Who Is In Charge

Key education bills raise hopes and uncertainties

Education legislation signed Thursday by Gov. Bill Ritter included bills that represent some of the highest policy hopes of the 2009 legislative session but that also illustrate the limitations Colorado faces.

As the governor noted, “Education reform is never easy or fast, but we are making great progress and are leading the nation with our reform agenda.”

Here’s a rundown and analysis of those major bills.

Education Accountability Act of 2009 (Senate Bill 09-163)

Snapshot: The measure creates a new accountability system for Colorado schools and merges the way schools are accredited and the public reporting of individual school and district performance.

What it does: Districts will be accredited at different levels, with improvement plans required and state assistance offered to districts at the lowest levels. Those levels will translate into how districts and schools are “ranked” in information available to the public. The philosophy behind the bill is an intention to offer more help to struggling schools, in contrast to what many have seen as the punitive tone of the CSAP-based system.

When it goes into effect: July 1.

When it will have an impact: The public will see a new way of reporting school performance in August when 2009 CSAP scores are rolled into the Department of Education’s online reporting system, which places greater emphasis on year-to-year academic growth of students, schools and districts than on one-year snapshots of CSAP scores. The full rollout of the new system, which eventually will include other performance measures in addition to test scores, will take two to three years.

How it’s funded: Some of program is being paid for with savings from reduction in the number of School Accountability Reports printed, but officials also hope to gain federal stimulus funds to help with implementation.

Takeaway: SB 09-163, along with 2008’s Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, marks the end of an accountability system that basically relied on schools’ CSAP scores for a given year. Over time new performance measures such as student and school improvement over time, dropout rates, student performance on pre-collegiate tests and other measures will determine a district’s accreditation – and what’s reported to the public.

The ultimate impact of SB 09-163 – and CAP4K – ultimately will be determined by how effectively it’s implemented, whether sufficient funding is available to effectively assist schools and whether there’s appropriate training and professional development in every school.

Educator Identifier System (Senate Bill 09-1065)

Snapshot: The bill is considered an important piece of education reform, but it will be at least a few years before its effectiveness can be gauged.

What is does: Authorizes the state Department of Education and the Teacher Quality Commission to create unique identifying numbers for teachers and principals.

Data about individual educators can be correlated with student and other data to study such issues as the teacher gap and possible solutions to it; teacher training and development; teacher mobility and retention; recognizing, rewarding, and developing the careers of teachers; identifying ways to improve teacher and student learning, including teacher placement based on skills and students’ needs, and helping teachers enhance instruction using performance and growth data.

The bill was passed after prolonged interest-group negotiations reached a compromise allowing extensive use of the data for research, protection of teachers from punitive use of the data and protection of existing school district systems that do allow use of such data for teacher evaluation.

When it goes into effect: CDE is supposed to have a pilot program for assigning numbers and using data in place for the 2009-10 school year in just five districts. Based on the experience in those districts, it will be up to the State Board of Education to decide when to take the program statewide. But, the bill includes a repeal date of July 1, 2012, which means the 2012 legislature will get a chance to review whatever’s in place, tinker with it and decide whether to continue it.

When it will have an impact: It likely will be two years or longer until such a program is up and running statewide and sufficient data has been gathered and analyzed to gauge its usefulness.

How it’s funded: It’s a sign of the state’s budget problems that such a seemingly major program was created with no state funding. The identifier is to be supported by “gifts, grants and donations.” In this case, CDE officials are counting on federal stimulus money and perhaps foundation grants to cover the estimated $1 million in 2009-10 costs and $331,538 in spending needed in 2010-11. Among other costs, the bill envisions $25,000 payments to each of the five school districts expected to participate in the first phase. If money isn’t raised, CDE isn’t required to implement the program.

Takeaway: Good data and lots of it are considered by many experts to be vital for effective school reform. Creation of this program could give Colorado an advantage in the competition for federal Race to the Top funds. But, it will take awhile for the program to have an impact.

Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act (House Bill 09-1319)

Snapshot: The program will offer dual high school and college enrollment to all Colorado high school students once their school districts make agreements with colleges. The bill also creates a way (named ASCENT) for fifth year high school students to participate, with certain special requirements.

What is does: Students will have to apply to and receive approval from their school district or charter to enroll in college classes. (There will be a standard application form statewide.) Districts are required to notify families annually of the program’s availability. Districts also need to approve students’ plans of study, and students can enroll only at colleges with which their district has a written agreement. (Individual colleges are not required to participate.)

When it goes into effect: The bill requires creation of an advisory board, which must be appointed by Oct. 1 and meet for the first time no later than Nov. 15. The SBE must issue rules for the program by July 1, 2010, and the first report on the program isn’t due to the legislature until Feb. 1, 2011.

When it will have an impact: Expect to see some activity in the 2010-11 school year, with more participation in 2011-12.

How it’s funded: Districts will pay college tuition for their students, based on community college tuition rates. Students are eligible for College Opportunity Fund stipends and college financial aid. School districts will be able to continue counting such students in their pupil base, and colleges also can include them in enrollment counts. Some $30,031 in CDE administration costs is expected to be covered by federal stimulus funds in the first year.

