Updated – Much has been made of the discord on the Denver school board: the 4-3 votes on key issues; the diametrically opposed viewpoints on the performance of Superintendent Tom Boasberg; the lengthy and sometimes tension-filled meetings.
“Dysfunctional” is a word commonly used to describe this board.
And while members of the board minority – Arturo Jimenez, Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan – tend to be known for their oppositional stances — blocking reform initiatives, lambasting charter schools or digging in their heels when they don’t agree with something — they do have a vision of their own. And it’s a vision shared by some school board candidates.
Of the three board minority members, only Merida is up for re-election and she has decided to run. Term limits mean that Kaplan will be leaving her seat.
But there are a total of four open seats on the board up for grabs in November. That means the make-up of the board could shift away from the current slim majority’s focus on the current brand of school reform in DPS, which emphasizes an openness to new school models and charters and a heavy reliance upon data to make decisions and ensure accountability. Observers say the stakes are high, and national school reform organizations are already lining up to back like-minded candidates as they emerge.
So what could happen if the board minority became the majority?
Renewed emphasis on traditional schools vs. new schools
All three minority board members said they want the district to put more time and energy into existing district-run schools with neighborhood boundaries – and less emphasis on recruiting outside school operators.
“The district has done very little to address issues of where most of our children are attending school,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said she would like to see a moratorium on new schools in Denver for three to five years to “stop the proliferation of new schools… so we could actually evaluate the new schools we have and see which ones are working.”
There’s also the question of charter schools. Kaplan said she believes the influx of the publicly-funded, privately-managed schools – there are now about 39 in the district – is sucking resources away from traditional district schools, a concern shared by some of her colleagues.
But Merida, who used to describe herself as an “anti-charter activist” in her early years on the board, said she wouldn’t support a wholesale abandonment of charter schools.
“We can’t be in the business of saying, ‘No, we can’t have charters,’” Merida said. “What I need to do (as a board member) is ask, ‘Are charters…dealing with a particular need that our kids actually have?’ I would never interfere with parent’s ability to go to a charter.”
Likewise, Jimenez said that since the district can’t ban charter schools because they are allowed under state law, DPS should simply quit offering them space in district buildings.
“That’s why we’re receiving charter applications from every corner of the country,” he said.
Still, Jimenez said he’s not completely “anti-charter.”
“I support charter schools that were created to fill a void and serve the students we could not serve,” he said, citing ACE Community Challenge, P.S.1 (which is now defunct) and Colorado High School Charter.
Merida said she could see supporting what she called a “rolling moratorium” on charter schools to make sure each neighborhood’s needs are being met.
“What I need in southwest Denver, I need more elementary schools, and I would want those to be new traditional schools,” she said.
As it stands now, Jimenez said he sees a patchwork of schools in Denver but no cohesive vision.
“We’re not desperate. We shouldn’t be acting like we’re desperate.”
And what might that cohesive vision be? Merida said she would like to see the district “return to a primary focus on the quality of neighborhood schools,” a theme echoed in numerous interviews for this story.
“We need to respect and honor essential roles schools have in a community,” Merida said.
Even board majority member Anne Rowe, who represents southeast Denver, said she finds herself somewhat frustrated by how much time the district spends looking at new schools versus current ones.
Changing the role of district reform office
Van Schoales, head of the DPS advocacy group A+ Denver and longtime school district observer, said he believes that if the board minority had the power, one of the first things it would do would be to shut down “much of what OSRI and news schools is doing.”
OSRI refers to the Office of School Reform and Innovation, which cultivates, authorizes, launches and oversees high-quality autonomous schools, such as innovation or charter schools.
“I think their philosophy is generally that we should fix existing schools, that we shouldn’t support the development of new schools or close schools,” Schoales said, noting that the district would likely move away from its portfolio management approach to schools under a new regime.
Schoales described what would result as more of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to schooling.
Schoales is right there would likely be changes – if not the outright elimination — of OSRI, but members of the board minority have more nuanced views on types of schools. Merida has publicly pushed for more traditional neighborhood schools. But Kaplan and Jimenez often talk about a desire to see more specialized schools, those focusing on dual language programs or the arts, but created by the district instead of outside operators.
Merida also said she would like more staff at OSRI who truly understand the needs of the district’s growing number of English language learners, who now make up about 40 percent of district students.
