Denver school board incumbent Anne Rowe: “Now comes the hard part”

The beginning of the race for Denver Public Schools board opens up three seats on the seven-member board — and a set of questions about how DPS should approach school improvement, district management, testing, teacher evaluations, and more.

In southeast Denver, incumbent Anne Rowe, who has represented District 1 since 2011, is being challenged by Kristi Butkovich, the executive director of the Denver Alliance for Public Education.

In the first in a series of interviews with each of the candidates for Denver board, Chalkbeat chatted with Rowe about why she is running for re-election and about education issues in DPS and District 1.

Rowe says that while the Denver Plan laid out ambitious goals, the district still has to figure out how to reach them. 

Chalkbeat: Why did you decide to seek re-election?

Rowe: Looking back at materials and outreach from four years ago, I had two broad statements that I believed firmly in. In 2011, what was I saying – as a person who hadn’t been in this – was that when I make policy, I’ll base it on what’s in the best interest of students and their families and what will dramatically drive student achievement.

I’ve tried to do that to the best of my ability and still believe those are the fundamental questions.

I’m running for a second term because I think DPS is making progress and we’re at a time right now where we can accelerate and actually make even more significant progress. The Board of Education and the district and community have set up a framework, the Denver Plan 2020, that sets a really focused, clear path forward. We have our five goals, and what really drives us all is the concept of great schools in every neighborhood. If we truly believe every child should succeed, every child has to have access to a high-performing school, and one that is in their neighborhood – they can choose to go somewhere else, but they shouldn’t have to to get a good education.

So now we have the framework. Now comes the hard part — we have to implement it with integrity and transparency to actually achieve our really ambitious goals. I think we’re making progress, but we have to focus on the policies to actually achieve the goals. That’s how I want to spend the next four years, if voters decide, so when 2020 comes along we can say, look what we’ve done for our kids.

Rowe says that a policy that determines which schools get placed in which building and a plan to give school principals more control over their curriculum have been some of the most significant policy achievements of her term.

Chalkbeat: What are some of the most significant policy changes that have happened in your time as a board member?

Rowe: One major thing was the facility allocation policy…Five or six years ago, we had tons of building space. But because of folks coming back to DPS, because they’re seeing schools that will benefit their children, we no longer have excess space. We’re looking to a 2016 bond now because we need more.

I’m also thinking about situations like turnaround: What does that look like and what’s the best way to do that? What the policy does is say, we need to have principles that guide us to put the best schools in communities based on what the communities want as well as the highest-performing options.

The other thing I think is incredibly significant is some of the changes we’ve made to push more decision-making and allowing for more autonomy at the school level…if you invest in strong leadership and then give them the flexibility to make the best decisions for the students in their community, that level of flexibility can accelerate growth for all the kids in their school communities. That in itself is quite transformational. It changes the culture of how you move forward in the school district.

Rowe says that standardized assessments were a major concern in schools in her district.

Chalkbeat: What are some of the biggest issues in southeast?

Rowe: I visited every school in the district over a five-week period this winter. One theme I thought was incredibly important: School leaders all believe in the value of assessment and testing, but they also have great concerns about the amount of time spent testing. They know that data about their students is incredibly important, and they have a right to know how their child is doing, but with regard to the amount of testing, it was a common theme that there is too much.

The legislature pared down PARCC, and we’re looking hard at how do we have valuable assessments to provide information for educators, students, and parents, and how not to overload them.

Chalkbeat: How does the new flexibility for schools in DPS that you were describing earlier affect this, if at all? Will principals get to decide how much testing happens in their schools?

Rowe: There are still a lot of unknowns. The one thing that will still be there is standards, and you have to meet the standards. But the question is what does a school community feel are the best tools to help them grow their kids and see where they really need to focus.

Chalkbeat: What’s your stance on opting out?

Rowe: I respect an individual’s decisions to make whatever decisions they want. There’s value in assessments, from knowing how schools are doing to knowing how child is doing. Also, we’ve taken tests forever and that’s part of what we do. I think it’s a right for folks to know. In thinking about testing, rather than opting out — I don’t think that’s necessarily a great decision for folks to make. I’d rather talk about how do we make these useful and not onerous.

Rowe says that the district’s trying to improve retention among teachers and leaders — but that it can still do more. 

Chalkbeat: We’ve heard that turnover among teachers and leaders is a problem in Denver. What do you think the district should do to address this?

Rowe: It’s clearly something we need to look at and address. You want to bring in the highest-quality teachers and then keep them. You want to provide cultures where they want to be and the support they need to do. You want to think about compensation and what that means and how do you continue to incentivize folks. We’re doing a lot to address this: There’s our differentiated roles program, which allows for some career growth. That said, we do have turnover, especially in the early years…but if you look at our budget, we’re actually investing more in supporting teachers better in those years.

Over last few years, I believe with all the changes that have come about, teachers have felt like everything’s been put on them. And I understand why they’re feeling that way. We need to treat teachers like the professionals they are and provide them with support and tools. All professionals are evaluated and held accountability, but you can’t have evaluation and accountability without support. I think we’ve done that, but I think we can do a better job.

Rowe says that while it’s a good thing that southeast schools are drawing in more students, overcrowding is a growing problem — and achievement gaps within schools linger. 

Rowe: In southeast, and in any of our districts that have a large border with another school district, a lot of families send their children to other districts. But more and more people people are coming back to SE Denver schools. We had elementary schools that were 75 percent full or less. Now we have waitlists. That’s because they think the schools are good places for their kids.

But class sizes are getting very big, particularly in elementary school, so I’ve heard some concerns from parents that that needs to be addressed.

And, while all our schools are green and blue, we also have 20 percent of the population that are currently performing in the opportunity quartile (in the bottom 25 percent of students). How do we see these high-performing schools be that way for all kids?

Rowe is agnostic about the role of charter and district schools — that is, she thinks charter schools can serve the same purpose as district-run schools.

Chalkbeat: You mentioned that the district values having a good neighborhood school for all students. How do you balance policies like shared enrollment zones, which means kids aren’t automatically assigned to a neighborhood school, and the growth of the charter sector with that goal?

Rowe: When I refer to great schools in every neighborhood, I’m more agnostic to the kind of school. I care about what’s happening within the school, whether it’s a traditional district-run school or an innovation school or a charter school. It’s got a to be a public school, a DPS school, but the idea is to have schools in neighborhoods that serve the community well.

Having different kinds of schools — I’m probably stating the obvious, but not only do kids not fit in a box, we can throw the box away. I believe if folks want a very traditional school, they should have that option. They should also have other options.

Northwest Denver is a great example of that. The idea behind shared enrollment zone was to give people the option to go to high-quality schools and have the option to select school that best suits kids’ needs.

Chalkbeat: The DPS board recently approved an expansion plan from charter network DSST that means it will eventually educate a significant number of secondary students in the district. That growth is likely to affect other schools. Is that something you’re concerned about?

Rowe: That’s part of how we’re going to move forward rapidly. That doesn’t mean that other schools aren’t part of the solution, but there has to be significant change if we’re going to be successful.

On her role as a board member:

Chalkbeat: What else should we know about you?  

Rowe: I’ve committed to and invested deeply in the last three years. It’s an incredibly consuming opportunity. I’ve been honored to support District 1, and I’d like the opportunity to again. I believe deeply in public education and believe DPS can be the greatest urban district in this country, and I’m really proud of what SE Denver has done. I want to continue supporting and pushing for that to be true.