Takeaway: The policy goal here is to encourage more students to stay in high school and get a head start on college. For this bill to have a significant impact, it probably will depend on hard work by teachers and already-pressed counselors to recruit students and help them through the application process.

Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement (House Bill 09-1243)

Snapshot: The bill creates a two-person Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement in CDE.

What is does: The office is assigned to review data on dropouts and student return to school, work with other agencies and organizations involved in the issue, identify districts that require special assistance, help school districts and administer a student re-engagement grant program. The office also is required to make annual reports.

When it goes into effect: The office is supposed to prepare a study on dropout prevention best practices by Dec. 31 and a report to the legislature by Feb. 1, 2010.

When it will have an impact: (See Takeaway below)

How it’s funded: This bill is another classic example of the Colorado education dilemma –trying to meet a perceived need without any money. Although the bill authorizes spending next year of $157,772, no state funding is provided. It’s intended that the money will be raised from “gifts, grants and donations” and the federal government. The program doesn’t have to be implemented if sufficient money isn’t raised.

Takeaway: Good idea, but only time will tell if enough resources can be mustered to have an impact. About 4-5 percent of Colorado high schoolers drop out each year.

Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education (Senate Bill 09-090)

Snapshot: Creates an Advisory Council for Parent Involvement in Education within CDE. The bill also specifies parent membership on a wide variety of state and local district volunteer committees. (The bill replaces school advisory committees with accountability committees.)

What is does: The council is assigned to advise school districts on best practices for improving parent involvement and administer a grant program. The hope is that changing the composition of various advisory committees will involve more parents directly in districts and schools.

When it goes into effect: The board is supposed to be appointed by Oct. 1 and meet no later than Nov. 15.

When it will have an impact: (See Takeaway below.)

How it’s funded: You guessed it – “gifts, grants and donations.” The program can’t start until at least $20,000 is raised.

Takeaway: The value of parent involvement is one of those received truths that almost everyone in education accepts. Whether this bill ultimately will affect nitty-gritty parent involvement like attending teacher conferences, making the kids do their homework or visiting classrooms is anybody’s guess – and probably impossible to measure.

Alternative Teacher Licensing (Senate Bill 09-160)

Snapshot: The bill aligns and standardizes the state’s two existing programs for alternative teacher preparation.

What is does: The State Board of Education is required to establish common content and coursework requirements for the teacher and residence (two-year) and alternative teacher (one-year) programs that currently are operated by school districts, BOCES, colleges and other agencies under state supervision. (The one- and two-year options will remain available, however.)

When it goes into effect: The bill goes into effect for the 2009-10 school year.

When it will have an impact: When the first teachers finish the revised programs.

How it’s funded: $5,500 for CDE administrative costs, taken from teacher licensing fees.

Takeaway: Teacher development is one of Colorado’s top education issues, so any improvement in the preparation process is welcome.

School Finance Act for 2009-10 (Senate Bill 09-256)

Snapshot: The annual school finance act is designed to pay for “extra” education programs not included in the base state support of schools. (That money is contained in the annual state budget bill.) The finance bill is very different year to year, depending on available funds, which political party is in power and the perceived needs of education at any given time.

What is does: The bill includes funding for a boarding school for at-risk students – if a Department of Education study decides it’s a workable idea and comes up with a plan – and creates more predictable (but not larger) funding for charter school facilities. It also provides a modest amount of at-risk incentive funding. A key feature “escrows” $110 million in state school aid until January, allowing the 2010 legislature to cut that amount if revenue conditions require.

When it goes into effect: July 1

When it will have an impact: School year 2009-10.

How it’s funded: Tax dollars from the State Education Fund.

Takeaway: The most interesting things about the bill are what’s not in it. The original Senate version shifted some types of funding to devote more money to at-risk schools, creating winners and losers among the state’s 178 school districts. That turned out to be a political non-starter. Ideas such as that and a lot more will undoubtedly be aired in the interim committee on school finance, due to begin working within the next couple of weeks.

DPS-PERA Pension Merger (Senate Bill 09-282)

Snapshot: Merges the Denver Public Schools Retirement System into the state Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

What is does: Puts DPS employees into a separate PERA unit and makes possible for teachers to move into or out of DPS without losing pension earnings. This culminates a years-long effort to bring Denver, the state’s only stand-alone district, into the state system.

When it goes into effect: Jan. 1, 2010

When it will have an impact: It probably will take a few years to assess the merger’s impact on teacher mobility.

How it’s funded: No new money is required. But, both pension systems face significant pressures, and PERA this fall is scheduleed to make recommendations to the legislature for future reforms, which could involve benefit reductions, contribution increases and other changes.

Takeaway: Almost everybody agrees this should have been done years ago, but that the overall future may not be bright for public employee pensions.

Healthy Choices Dropout Prevention Pilot Program (Senate Bill 09-123)

Snapshot: The bill creates a structure for operation of after-school programs designed to improve the academic achievement and health of at-risk middle school students.

What is does: Grants for the programs would be available to middle schools with specified at-risk profiles.

