feeling blue

New “education quarterback” organization to invest philanthropic dollars in Denver

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Nate Easley high-fives a Denver Scholarship Foundation alum at an event in 2015.

A new education-focused philanthropic collaborative is aiming to launch in Denver this fall, and it’s hired its first leader: Nate Easley, a Denver Public Schools graduate, former school board president and current head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Easley is set to begin as CEO of Blue School Partners in October. The nonprofit organization plans to act as Denver’s “education quarterback,” soliciting local and national foundation dollars to fund initiatives to grow the ranks of talented teachers and principals, increase the number of high-achieving schools, and ramp up demand from families for those schools, leaders said.

“My philosophy has always been to connect the dots,” Easley said.

The establishment of an “education quarterback” is a concept promoted by Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations that push for school autonomy. Education quarterbacks in other cities, such as The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, have recruited teacher training programs like Teach for America to work with their districts, supported the development of autonomous charter and innovation schools, and advocated for school choice.

The Denver-based Gates Family Foundation is a member of Education Cities and was instrumental in starting Blue School Partners. (The foundation provides funding to Chalkbeat).

The name of the organization comes from DPS’s color-coded school rating system. Blue is the highest rating in the system, which heavily weights student test scores, academic growth and progress in closing achievement gaps. Last year, 12 of the district’s 199 schools were blue.

Mary Seawell, who served on the school board with Easley and who is the foundation’s senior vice president for education, said Blue School Partners was born of a desire among local funders to accelerate Denver Public Schools’ progress.

DPS is nationally known as a hotbed of education reform. It has more than 100 charter and innovation schools, and it was recently recognized as the best in the country for school choice. Innovation schools are operated by the district but have autonomy similar to charter schools.

However, the 92,000-student district also has lofty goals, including that 80 percent of students in each of the city’s regions will attend top-performing schools by 2020. Last year, those percentages ranged from a low of 35 percent in the far northeast part of the city to a high of 67 percent in the southeast region, according to DPS data.

“This started with a group of people looking at the data and seeing what the gap was … and what was the likelihood they’d get there without significant support,” said Seawell, who is on Blue School Partners’ founding board of directors.

Funders hit upon the idea that they could accomplish more if their efforts were coordinated and their investments were driven by a community-based organization, she said.

To be part of Blue School Partners, foundations must make a three-year commitment to contribute to the organization’s operating costs and fund one or more of its initiatives, Seawell said. Foundations must also agree not to give money to initiatives that are taking on the same issues in Denver as Blue School Partners, she said.

In addition to the Gates Family Foundation, Blue School Partners was founded by the national Walton Family and Laura and John Arnold foundations, with the input of other local leaders. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat). None of the foundations have made public how much money they will contribute.

Other foundations may join, as well. The national Michael and Susan Dell Foundation told Chalkbeat it is “evaluating the opportunity.” Several local foundations were interested to first know who the CEO would be before committing, Seawell said.

Blue School Partners conducted a nationwide leader search, though Seawell said the board was hoping for someone local. The decision to hire Easley, a DPS parent who has spent nearly a decade as CEO of the Denver Scholarship Foundation providing need-based scholarships to mostly first-generation college students, was unanimous, she said. Easley is a graduate of Denver’s now-closed Montbello High School and was on the school board from 2009 to 2013.

“His commitment and his passion are so real and that’s what’s going to drive him,” Seawell said. “He cares about the highest-needs kids.”

Easley said his first order of business will be to come up with a strategy for achieving Blue School Partners’ goals. While he won’t have specifics until after the launch, he said he imagines it will involve making sure existing schools have well-trained, culturally diverse staff, and ensuring promising new schools have proven leaders and access to buildings.

He emphasized that the organization won’t solely focus on charter schools, a common target for critics of DPS school reforms. However, Easley said he hopes that in talking with families about the need for high-quality schools, he’ll be able to disabuse them of the notion that charters are bad or private. (All of DPS’s charter schools are operated by nonprofits.)

“It’s getting past the noise and having a conversation with people who have the same goal that we have, and that is that their kid have a quality education,” he said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he looks forward to working with Easley on the evolution of Blue School Partners, especially since similar organizations have been successful in supporting innovative ideas in other cities.

“We think Blue Schools has great potential to bring additional resources and to facilitate learning and collaboration across district-run schools and charter schools,” Boasberg said.

split decision

Denver teachers union, members of progressive wing diverge on key school board races

The vote is a ways off, but endorsements are rolling in (Denver Post file).

The Denver teachers union and a caucus within the union are split over who to support in two competitive school board races that could determine the direction of the state’s largest school district.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Union this week announced endorsements for all four races in play this fall on the seven-member board.

The endorsements are significant because a small donor committee of the union is a major contributor to board candidates.

In two races, the DCTA endorsements align with earlier statements of support for candidates from the Caucus of Today’s Teachers, formed last year by a group of progressive, social justice-minded teachers that would like to see the union be more aggressive.