“I’d like to see a lot more involvement by our ELA department in looking over those (new school) plans,” Merida said. “I would like to see ELA have veto power over the plans…”
Jimenez said he would like to change the focus of OSRI to “a department that supports schools in need with research-based strategies for student achievement, rather than experimentation.”
Specifically, he said he’d like to see OSRI emphasize “supporting teachers rather than trying to get rid of teachers.”
“We could try to use that office to incubate and scale up schools that have worked, either charters or district-run schools, and implement them in our current schools,” Jimenez said. “I just don’t see us doing that. It’s more like a business incubator.”
Another self-described neighborhood schools advocate, Michael Kiley, who is running for the at-large seat now held by board President Mary Seawell, said the district should focus more on developing and creating its own schools – rather than asking outsiders to come in and do it via the Call for New Quality Schools process. He said he would like to see a strong feeder pattern in every district neighborhood.
“For all practical purposes, the district does not open traditional schools,” Kiley said. “They wait for someone to turn in a 60-page application…It seems to me DPS should be fully equipped to open and operate schools.”
Roger Kilgore, co-chair of the District School Improvement Accountability Council (SIAC) who is running against Landri Taylor in far northeast Denver, said his bigger problem is with the district administrators who are supposed to be overseeing the district schools.
“They are neglecting schools until things get so bad then they come in and say it’s time to turn around and take the school by surprise,” Kilgore said, adding that the school community is rarely given a chance to rectify problems.
Less weight given to test results
Another common theme that emerges from the folks in the board minority camp is the intense focus on testing and data crunching in DPS.
Merida said she believes in the need for “some sort of diagnostic.” She said she knows the district is required by state law to administer the TCAP, but she said she also supports parents who opt out of the tests.
“Teachers want to know how kids are progressing,” Merida said. “Parents want to know how kids are progressing.”
Yet there is an “excessive amount of testing in DPS schools,” said Merida. And she said she opposes the high stakes attached to the tests, such as their weight in the School Performance Framework (SPF), which is used to — among other things — determine whether schools are closed or face turnaround.
“We’re assuming these tests are good,” Merida said, citing the much-maligned “talking pineapple” story on standardized tests a year ago. “This assumes the integrity of tests is there. We don’t know that.”
Merida said multiple measures should be used to gauge a school or student’s performance.
“We should de-escalate the importance of the main standardized test and we should put it on equal weight with other diagnostic tests, including English proficiency exams,” she said.
Tweaking – or scrapping – the School Performance Framework
Schoales guesses that Denver’s version of the SPF “would disappear” and that the board would end up relying on the more general state version of the SPF if the board minority had the power. He said he could see a day where school choice guides once again only included pretty pictures and descriptions of schools – and no hard data.
In some respects, he may be right. Kaplan said that if it were up to her, she said she would scrap the SPF and start over. Having said that, even members of the board majority have described the SPF as a work in progress and acknowledged it’s an imperfect measure of school performance.
“I think growth is important, but I don’t think growth…should be the ultimate goal,” Kaplan said, noting that she would like to keep the spotlight on proficiency.
The SPF in Denver shows how students are doing on standardized tests compared to similar cohorts and whether they’re improving in terms of academic performance. The point of emphasizing growth is to recognize that students coming in with deficiencies, such as poverty, will not be unfairly compared to peers who come from more privileged backgrounds.
“I think this model is masking some of the reality,” Kaplan said.
Jimenez said he doesn’t believe the SPF is being used correctly.
“It’s used very punitively,” Jimenez said. “It was supposed to be more of a benchmark evaluation for a school, for a district, to determine who needed support, who’s doing well, what to replicate.”
He said the formula used now represents a “good start” but that it needs a lot more work.
“The parent engagement pieces are still not very clear,” Jimenez said. “It doesn’t account for ELLs before third grade. There are too many needs and too many shortcoming to utilize it the way we use it now.”
He also said the SPF should measure student attrition. Kiley also said he believes the SPF needs to be revisited.
Greater focus on teacher training
Members of the board minority are often described as being in the pocket of the teachers union, Jimenez said. But, in fact, he said he and his colleagues simply want more support for veteran teachers in the district and for the district to have a bigger role in cultivating new crops of locally grown and diverse teachers.
“If we do believe a highly qualified teacher is the most important part of a kid’s day, we need to re-examine college education courses,” Kaplan said. “It’s easier to teach a new dog new tricks rather than an old dog new tricks.”
