minority report

New groups aim to push back against Denver Public Schools, a stronghold of education reform

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver teachers present their demands to the school board.

More than 10 years into some of the most aggressive school reforms in the country, discontent is coalescing in Denver. Two groups — one parent-led and one teacher-led — have emerged to push back against what they say is a myopic school district that doesn’t listen.

What the groups say they want and what the district says it wants is not dissimilar: quality schools for all of Denver Public Schools’ 91,000 students, more than two-thirds of whom are poor and more than three-quarters of whom are children of color.

But the parents and teachers disagree with how the district is trying to get there. For instance, they feel stung by DPS’s tactic of closing low-performing traditional schools, often over community objections. Those schools are sometimes replaced by charter or innovation schools, which are publicly funded but operate more independently.

“It’s sort of an elitist approach: ‘We know better than anybody else knows,’” said Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union.

Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district is open to hearing disparate views but acknowledged the perception it doesn’t always do that. While she said it’s making progress, especially on the emotional topic of replacing struggling schools, there’s more to be done.

“I think it’s important we have groups inside the district and outside the district who help push for change,” Cordova said. “I would be the last person to say we’ve arrived. There’s a lot we can celebrate, but there’s a lot we need to work on.”

The union has started a campaign called The Schools Denver Students Deserve. It’s being led by a cadre of young teachers with a social justice bent. They hope to re-energize the Denver Classroom Teachers Association by replicating successful efforts of other unions across the country — and as close as neighboring Jefferson County — that are partnering with parents to advocate for changes they see as beneficial for both teachers and students.

Unions are increasingly using their bargaining power toward that end: In addition to pay increases, teachers in Seattle negotiated 30 minutes of recess for elementary students into their most recent contract, while teachers in St. Paul, Minn., got the district to agree to hire 30 counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and teachers of English language learners.

“This is not the Teamsters of the ‘60s,” said Tommie Shimrock, a special education teacher at Denver’s Henry World School, which will be phased out and replaced by two new schools. “In 2016, we understand the union needs to be a progressive voice.”

Separately, a group of parents has formed a nonprofit political advocacy group called Our Denver, Our Schools. Their aim is to continue the momentum gathered by a northwest Denver father, Robert Speth, who challenged an incumbent reformer in last November’s school board race. With the union’s backing and a platform that called for strengthening traditional schools and slowing the growth of charters, Speth came surprisingly close to winning.

“It was a crushing defeat on some levels, but a lot of positive came out of it,” said Scott Gilpin, Speth’s campaign manager, a DPS graduate and parent of two students. “We met so many people from across the city, and it really validated our message.”

Speth’s loss was part of a trend that saw candidates who support the district’s direction — backed by deep-pocketed local and national donors who think the same — sweep the election. As a result, the number of board members who don’t has been whittled down from three to one to zero, so that all seven seats are now occupied by pro-reform members.

But unlike in nearby Jefferson and Douglas counties, the Denver reformers are not conservatives. They are not suggesting the district revise the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to ensure it promotes patriotism, like happened in Jeffco, or pushing private school vouchers, like in Dougco. Nor is Denver like Newark or Chicago, where the schools are largely controlled by the government rather than elected school board members.

“There was a clear enemy in Chicago,” said Michelle Rich, a social studies teacher at Denver’s Summit Academy who previously worked in Chicago and is part of the union’s campaign.

“In Denver, that enemy, it’s kind of unclear.”

The flavor of reform in Democratic Denver has been more plodding and pragmatic, and has gained momentum with each biennial school board election. The favorable politics have allowed DPS to undertake a raft of reforms that include linking teacher pay to student test scores, promoting school choice and taking drastic action when schools are floundering.

Since 2008-09, the district has closed or restarted at least 23 district-run schools and 14 charter schools because of poor performance, low enrollment or both, according to a DPS list.

In that same time period, the board approved 36 new district-run schools and 54 new charter schools, not all of which are open yet. Thirty of those district-run schools have innovation status, meaning they’re free from certain rules and can act more like autonomous charters.

Some of the new schools are replacements for shuttered traditional schools. Others are meant to keep pace with Denver’s population growth. Some parents and teachers say it feels threatening to know there are approved charter schools waiting in the wings.

“Teachers feel like the district purposely runs down a school so they’ll have a reason to say, ‘This isn’t working. We’re going to put a high-performing charter in there,’” Shamburg said.

