Just how Denver Public Schools should serve schools and students in northwest Denver has been a flashpoint for public debate this year. The district recently created a new enrollment zone that changes students’ assignments for middle schools and approved a series of temporary school placements — but only after a debate that raised questions about everything from the role of charter schools, diversity in schools, and the district’s community engagement processes.
The region’s current school board representative, Arturo Jimenez, has also been the only board member to regularly vote against DPS administration proposals. Now, Jimenez’s seat is up for grabs.
Lisa Flores, a former senior program officer at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation and former policy analyst for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, and Michael Kiley, a parent activist and project manager at workforce management software company Kronos have both declared that they are running for the seat. Flores was recently endorsed by the other six members of Denver’s board.
Both candidates say they are focused on creating quality schools, but they differ on the details.
In the third in a series of interviews with the candidates for Denver board, Chalkbeat spoke with Flores about special education, about why she thinks northwest Denver needs to move on from the district-charter debate, and on how she’ll advocate for District 5 schools that are less-often in the public eye. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat shared interviews with District 1 candidates Anne Rowe and Kristi Butkovich and with district 5 candidate Kiley.
Flores says that students with special education need more attention from Denver Public Schools.
Chalkbeat: Are there any issues where you’d push against current district policies?
Flores: The issue I have been learning so much about since I’ve been campaigning is the concerns of parents with children with special needs. Our district has not served these children well. It is incredibly difficult for these families to navigate the education system, and in the year 2015 it shouldn’t be that hard.
Whether the issue is working with special needs issues or other issues facing the district, my leadership style is one that calls on people to be collaborative, creative, and resourceful. I believe in bringing key stakeholders to think through solutions for our children.
Chalkbeat: How do you respond to people who say that you would likely side with the current majority on the board in DPS on many issues, creating a uncritical board?
Flores: What I would say is that the current representative, Arturo Jimenez, did not have a reputation for working well with the other six board members and as a consequence was very isolated in how he chose to represent this community. I think you can get much further on advocating for the community when you have the support and willing collaboration of the other six board members.
Flores says that northwest Denver has been polarized about the role of charter schools for too long, and that the public conversation has focused on a small subset of District 5’s schools.
Chalkbeat: Why did you decide to run for school board?
Flores: I am a DPS grad. I am helping to raise my nephew who will be a third grader at Brown elementary and I am a big part of my cousin’s life who has six children, so I feel deeply invested in DPS and the quality of education it’s able to provide students.
I also have an additional motivation. I have sometimes, as a constituent, felt left out of the conversation. I’ve felt that when you’re representing a community, you have to be open to representing a variety of perspectives and the community as whole.
For a lot of years, the conversation’s centered on the Skinner-North feeder pattern. But they’re two of over 50 schools in District 5. And it feels like it’s time for the full spectrum of the district to be represented. I’m conscious of saying North and West Denver, which includes a broader spectrum of neighborhoods. That’s who I want to represent.
I also feel like our community has been so divided, so polarized. It’s like we’ve been stuck in this debate of traditional district schools versus charter schools, and I think it’s gotten in the way of us being more resourceful in how we serve students in Denver.
Enough of this camp or that camp, enough of being for or against this type of school…let’s get back to really thinking about focussing on what’s best for kids. Regardless of governance model, we need more high-quality schools.
Chalkbeat: Your previous employer was the Gates Family Foundation, which also supports some education initiatives in Denver. Do you feel there’s a conflict of interest?
Flores: Well, for one, I left my job at the end of June, so there is no conflict of interest. What I’d say instead is that through that job, I gained intimate knowledge with a variety of nonprofits that support DPS students and I’ve had the opportunity to travel the state and to see first-hand different schools and districts. It’s been a big eye-opener.
Flores says that she is concerned about school leadership preparation and support, special education, and failing schools in District 5.
Chalkbeat: What do you see as the biggest issues facing DPS? What do you see as the biggest issues facing District 5?
Flores: The first is quality school leadership. We need to do a better job of recruiting, training and supporting and then retaining quality school leaders. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a community advisory group for hiring a principal at West. After two full days of interviews, I saw some candidates that I felt would be good for an assistant principal position, but they weren’t ready yet. My instinct was, let’s work with them, help them grow into a principal leadership role.
I had a chance to talk to some new school leaders who were smart, sharp individuals, passionate about the schools they serve, and in need of additional support. This year I’m looking at North and West [high schools], and they’re both getting brand-new principals this year. You see too much turnover in quality school leaders. We need to do a better job of supporting and retaining them in their jobs.
Chalkbeat: What else?
Flores: We have too many schools in District 5 that are failing our children. Whether it’s at a traditional district school or a charter school, we need to have a higher level of accountability and a better plan for intervening and supporting our student.
Schools are rated and given colors that parallel fire danger warnings, and it’s just the same — you want green and blue, you don’t want to be yellow, orange, or red. District 5 is aflame, and we need to do a better job of having a plan of triage.
The other thing is the challenges of kids with special needs. It just seems that in the year 2015, it should not be as hard as it is to navigate that system for more families and their students.
Some people feel like, well, that’s not my kid. But they’re integrated into the same classrooms, and when special needs students are receiving proper support, both the children with special needs and the other kids in the class benefit and win.
Chalkbeat: This year, plans for school placement and boundary lines in northwest were very contentious. Do you have any thoughts on how that went?
Flores: I have a lot of experience leading collaborative efforts and bringing people together to work on challenging issues to really find solutions and a path forward.
Skinner Middle School has made tremendous progress over the last seven years, and yet there is still much work to be done. There are large achievement gaps at Skinner, and too many parents are still opting out because they’re not finding the quality of education that’s right for their families.
Chalkbeat: What other issues are on your radar?
Flores: As far as DPS-wide issues, one thing my opponent’s bringing up is the women and minority-owned Business policy. What I’d say is, that’s a policy that’s set by the school board. I served on the board of the Denver Housing Authority, and that was an issue that board moved aggressively on. We reviewed on a monthly basis and set into place some pathways to support smaller businesses. So I have experience in addressing that in a large quasi-governmental entity.
But the larger piece is about doing the right thing and working so that we’re no longer divided and doing a better job of collaborating.