Who Is In Charge

Can Colorado afford education reform?

The question of paying for education innovations, put off for another day when the legislators passed the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids in 2008, was back on the table Friday as lawmakers and state education officials wrestled with future K-12 funding.

Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.
Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.

A phalanx of Colorado Department of Education brass met with nearly two-dozen legislators for the annual hearing at which the department is supposed to answer budget questions from the Joint Budget Committee.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed a 6.1 percent cut in state aid to schools in 2010-11, and that unprecedented proposal has sparked a debate about the interpretation of Amendment 23 and has school districts scrambling to weigh increasing class sizes, laying off teachers, freezing salaries, closing schools and more.

But the hearing focused less on budget details and more on issues like the value of the federal Race to the Top program; well-worn arguments on high-stakes testing and education reform, and the unknown future costs of education innovations set in motion by the legislature in 2008.

The CAP4K program passed that year requires formal descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, adoption of new state content standards, selection of a new statewide testing systems, alignment of local high school graduation requirements with the state standards and coordination of college entrance requirements with the new K-12 system. Implementation is scheduled to stretch into 2014.

The measure (Senate Bill 08-212) didn’t include any funding but did require that a professional three-part study of potential costs be conducted. The first part of the report is due next March, but the full cost study won’t be done until October 2011.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder
Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said, “We bypassed that [funding] process in this bill. … We never should have done that.”

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, said, ‘I don’t really see how our state in our current financial condition can afford to complete CAP4K … is there talk of suspending or delaying parts of it?”

Much of the legislative heartburn over CAP4K costs seems to center on the potential cost of a new testing system. (The readiness descriptions have been written, and the State Board of Education adopted the new standards on Thursday. And, CDE staff and a task force are hard at work on new tests, which must be adopted by SBE in a year.)

A Nov. 20 memo to JBC staff from CDE Deputy Commissioner Ken Turner (who’s since left the department for an education job overseas) said, “On the low side the estimate may be $50 million. One the high side it could run to $80 million” to launch a new testing system and train teachers how to use it.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs

And Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, zeroed in on current testing costs, asking “If we were to get a waiver and suspend CSAPs for a year, what would it save us?”

Solano, House Ed vice chair and the legislature’s leading CSAP critic, concurred, asking, “Is that possible?”

Rich Wenning, CDE associate commissioner, said the state spends about $19 million a year on CSAPs, with $5.6 million of that covered by the federal government. Obtaining a waiver would probably take as much time as it will to get a new test in place, he said.

SBE member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, responded, “I would think that if we were going to pursue a waiver around testing we would be sending a very mixed message … and it would affect our Race to the Top application. … You can’t have accountability without some sort of annual test. … We’d have to look at how badly do we want Race to the Top. I’m not sure it [requesting a waiver] is a risk we want to take.”

Member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, noted that the new testing system is envisioned to include more than the once-a-year snapshot provided by the CSAPs.

Pommer was not persuaded, commenting, “I find it difficult to believe another test will help teachers teach better.” (Pommer also was dismissive of R2T, saying, “It’s almost entirely political and ideological … it’s just a bribe.”)

Speaking with EdNews after the meeting, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, downplayed talk about delaying CAP4K implementation. Romer was one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

“I believe we need to move further, faster, quicker on CAP4K, and we should not use the budget challenges to slow that transition down.”

“I did not hear any voices from CDE or the state board” saying we should slow the process down. “I heard the same familiar voices [of legislators] who don’t believe in standards-based education.”

Romer continued, “I understand they are frustrated by the cost of assessments,” but he predicted the actual costs “will be fraction of” the $80 million figure, and “We clearly are going to get money from the feds to pay for a large portion of those new assessments.”

“I’m sure that the governor won’t support [delaying CAP4K] nor will I nor a majority of the Senate.”

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.

Back to budget woes

There was a little time during the three-hour meeting to discuss the immediate budget crisis.

“School districts have never experienced a reduction on the level proposed,” Jones said, a comment seconded by Vody Herrmann, CDE’s school finance expert.

Herrmann also noted that in the current, 2009-10 budget school districts likely will have to absorb more than a long-expected $110 million, or 2 percent cent. She was referring to the potential cost of higher-than-projected pupil counts and a dramatic rise in the number of at-risk students.

Pommer said, “I think we’ve made it pretty clear that the $110 million is gone.” While it’s “hard for us to know” if cuts will be higher, Pommer added, “I think it’s safe to say we won’t be adjusting for the number of students or for at risk.”

As background, Herrmann noted that about 95,000 additional students have entered schools around the state since the start of the decade, and that the number of at-risk students has grown by 104,000. “Every child that’s come into our school system in the last 10 years basically could be considered poverty level … it just raises more challenges for school districts.”

Last word

Pommer gave Jones the final chance to speak, after various legislator questions and comments on property taxes, what makes a good teacher and childhood obesity had been exhausted.

The commissioner, who’d opened the meeting by saying “traditional road maps haven’t gotten us where we want to go” and that the education system “requires immediate and urgent transformation,” closed by saying, “We can’t go backwards.”

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.