Denver school board member Theresa Peña will head Mayor Michael Hancock’s Denver Education Compact, the mayor announced Thursday.

Theresa Peña spoke about her appointment as executive director of the Denver Education Compact at Thursday

Peña, a term-limited eight-year board veteran, will assume her new post Dec. 1, after her board service ends. In the interim, Janet Lopez, director of  P-20 Education Initiatives at the University of Colorado-Denver, will serve in the compact director’s role.

The concept behind the compact is to bring together city government, Denver Public Schools, higher education, businesses and foundations to improve educational opportunities.

Hancock has  listed improved third-grade reading proficiency, lower dropout rates and increased attention to neighborhood schools as possible key priorities for the compact.

“I cannot think of a better director of these efforts than … Theresa Peña,” said Hancock, speaking in front of about 100 people on the Auraria campus.

“Theresa has been a fearless education leader for our city’s children,” Hancock added. “She is a collaborator, she is a convener, and I trust she will continue her hard work…to blaze the trail from cradle to career for our kids.”

Hancock also announced that Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser-Permanente Health Plan Colorado, would co-chair the compact, joining Hancock and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Peña thanked Hancock for “really advocating on behalf of Denver children, from a perspective that breaks down the silos, and breaks down the adult relationships, which I believe that the city of Denver is ready for.”

Peña said she feels “a big commitment to this school board in finishing my last year. It’s going to be really tough to leave this job. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had. I think this new job is going to be even better because it’s so much bigger than the work we were doing in Denver Public Schools.”

Peña, 48, was first elected to the school board as an at-large representative in November 2003, and was at that time the first Latina elected to an at-large position in the city of Denver.

She was reelected in November 2007 to a second four-year term. In November 2005 she was chosen to serve as the board president, and in November 2007 she was re-elected by fellow board member to serve as board president two more years.

A Denver native, Peña graduated from East High School and attended Pomona College where she obtained her B.A, in sociology, and  Cornell University where she earned an M.B.A. with a concentration in finance and marketing.

Work on the education compact has been underway in Hancock’s office since before his July 18 inauguration and has been spearheaded by Phil Gonring, senior program officer for the Rose Foundation.

Similar compacts exist in four other cities – Cincinnati, Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles compact will likely be particularly influential in forming the Denver compact. Hancock said the L.A. compact places particular emphasis on holding all compact partners accountable for following through on their commitments.

“We have pulled pieces from them that we believe will suit Denver’s needs,” said mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller. “It will be piece-mealed from all of these, but will be unique to Denver’s needs.”

The compact will be funded through a public-private partnership, Hancock said, fueled by “an extensive fund-raising effort.”

The funding is “one of the things that the co-chairs are going to work on together, putting together the pieces,” said Hancock. “But I will tell you right now that we are receiving inquiries from people in the private sector asking how they can lend their support to this effort.”

Hancock set out the sequence of steps he expects the compact members to pursue:

  • Appointment of a board of stakeholders, perhaps as many as 15.
  • A setting of common goals and an establishment of metrics to monitor progress toward those goals.
  • Identifying best approaches to achieve the desired progress toward those goals.
  • Each compact member will make a specific commitment on how they can help meet the goals.
  • Clear measures of the progress toward established goals will be reported each year.

Hancock was joined at Thursday’s announcement by Boasberg, among others.

“I’m terrifically grateful to Mayor Hancock for thinking of this, and for driving this idea, and bringing this idea to a reality,” Boasberg said.

Among those looking on at the announcement event was Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

“We wish her luck,” Roman said of Peña, who has had a sometimes edgy relationship with the union. “It’s going to be a challenging job, and we look forward to collaborating with her in moving the schools forward.”

Asked if he believed the union would have a seat at the table in the compact, Roman said, “My understanding is that all of the stakeholders will be a part of the collaboration. So we will find out soon.”

Van Schoales, who recently took the helm of  the A+ Denver advocacy organization, said Peña’s appointment “sends a really strong message that his administration is going to be focused on education reform.

“It’s reflective of what he said in the campaign, that it’s not about compromise, or slowing things down, but that if anything, we need to accelerate and deepen reform.”