Cordova disputes that notion. “I don’t think it’s fair to say the only thing we do is create more charter schools,” she said. “What is important is that we create high-performing schools.”

The results of Denver’s reforms have been mixed. Enrollment and graduation rates are up. And the district did better on state tests this year than many others with similar numbers of low-income kids, according to an analysis by a local reform advocacy group.

But many DPS schools are racially segregated. The district still has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, the latter of which is one of the widest in the country. And teacher turnover is high: 20 percent of teachers left DPS last year, compared to a state average of 17 percent.

Most frustrating for parents like Jennifer Wolf, however, is the perception that the district doesn’t respond to what the community wants. For her, that’s traditional, comprehensive, district-run schools-down-the-block. But those types of schools are becoming a rarity in her northwest Denver neighborhood, she said, despite she and her neighbors asking for them.

“It felt like my neighbors were constantly getting invited to community input sessions and then whatever they would say wasn’t taken into account,” Wolf said. “It seemed like these community listening sessions were just to placate people, but they weren’t really being heard.”

Wolf is part of Our Denver, Our Schools. After an April kickoff meeting leaders said drew more than 60 people, the group came up with a list of values, including that the district should invest in neighborhood schools and not open more charters until it improves the ones it already has.

Gilpin said the goal right now is to grow the fledgling organization. While Denver has several pro-reform organizations, such as a local arm of the national non-profit Stand for Children, this group stands out for its more defiant stance.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children in Colorado, said the issues DPS is grappling with “are complex issues without clear-cut solutions. It’s going to require all of us coming to the table to find a solution that puts kids first.”

She said that while her organization supports the district’s vision, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for contrasting views. “If there are folks who disagree, there’s an opportunity every two years to elect people to the school board,” Frickey Saito said.

The next school board election isn’t until 2017. Wolf said she hopes Our Denver, Our Schools will “embolden people who are wanting to step up to those leadership positions. And for them to realize there’s a base of parents and educators who support those same ideals.”

The union held its own kickoff in February, followed by an event it billed as a People’s Meeting in mid-May. With school board vice president Barbara O’Brien in the audience, several teachers stood at the front of a high school auditorium and presented their demands:

— Less testing

— Smaller class sizes

— A full-time nurse, full-time social worker and restorative justice program in every school

— A district-wide requirement that schools provide art, music and physical education

— That the next school to open in DPS be a “community school,” a concept that incorporates many of those same elements and is being disseminated by the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of community organizations and labor unions.

The meeting had an us-versus-them tenor, with teachers presenting the crowd of about 75 people with statistics the district says are false, including that DPS spends $3 million per year on testing. (A DPS spokeswoman said the figure is actually about $1 million.)

Parents and teachers shouted questions at O’Brien and interrupted her as she tried to explain that in many ways, she agrees with them. Some of their demands, such as those calling for more electives and less punitive student discipline, are similar to current district goals.

“The categories you hit on are absolutely the right ones,” she told the teachers.

Where the district and its critics often differ, O’Brien said in an interview, is in how to respond to persistently struggling schools.

“I wish we could fix every neighborhood school,” she said, “but the track record is that’s only successful 50 percent of the time. So then what do we owe the students? We think owe them something different that has a track record of success.”

She said she wishes the community could move past the debate that pits charter schools against district-run schools to focus on which schools are getting the best results. And she said the board would prefer programs like restorative justice be encouraged, not mandatory.

O’Brien emphasized the district is willing to work with any and all groups.

“This is a really good place to be in,” she said. “A little conflict doesn’t bother me at all.”

Cordova echoed that sentiment.

“We live in a democracy and in a democracy, not everybody is going to agree,” she said. “We have a school board that is democratically elected to help provide leadership and guidance for our schools, and they absolutely represent the perspectives of the constituents they represent.

“Even so, voices from the minority are important voices to listen to and pay attention to.”

Whatever the size of the conflict, it may not be over anytime soon — at least not if the energetic young teachers behind the union’s campaign have their way. They said they see the efforts of those fighting for change in DPS not as a series of meetings but as a movement.

“DPS likes to tout ideas of choice,” said Shimrock, the special education teacher. “Choice is happening. Students and families are choosing what they want their schools to look like. The district will have to make a decision about whether to answer that.”

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.