First Person

Voices: Some reasons why a 7-0 DPS school board is not a good thing

Outgoing Denver Public Schools board member Jeannie Kaplan argues that a school board that unanimously supported district reforms would be damaging to the city’s schools.

 “We’ve got a 4-3 majority for continuing to move forward, and if the board flipped the other way, then I think it would be disastrous to DPS,  I would love to see a bigger majority. I’d love to see a 7-0 majority so that what we were arguing about wasn’t whether or not we’re going to move forward, it’s arguing about what’s the best way to move forward and how fast can we move forward.”

–Michael Johnson, Candidate for DPS Board, District 3, speaking to the Colorado Statesman July 19, 2013

DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, right, frequently questions the district's pension numbers. At left is Mary Seawell, chair of the board's finance and audit committee.
DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, right, frequently questions the district’s pension numbers. At left is Mary Seawell, chair of the board’s finance and audit committee.

I was disturbed and frankly scared after reading those comments by a candidate who is running for a position on the DPS board, one who until very recently (May 6, 2013) was the DPS bond counsel for the past 10 years.

First of all, if Mr. Johnson thinks we have been arguing about whether or not to move forward, he hasn’t been paying attention. If he thinks we aren’t arguing about how to move forward, he hasn’t been paying attention. I suggest he take a serious look at the data in this data-driven district and tell us all why a 7-0 board would possibly serve the children of Denver better.  A 7-0 board would just make more excuses for the failures we are seeing, and it is my belief and experience a 7-0 board would not question the decision-making that has produced the following results:

  • A 9 percent increase in the achievement gap.
  • A 60 percent remediation rate, meaning six out of 10 DPS graduates who enter a Colorado institution of higher learning need to spend time and money in high school courses, courses they already took in high school.
  • A 58.8 percent graduation rate, not coming close to the Board-dictated policy of a 5 percent per year.  Had we met that goal, the 2012 graduation rate would have been 82 percent. (I have seen differing percentages of increase. I have been using the CDE number from 2005 which showed 51.7 percent.  I realize the way for calculations has changed. Therefore, I won’t quote my percentage nor the higher percentage others quote. We all agree the 2012 rate is 58.8 percent.  We aren’t where we ought to be.)
  • A stagnant ACT score of 17.6.  A score of 21 is considered the college-ready benchmark.
  • District-wide proficiency rates of 52 percent in reading, 43 percent in math and 41 percent in writing. With such slow progress and with the increases averaging around 2 percent per year (the board goals are 3.5 percent per year which would have produced proficiencies of 68 percent, 57 percent, and 57 percent respectively), it will take 24 years, 28, and 29 years to get all students to proficiency. That is two entire generations of students in DPS. Our children can’t wait for this snail’s pace of “moving forward.”

And if Mr. Johnson thinks 7-0 decisions are something desirable for the students, employees and residents of Denver, let me point out just a few of the decisions that would most likely have turned out differently with a board comprised of 7-0 rubber stampers:

  • The Modified Consent Decree would have gone forward without an independent monitor to ensure compliance.
  • The $750 million PCOPs  (Pension Certificates of Participation, taxable bonds to fund our pension) from 2008 would not have been fixed out in two stages, both by unanimous votes.
  • There would have been no independent financial advisor for the two refinances of the PCOPs.
  • The historic Emily Griffith building would have been sold with no public knowledge.
  • Parkland at Hentzell Park would have been secretly traded for a downtown building with no public knowledge.
  • Stephen Knight Early Childhood Center would not be in existence.
  • The Innovation Policy would not have school leadership succession written into it.
  • Manual would have been the home of the DPS administration with air conditioning for just the third floor.
  • The teacher “do not rehire” “practice” would not have been addressed. No earth-shattering changes have occurred, but not being banned for life is a good thing.
  • District wide discipline issues that have teachers concerned for the safety of their students as well as their own safety would not be addressed.
  • The 2012 General Obligation Bond would not have addressed the open classroom situation.
  • GALS charter school, one of our highest achieving charter schools, would have been co-located at Manual High School rather than having its own building at the former Del Pueblo Elementary School site.

Finally, Mr. Johnson repeatedly points out how he and his law firm have, on May 6, resigned their 15-year affiliation with DPS as the district bond counsel. It is time to point out the final PCOP and Stapleton COP transaction was concluded on April 23, 2013, a short two weeks before the resignation for which Kutak Rock received a  a paycheck of $444,000 from Denver’s taxpayers. This followed a paycheck of $270,500 just months before for the sale of the 2012 General Obligation Bonds.  And this followed a paycheck of $375,000 in April 2011 for the first round of refinancing of the 2008 PCOPs. Denver taxpayers have paid Michael Johnson and Kutak Rock $1.1 million from April 2011 through April 2013.

7-0. No thanks. At that point you have the equivalent of mayoral control. Maybe that is what this election is all about. Just that possibility should scare the residents of Denver.


First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.