Flurry of activity in DPS board election

There’s been a flurry of activity this week in the Denver Public Schools board election.

Mike Johnson

Longtime school finance lawyer Mike Johnson Wednesday officially launched his campaign to fill the central Denver seat now held by term-limited Jeannie Kaplan.

“I finally decided I could organize my life to make this work and that is was too important not to do it,” Johnson said. “The issues in central Denver are in a lot of ways keeping up what we’re doing right now. I think we’ve had incredible success in schools in central Denver. I think people are excited about sending their kids to the schools.”

However, Johnson said he believes more needs to be done to ensure that all families have the means to attend the schools they choose. To that end, he said he supports expansion of transportation systems similar to the Success Express shuttle system in Far Northeast Denver.

Johnson, who is the legal counsel for the Building Excellent Schools Today program, which has provided $1.1 billion to construct and renovate 170 schools in Colorado,  also said the district could do a better job of educating people about how the choice system works.

Johnson puts himself firmly in the camp with the board majority who support Superintendent Tom Boasberg and a raft of reforms in the district, including a portfolio approach to new schools in which the district opens its arms to new school ideas from anyone who can come up with a solid program that meets district needs.

So far, he said he has been endorsed by longtime education advocate Anna Jo Haynes, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, former DPS board member Les Woodward, environmental lawyer and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s wife Susan Daggett and former U.S. Congressman David Skaggs.

“I think Tom Boasberg is doing a great job. I think the school district is headed in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t think it’s perfect, and there are things I’ll disagree with… from time to time.”

O’Brien also pondering run for DPS board

Also in this camp is former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, now head of Get Smart Schools, who said she is considering running for the at-large seat now held by board President Mary Seawell. Seawell shocked her colleagues when she announced last month that she would not seek re-election due to work and family issues.

barbara o'brien
Barbara O’Brien

O’Brien, a well-known figure in Colorado and former head of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, would no doubt generate huge dollars and high-profile support in her campaign bid.

Get Smart Schools is a 5-year-old Colorado nonprofit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools as well as other autonomous schools serving low-income children in Colorado. To that end, the organization offers a leadership development program to identify and train leaders for such schools and works to help charter schools thrive through advocacy at the policy level.

O’Brien previously told EdNews she is especially interested in focusing on quality school leadership by providing support and training to principals, assistant principals and lead teachers. She has also expressed interest – in her role at Get Smart – in expanding the reach of successful charter school programs in traditional schools as well.

O’Brien said she didn’t think her work for Get  Smart would create a conflict of interest should she serve on the board but she said she would consult with district counsel. DPS board member Nate Easley served as vice president of the Denver Scholarship Foundation while he served on the board.

O’Brien said she wouldn’t announce her decision until after Memorial Day weekend.

“I do know education has been the heart and soul of my career over many years,” she said. “I think DPS is at a point where there are some really interesting decisions it needs to make…the directions it can go for English language learners, and getting reading sores up in elementary schools, and schools on the turnaround clock.”

However, O’Brien said she had professional and personal issues to consider as well. Her running a campaign and serving on the board would have to be a “win win” for Get Smart Schools.

“I also have a nonprofit to run, and I really like having my private life back,” she said. “It’s a matter of taking a deep breath over Memorial Day weekend… and at least having the time to think and do pros and cons.”

Union organizer running for Merida’s seat in SW Denver

Meanwhile, another candidate for DPS board member Andrea Merida’s seat in southwest Denver is union organizer Rosario De Baca.

De Baca is a mother of five and field organizer for Colorado Wins, a union representing 31,000 state employees. She recently helped organize custodians at the Auraria higher education campus who were upset about working conditions there.

De Baca is also a former community organizer with the American Federation of Teachers who worked on Obama’s first campaign.

In October, De Baca expressed concerns about Denver schools on a Facebook page promoting an informational event by opponents of the 3B bond.

“I am pretty upset that upkeep at neighborhood school languishes, kids go to classes without AC, libraries limited and classrooms are intolerably hot. Yet DPS wants to pump huge sums into Loretto Heights (privately owned). I WILL NOT VOTE TO FUND UPGRADES OF A PRIVATE BUILDING. Privateers are making money fist over barrel and cheating students and educators of necessary funds for our neighborhood schools, then attack same for “failing.””

De Baca was scheduled to address the Denver metro branch of the Colorado Latino Forum Tuesday evening. The forum was supposed to endorse candidates in the DPS but opted to postpone those decisions until August or September, according to Denver chapter co-chair Lisa Calderon.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”