Decision time nears in quiet DPS races

Ballots will be mailed to voters in little more than a week but those watching Denver’s school board races say they lack expected intensity, with decision time drawing near.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Candidate signs lined the path to Saturday's forum at Denver Community Church.

“If I used thermal imaging, it wouldn’t register at all. There’s like, no heat,” said Norman Provizer, professor of political science at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

All nine candidates vying for three board seats came together Saturday for the second of three forums organized through the League of Women Voters and Inter Neighborhood Cooperation. As has been largely the case at candidate forums to date, an air of civility prevailed.

Monday marks the last day to register to vote and then there’s just under a month before ballots are due Nov. 1. But so far, the board races are not going the way some political observers and many in the DPS community anticipated.

“In years past, we’ve seen candidates get pretty vocal and confrontational, and I haven’t seen that same level,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation. “It’s just been quiet.

“I couldn’t even name all the candidates in the at-large race,” Lewis confessed. “There are five, aren’t there?”

There are, in fact, five – John Daniel, Frank Deserino, Happy Haynes, Roger Kilgore and Jacqui Shumway want the citywide seat now held by Theresa Peña, who is term-limited.

A month is an eternity in political campaigns so there’s plenty of time for drama to develop. But those studying the races believe several factors have muted the fireworks:

  • The at-large race features, in Haynes, a well-known Denver public figure against four lesser-known challengers whose victory would be seen as a significant upset.
  • The reputation of the current board is divisive enough that none of the candidates see any advantage in matching that acrimony on the campaign trail.
  • A slumping economy is possibly putting a damper on the money that donors are willing to pour into the races. The first campaign finance reports, due Oct. 11, may confirm or refute this.
  • Perhaps most significantly, there are no other major political contests on the ballot – U.S. president, for example – and there’s only one statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 103.

Nevertheless, “I’m surprised” at the low-key tenor of the campaigns so far “given the high stakes that are in involved here,” said Paul Teske, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

“It seems to me that the reformers, the non-union establishment of foundations and non-profits, seems pretty well organized around Happy and Anne Rowe and Jennifer (Draper Carson),” Teske said, “and maybe they’ve decided it’s best to be relatively non-controversial; just push the candidates, and use what might be a spending advantage, and hope for the best.”

Pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli sees something similar – on the other side of the political divide.

“I think that is partially a strategy by the insurgent folks … who don’t have the board majority,” said Ciruli. “I think they see that all the controversy was ill-serving them, and so they are trying to tamp it down.”

At-large contest: ‘It’s Happy’s race to lose’

From the day Haynes announced she was resigning from her job with DPS as a chief community engagement officer in May to make a bid for the at-large seat, she has been perceived as the front-runner.

At-large candidate Happy Haynes, in suit at right, after Saturday's forum.

“In a way, it’s Happy’s race to lose, because she has the name recognition, because of her time on city council and DPS,” Lewis said of the former Denver City Council president. “It’s not going to be an extremely close race.”

Little has changed since May to change the perception of Haynes’ strength. Mayor Michael Hancock endorsed her. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, never likely to endorse the former DPS administrator, chose not to endorse any of her opponents. Through a random drawing, it was decided that Haynes’ name would be listed first on the ballot.

“That would be a real shocker, if she lost,” said Teske.

“Her election is virtually assured,” Ciruli said, “and starting a fight there would not have been ultimately victorious. It wouldn’t have succeeded. She is the prohibitive favorite.”

No single issue has dominated the at-large forums, but there is daylight between the citywide candidates on a variety of subjects. Kilgore has spoken frequently during the campaign about what he sees as an over-reliance within DPS on standardized testing.

“We have to remember that what we learned in education didn’t begin in 2005 with the Denver Plan,” Kilgore said at one recent forum. “We have to reinvigorate the feedback mechanism, with teachers and principals, to help us realize it’s not just test scores that tell us how we’re doing.”

Haynes countered by saying, “On standardized tests, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. They can be very useful in setting a high standard, ensuring that there is equity amongst all our high schools, and that a diploma from our high schools means something.”

Other at-large candidates frustrated by lack of attention

Prior the start of Saturday’s forum, Kilgore expressed frustration at what he sees as the candidates’ unequal treatment by the media, giving inadequate attention to new faces. And he remains dismayed that Hancock made his citywide endorsement without interviewing each of the candidates.

At-large candidates Roger Kilgore, Jacqui Shumway and John Daniel share a lighter moment at Saturday's forum.

“There’s a strong tendency in this election for many of our political figures to align with their acquaintances and friends, without really evaluating what the options are, based on presumed outcomes of what’s good for our schools and our kids,” said Kilgore.

Meanwhile, Shumway hammers away on a platform promoting greater attention to art, music and physical fitness – her campaign business card asks “What if the Hokey Pokey IS what it’s all about?” She used her wrap-up opportunity at Saturday’s forum to sing a verse of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.”

Deserino, a South High School civics and history teacher who ran unsuccessfully in southeast Denver in 2007, stresses that only he can bring a seasoned perspective from the classroom level on what’s needed to push school and student progress.

And he laments that he believes too many have been told by DPS to “shut up.”

“Those people, the parents, the teachers, the students and the community at large, have not been heard and they need to be. I believe in accountability and transparency, like many of my colleagues. But these things cannot just be spoken about. They need to become reality,” he said Saturday.

Daniel, a Baker neighborhood resident running for political office for the first time, sounds a populist theme. He and Deserino are the two at-large candidates who said they would not support a potential Denver property tax increase to improve school funding.

