Why the Denver school district’s top boss wants to create a ‘unified equity plan’

It has been more than a year since a blue-ribbon committee presented the Denver school board with recommendations for how to better integrate the city’s schools, many of which reflect the racial and class divisions of Denver neighborhoods.

Now, some members of that commission — which included university professors, former elected officials, and city staff members — say they are disappointed that the district hasn’t made more progress on putting the recommendations into action. Seven of the 42 original committee members recently wrote a letter to the school board, expressing concern that “the work we did, in good faith, may end up on the trash heap.”

“You had some of the best thinkers around that table,” said Collinus Newsome, director of education for the Denver Foundation, a local philanthropy. “Not to have these recommendations in place, or starting to operationalize some of them, is a little frustrating.”

It’s a familiar complaint about blue-ribbon commissions. But Denver Public Schools officials insist that while this particular work may have been hampered for months by an all-consuming superintendent search, followed by contentious pay negotiations with the teachers union and a three-day strike, the recommendations aren’t headed for the heap.

Superintendent Susana Cordova envisions pulling together the recommendations made by the integration committee with a long list of other district initiatives, school board directives, and task force recommendations. The result will be a “unified equity plan” that will “align efforts that currently exist in silos,” according to an entry plan Cordova released in February after the strike was over. The unified equity plan will be completed this spring, the entry plan says.

“We must lean into the hard work of eliminating barriers,” Cordova wrote.

Equity is one of the district’s stated core values, and Cordova made it a focus of her bid for the top job. Closing test score gaps between white students and students of color, students with and without disabilities, and native English speakers and English language learners, is part of the district’s strategic plan. Called the Denver Plan 2020, it was introduced in 2014.

The district has also been under a federal court order for decades to provide a certain level of service to students learning English as a second language. The order was updated in 2012.

In the past two years, the administration and school board have developed several other initiatives that touch on issues of equity, as well. They include:

  • A resolution passed by the school board in February 2017 pledging to provide a “safe and welcoming” district for immigrant students
  • Recommendations made in May 2017 by the district’s African-American Equity Task Force, aimed at improving the treatment of African-American students and teachers
  • A district policy passed by the school board in June 2017 to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students
  • A resolution passed by the school board in October 2017 pledging that the district become a “trauma-informed school district”
  • Recommendations made by the district’s integration committee, officially known as the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, in December 2017
  • Feedback gathered in fall 2018 from community members during the superintendent search that ultimately resulted in hiring Cordova
  • A “black student excellence” resolution passed by the school board in February
  • The entry plan Cordova released in February
  • Recommendations made in March by a district task force on improving special education

The idea of the unified equity plan is to find the commonalities between these initiatives and others. For example, Cordova said, many of them stress that the district should recruit and retain a more diverse teaching force. Currently, about 76 percent of the district’s approximately 93,000 students are students of color, but 72 percent of teachers are white.

“Rather than have four or five different approaches to that, let’s have one approach to that in a unified equity plan,” Cordova told the school board recently.

The recommendations and initiatives that do not overlap will be divvied up among the departments most suited to put them into action, said Allen Smith, a district administrator whom Cordova recently named senior deputy superintendent for equity. The timeline will depend on how the district prioritizes those actions and the capacity it has to carry them out, Smith said.

The consultant the district is hoping to hire is Antwan Jefferson, a University of Colorado professor and Denver Public Schools parent who served as co-chair of the integration committee. Jefferson was also one of the seven committee members who signed the letter expressing frustration at the pace of progress. While he acknowledged that unforeseen circumstances, such as the resignation of the former superintendent, likely contributed to the delay in putting the recommendations into place, he said the time lapse is concerning.

When the district asks community members to participate in a dialogue about a complicated issue, “the assumption is it will lead to change in the district,” Jefferson said.

“When that isn’t the case, it is justifiably disappointing,” he said.

Diana Romero Campbell, the president of a local organization that provides after-school and summer learning programs, served as co-chair of the integration committee alongside Jefferson. Though she did not sign the letter, she said she’s glad other community members are raising the issue.

“Do I think it’s good that people are holding the flag and saying, ‘We need to focus on this?’ Absolutely,” she said. “It’s just a matter of style. I don’t want it to be contentious.”

The committee’s recommendations included setting a districtwide goal for increasing the socioeconomic diversity of Denver’s schools, launching a “meaningful” communications effort about the value of integration, and considering asking voters to raise tax money to pay the transportation costs of students who want to attend a school farther from home.

While the biggest-ticket recommendations have yet to come to fruition, Romero Campbell and others point to other wins. Several more Denver schools last year joined a voluntary district pilot program that gives enrollment preference to students from low-income families who don’t live within school boundaries but want to attend. The committee had recommended expanding the pilot, although results show it is only having modest effects.

The district also increased the number of school seats it holds open for students who move over the summer, which district leaders say provides late-arriving students more access to the district’s best schools that might otherwise be full. The committee had recommended that all Denver schools make seats available to students who enroll mid-year.

And in soliciting a new middle school for northeast Denver last year, the district asked for proposals that would be “diverse by design.” The committee had recommended the district evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body.