicating middle and high schools that prepare nearly all of their students to succeed. Their growing networks of a total of 8 schools are now collectively moving the overall achievement of Denver’s low-income and students of color. While these schools still only represent a small number of Denver’s middle and high school students, they are pulling the overall district numbers up.

Marco and Cathy Abarca, a NW Denver family that stepped up to create a local Latino political advocacy organization that brought in Tim and Bernie Marquez, Mario Carrera, Jesus Salazar, Theresa Pena and other Latino leaders focused on education reform. LFER is a powerful addition to DFER, Padres Unidos, MOP, Stand for Children, Colorado Succeeds and the Colorado Children’s Campaign in helping to represent Denver’s diversity and making sure education works for all.

Peter Sherman, the principal of Escuela Valdez, for showing us that with hard work you can use the state’s innovation status to begin to turn around a low-performing neighborhood school.

Anne Bye Rowe for winning a school board race where she refused to go negative, focusing her campaign on substantive details in the context of the nastiest and most expensive school board race in Denver’s history.

Liz Wolfson, the founder of Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) charter school, for building a radical new school design that seems to work for a diversity of Denver’s young women. The school is still in its infancy but has begun to show some fantastic growth scores.

Tim Taylor and his team from Colorado Succeeds and the folks from CU Denver for taking the myriad of data on CO schools and translating them into an easy-to-understand, comprehensive site on school quality for parents (and wonks too). It builds on the great work of the Colorado Department of Education to create a site that doesn’t require a Ph.D to navigate.

Charlie Brennan and the team at EdNews Colorado for taking education reporting to a new level in Denver and Colorado. Not only has Charlie done a great job on his first year reporting on education, but the opinion site on EdNews CO has become the space for debating education policy and surfacing important education issues in Colorado.

Landri Taylor for resurrecting the Urban League and stepping out to support education reform on all fronts, whether backing the development of new high quality schools in NE Denver or helping to thwart the ridiculous recall attempt on the School Board President Nate Easley.

Rosemary Rodriquez for stepping up to engage in substantive political and policy debates on public education in Denver on behalf of Denver’s kids, even though many I’m sure advised her to stay out of the fights.

John Youngquist for building East into a very good comprehensive urban high school (yes the school still has a long way to go….these are the toughest schools to change). Here’s hoping he’ll be able to transform the district’s poor record of recruiting, training and retaining great principals as he starts his new job at the district office this week.

Judge Sheila Rappaport for providing a very poorly thought through decision in favor of the Laboto Plaintiffs that may finally force Colorado policy makers to rework the school finance system so that most of Colorado’s kids have a fighting chance for success in life. For the record, I thought both sides were wrong. Colorado clearly underfunds education and we know that pouring more money into the current system (which was never designed to get most students ready for the 21stcentury) will not lead to improved achievement. More money AND major reform is the only way to improve public education in Colorado.

Denver is clearly on the move relative to other cities when it comes to education policy. Let’s hope that next year, I have much greater difficulty deciding who is making the biggest difference when it comes to education practice.

Have a great start to the New Year,

Van