“I really feel that we need to examine other alternatives, and that includes making cuts at 900 Grant Street,” Daniel said, referring to the DPS administrative offices. “We really need to look at alternatives and budget cuts before we raise taxes.”

In northwest Denver, reform and common ground

One of the most used words in the discussion of DPS schools is “reform.” Board members and their votes are often analyzed in terms of whether they further or frustrate the initiatives favored by Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor, now-U.S. Senator Michael Bennet.

Jennifer Draper Carson, left, wants to unseat incumbent Arturo Jimenez, right, to represent northwest Denver on the DPS board.

Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver and is the only incumbent on the ballot, is often aligned with two other frequent Boasberg opponents on the dissenting side of 4-3 board votes.

But, on the campaign trail, he has occasionally flashed some reform stripes.

Jimenez said he applauds “those reforms where the superintendent and the school board and the administration have worked collaboratively with the community to ensure that parents, that students, community members and business leaders have a voice.

“I was one of the folks who worked very hard on West High School to transform that school into what will open next fall as the most innovative and the most collaborative school in the district…I would say that that is a very successful reform.”

West High School is being phased out. In 2012-13, two new high schools, West College Board and West Generations, will open in its building.

Jimenez and his opponent, Jennifer Draper Carson, have shown some common ground in their philosophies.

In Saturday’s forum appearance, both said they don’t support school vouchers, they do support more old Denver schools receiving a historic designation, and they believe Colorado should opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

And, when asked if they would support a possible city property tax increase for school funding, Jimenez said, “Yes, if we’re very clear about how that money will be put into the classrooms, and how we will spend it.” Draper Carson followed with “Yes, and verbatim what Arturo said.”

There was also little daylight between the two in how they graded Boasberg’s performance; Draper Carson said B-minus, Jimenez said C-plus.

Draper Carson, up against an incumbent, has been emphasizing at every turn the roots she has put down and cultivated in the northwest, highlighting seven years as a district employee or volunteer who worked to foster parent and community engagement at North High School.

“I am very troubled that we’ve got the highest choice-out rates of any sub-district in DPS and that tells me, as a mother, as a community member, as a taxpayer, that we need stronger choices of schools,” said Draper Carson. “We need to strengthen our existing schools, and we need to look a bringing in different schools that may appeal to more of our students.”

Southeast Denver candidates differ in pace of call for change

The race for the southeast Denver seat held by Bruce Hoyt, who is term-limited, features Emily Sirota, who has lived in Denver about four years, against Anne Rowe, who traces her involvement with district schools and community boards back 25 years.

What’s next
  • Monday – Last day to register to vote
  • Oct. 12 – Ballots go out in the mail
  • Oct. 24 – Eight drop-off locations for ballots are open
  • Nov. 1 – Ballots must be returned by 7 p.m.

Learn more

But Sirota, the only board candidate to boast a gubernatorial endorsement – that of her former boss, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer – doesn’t let her shorter time in the area limit her call for change.

Sirota cites the district’s 51.8 percent four-year graduation rate in virtually every appearance.

That, and a high college remediation rate for DPS graduates, are “signs that we are not on the right path, that we have a lot of work to do,” Sirota said. “It’s time we have a school board that will tell the truth about where are, and be honest about our school system.”

Rowe does not see the district in as desperate straits as her opponent.

“The work that has been done over the last five years is showing progress,” she said.

“It’s showing in enrollment, it’s showing in increased achievement … this is not a time to break things apart, to tear things down. This is a time to build. This is a time to stay focused on what’s working.”

Campaign funding reports due next week will provide the first solid information on who is contributing how much and who they’re giving it to.

The 2009 campaign saw one individual, Thomas Gamel, pour in $237,558 to three reform candidates, while five labor unions combined to pitch $103,450 to three candidates backed by the DCTA.

If similar interests dish out the same level of cash in the closing weeks, the relative quiet of the current campaigns could change.

“With the stakes this high, at least the committed interest groups, both establishment and labor, are going to be there,” Ciruli predicted.

However the money plays out, he believes both sides of the philosophical divide in the DPS community may be reluctant to resort to a more confrontational style.

“The anti-reform, or pro-labor forces, I think they overwhelmingly recognize that it was just very polarizing. It upsets a lot of people,” said Ciruli.

“I think the establishment side has similarly said ‘We should be offering calm, we should be offering a continuation, and improvement, and it serves our purpose not to let those folks get too visible’.”

Denver school board candidates and links to their websites

  • John Daniel, 54, is a computer systems administrator and resident of the Baker neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Frank Deserino, 49, is a social studies teacher at South High School. Campaign website.
  • Happy Haynes, 58, is director of civic and community engagement for CRL Associates, Inc. and a resident of the Park Hill neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Roger Kilgore, 54, is a water resources engineer and consultant, and a resident of Park Hill. Campaign website.
  • Jacqui Shumway, 52, is a health educator and resident of Park Hill. Campaign website.
    District 1, Southeast Denver:
  • Anne Rowe, 51, a small business owner who lives in the Cherry Hills Heights neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Emily Sirota, 32, is a social worker who lives in Virginia Village. Campaign website.
    District 5, Northwest Denver:
  • Jennifer Draper Carson, 42, is an education activist and full-time mom, living in the West Highlands neighborhood. Campaign website.
  • Arturo Jimenez, 39, is an immigration attorney who lives in the Highlands neighborhood. He was first elected to the northwest Denver seat in 2007. Campaign website.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.