For Jimenez, the district needs to do even more to get teachers trained to teach students learning English.
“We need legislation around teacher certification for English language learners,” Jimenez said. “As a board and an administration we haven’t been diligent enough to push a legislative agenda. Universities and colleges can’t do it on their own.”
Jimenez also said he does not believe the district provides adequate resources to teachers to do their jobs. He said class sizes are too big, that teachers don’t have enough planning time and they are not paid enough.
He views the rollout of LEAP, Denver’s teacher evaluation program that was created in part to meet the requirements of Senate Bill 10-191, the so-called teacher effectiveness law, as more of stick vs. a carrot approach. Meanwhile, he described Denver’s ProComp merit-pay system as a “worthy experiment” but one that did not achieve desired results.
“We are putting the onus of all accountability on the teachers in public schools, but not providing the supports and incentives we need to,” Jimenez said. “People confuse that with being pro-union or voting with the union.”
“I see us as working to destroy the career of teaching and learning.”
Jimenez said he also believes that DPS should do more to entice its top school leaders to stay in their jobs rather than move into higher-level posts. He cited several school leaders, such as Kristin Waters at Bruce Randolph, Antwan Wilson at Montbello, and Antonio Esquibel at Lincoln as examples. Waters spent some time in district administration before becoming principal of South High School; Esquibel is now the executive director of West Denver Focus Schools; and Wilson is an assistant superintendent.
Getting rid of business model
Members or backers of the vocal group of three also tend to be critical of what they view as a business-like approach to public education in Denver.
The “corporate reformers,” as Merida is fond of calling a host of ed reform groups and like-minded school leaders, push for standardization, merit-based pay for teachers, performance measurements and accountability.
“Those are really good concepts for the business environment, for the free market environment,” she said.
But Merida said she doesn’t believe these approaches work in schools.
“Kids are not uniform-size commodities … and they have different challenges and different gifts,” Merida said. “I hold a more artisanal kind of approach — work in small batches, with highly qualified technicians.”
To use business terminology, Merida said she supports a “total quality management” approach in which a company’s leaders are in regular in contact with “the guy on the assembly line,” which is where “a lot of solutions can be found.”
Kiley compares the creation of two DPS schools near each other – if not sharing the same campus – to two gas stations across the street from one another.
“If there are two gas stations across the street and one closes, that’s the free market,” Kiley said. “If you have two schools across the street, one succeeds and one fails. Then you’ve taken two or three years’ worth of kids down with that.”
Kilgore concurs with the over-arching idea of winners and losers.
New era of cooperation on DPS board?
There’s no question that members of the board minority would head in a different direction should they gain power in November, and the current dynamic on the board could also change.
Merida, who represents southwest Denver, cited class as another issue that may cause certain board members to take different positions on things like traditional neighborhood schools. She and Jimenez come from solid blue-collar roots, she said. Kaplan’s parents were teachers; and she is also sympathetic to those from a low-income background, Merida said. Merida described members of the board majority — and the superintendent — as “people for whom the free market system has really worked well.”
“I’m a blue collar girl, and subject to vagaries of the free market,” Merida said. “The trickle down in my world doesn’t work.”
At the same time, Merida recently said the notion of a “4-3 board” is an “outmoded construct.” She cited recent collaboration on revising the modified consent decree, which dictates how the district will handle education for English language learners, and board support for the refinancing of $537 million in bonds.
Rowe agreed that the way the board came together to address needed changes to the modified consent decree should be a model for the board going forward.
“Everyone participated in the work,” Rowe said. “We had productive conversations… There wasn’t this, ‘I’m starting here; and you’re starting here.’”
So, could the 4-3 era on the Denver school board be over?
Seawell, board president, said she too hopes the collaborative tone on the board can continue – but she’s realistic about the role an upcoming election could play.
“If we can keep coming back to our strongest area of agreement – that the district needs to be serving all students and succeeding with low-income kids – we’re fine. We’re in 100 percent agreement on that.”
Jimenez said one vote will be the test — the superintendent’s annual evaluation. Last year, the board minority produced its own detailed report that was far less flattering than the one put forth by the board majority.
“I hope things are shifting on the board,” Jimenez said. “But issues around the Call for Quality Schools, the elite charter schools, Tom Boasberg, colocation… I don’t see a shift on any of those areas.”
“The real proof in the pudding will be when it’s time to evaluate the superintendent.”