When it goes into effect: Once the SBE issues rules.

When it will have an impact: Hard to predict.

How it’s funded: Yes – gifts, grants and donations again.

Takeaway: Yet another example of starting a program with no money.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

Share your thoughts on Boasberg’s exit here:

reading list

These 12 stories help define Tom Boasberg’s tenure leading Denver’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat File Photo
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, center, with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and a DPS student on the opening day of school in 2011.

Tom Boasberg, who today announced his plans to step down as Denver’s schools superintendent, leaves behind nearly a decade of high-profile debates and decisions that reshaped the city’s public school system and made plenty of local and national headlines.

For years, Boasberg’s tenure featured sharp political divides among the city’s school board. His school improvement efforts, notably in the city’s Far Northeast neighborhood, garnered mixed results for students. And his embrace of nontraditional school management, the so-called “portfolio model,” has earned him national praise.

Here’s a chronological look back at a dozen stories that defined his nearly decade of leading Denver Public Schools.

Denver Public Schools “therapy” forges progress

In 2009, at a daylong meeting attended by Denver school board members, Boasberg, and a therapist, the superintendent and the board appeared to forge closer ties after a divisive school board election. The session at the tony Broadmoor Hotel included coaching board members and Boasberg through some difficult conversations about their respective roles – and Boasberg’s job security.

More shared campuses, still controversial

One of the first waves of school reform policies the district embraced was locating multiple schools on one campus. While Boasberg didn’t start the district’s practice of placing charter and district-run schools on shared sites, his administration did continue it — much to the dismay of some schools’ staff and community members.

Boasberg’s school improvement efforts in Far Northeast Denver take off

One of the superintendent’s earliest — and most ambitious — school turnaround strategies was to overhaul schools in the city’s Far Northeast neighborhood. The neighborhood, which serves a majority of black and Latino students, had the highest concentration of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Boasberg: Manual’s shortcomings are my responsibility

No school in Denver has been subject to more improvement efforts — by multiple superintendents — than storied Manual High School. After some minor improvements, the school took a turn for the worse and by 2014 was once again the city’s lowest-performing school. After dismissing the school’s principal, Boasberg took ownership of the school’s downfall.

Denver Public Schools ‘ahead of the curve’ with proposed facilities policy

After years of opening and closing numerous schools, DPS began to formalize the process. One of its first stabs at systematizing its “portfolio model” was a facilities policy. The policy, which applies to both charter and district schools, would tie placement decisions to schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, and other district priorities.

Why Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg landed an unprecedented six-month break

In January of 2016, Boasberg took off for six months with his family for a trip to Latin America. The uncommon stability of Denver Public Schools made his respite possible, observers said.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s vision for giving more power to schools, annotated

Denver Public Schools has long strived to be more decentralized and less top-down. More than a year after the school board granted school leaders more autonomy, Boasberg penned a document detailing how he envisions the district should function under that philosophy. Here we explain and provide context for Boasberg’s memo.

Efforts to better integrate Denver middle schools proving tough, analysis finds

One way Boasberg and Denver Public Schools attempted to fight school segregation was the creation of “enrollment zones.” The idea was that extending boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them would increase integration in a gentrifying city where many neighborhoods are segregated. But there was little evidence of success six years in.

Inside the rocky rollout of Denver Public Schools’ new school closure policy

Another policy Boasberg and the Denver school board created to guide its portfolio strategy was the “School Performance Compact.” Boasberg insisted the school closure policy was not the leading strategy to try to achieve the district’s improvement goals. The policy, he said, took a back seat to initiatives such as better coaching for teachers and improved reading instruction for young students. Instead, Boasberg described the policy as “a little bit of a safety mechanism” to be used when “these strategies don’t work and where over a period of time, kids are showing such low growth that we need to have a more significant intervention.”

Denver Public Schools retooling equity measure, presses forward on scoring schools

Denver’s well-established – and sometimes controversial – school rating system got an update in 2017 when the district added a new “equity measure.” Despite some pushback from school leaders, Boasberg and the district pushed forward with scoring schools based on how well they closed the gap between students who performed well on state tests (usually white and middle-class) and those who didn’t (usually black and Latino from low-income homes.)

Denver schools chief: Removing DACA protections for undocumented immigrants would be ‘catastrophic’

Boasberg took on a new role in the Trump era. The typically reserved superintendent regularly sought to reassure students, parents, and his own employees that he would protect them from any apparent overreach by the new administration. He also regularly spoke out in favor of Congress protecting the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. “Our schools and our community are strengthened by our city’s rich diversity and open arms,” Boasberg said. “The DACA program has helped bring wonderfully talented and critically needed teachers to our classrooms and has provided peace of mind and legal status to thousands of immigrant children and families who make our city and our schools great.”

Large achievement gaps in Denver highlighted by new national test data

Despite years of change, Denver’s achievement gap has barely budged. That fact was reinforced earlier this year after DPS received its scores from the tests known as “the nation’s report card.” At the time Boasberg said the latest scores confirmed the district needed to continue to focus on closing its gaps. He repeated his concern about the gaps when he discussed his exit with Chalkbeat.