But in the two races that feature multiple challengers to incumbents, the union and its caucus diverge. In the at-large race, DCTA endorsed Robert Speth, a northwest Denver parent who nearly upset board member Happy Haynes two years ago, over one of its own — Julie Bañuelos, a former teacher who recently served on the DCTA board.

The caucus is supporting Bañuelos, citing her teaching experience and advocacy for communities of color. Speth and Bañuelos are trying to unseat Barbara O’Brien, the board vice president and former lieutenant governor, who is running again.

The union endorsed Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who has had a leadership role with the advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, for the northeast Denver seat now held by Rachele Espiritu, who is running for the first time since being appointed to the board in spring 2016.

The caucus is backing a different challenger: Tay Anderson, a 2017 graduate of Manual High School whose campaign has attracted national attention and endorsements from former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and education historian Diane Ravitch, a union ally.

Both DCTA president Henry Roman and caucus members downplayed the differences.

“We live in a democracy,” Roman said Friday. “We are speaking our voice.”

“We don’t look at it as anything that’s negative or divisive,” said Tommie Shimrock, a founding member of the caucus who sought to unseat Roman in union leadership elections this year. “It’s significant in that it’s yet another way for members of DCTA to have our voices heard, through the caucus.”

Of endorsing Speth over Bañuelos, Roman said, “We feel like this is not a vote against anyone. We feel he is a stronger candidate.”

The union and caucus are both supporting longtime educator Carrie Olson over incumbent Mike Johnson for a seat representing east and central Denver, and Denver Public Schools parent Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan over former DPS teacher Angela Cobián for the southwest Denver seat. Cobián has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who is not running for re-election.

The campaign is expected to feature big money, intense debates and attempts to link incumbents to school choice policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

All seven current board members support DPS’s nationally recognized school reforms, which include closing low-performing schools and promoting school choice through a mix of district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools that operate with similar autonomy. None of the current board members support private school vouchers, a centerpiece of DeVos’s agenda.

Candidates in favor of DPS reforms historically have raised large sums from wealthy donors both from Colorado and out of state. Pro-reform candidates also have gotten backing from an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.

Adding another wrinkle, a nonprofit group called Our Denver Our Schools that is opposed to the current direction of the school district is offering its own endorsements — and they don’t match up exactly to either the union endorsements or the caucus’s statements of support.

Our Denver Our Schools is endorsing Speth, Anderson, Olson and Gaytan.

Speth is a founding member of Our Denver Our Schools, which formed last year. Scott Glipin, a co-founder of the group and Speth’s campaign manager two years ago, said Speth is not part of the group’s steering committee, which selected the candidate endorsements. Speth “went through the same process as every other candidate,” Gilpin said.

State of the City

Could a modest summer bus pass program for youth help unlock Denver’s bigger student transportation problems?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock makes his State of the City address. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

City officials are giving away 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver young people ages 14 to 19, hopeful that data gathered as a result will help build a case to expand public transportation access for the city’s public school students.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the initiative Monday during his annual State of the City address, which focused on tackling the fast-growing city’s many challenges.

The $90,000 pilot project will not just give high school students a way to get to summer jobs or get around town, but provide valuable information about how youth use public transit, said Dionne Williams, deputy director of the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs.

Participating youth will receive MyRide cards, a new Regional Transportation District pre-loaded fare card. The cards will be loaded with either $50 or $100, depending on how costly fares are in their part of the city, Williams said. As students use the cards, city officials will be able to track how often they are used and where.

Solid data on student transit use is not available now because there is no specific bus pass for public school students, and no way to track student use. Denver Public Schools estimates it purchases about 2,500 RTD bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools tap their own budgets to buy passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

“We are really trying to better understand what the need is,” Williams said. “We believe a lot of youth rely on public transportation year-round, especially when it comes to school choice, but we don’t have good data to back that up. We want to be able to show how important public transit is for kids for school, for work, and to get around the city.”

Williams acknowledged the information gleaned will not be perfect, since the cards are being given away in the heart of the summer. However, she said the cards never expire, and presumably some young people will hold onto the cards and use them to get to school.

Transportation challenges continue to serve as a barrier to the kind of school choice promoted by Denver Public Schools. The district runs a nationally-recognized bus shuttle system, the Success Express, but it only serves certain parts of the city and has other limitations.

City officials and community groups have been trying to convince RTD — so far unsuccessfully — to change how it handles transit passes DPS and its schools purchase. The proposal would allow the district to purchase much cheaper yearly passes instead of monthly passes, offering a benefit not unlike the Ecopass program available to businesses.

Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which is involved in the effort, said the summer pilot project could be a step toward broader transportation solutions. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

Although the data will be relatively limited, “One of biggest pushback points we get from RTD is they don’t know how, when or where students are using their services,” Samuelson said. “One of the huge benefits is that we will now have some data.”

Williams said officials will not have access to any personally identifiable data, but will get aggregated data broken down by age, ZIP code and bus route. Parents or guardians will be required to sign waivers agreeing to collection of that data, she said.

To be eligible, youth must have a valid MY Denver membership, a program that provides access to city recreation centers and other benefits. There is a limit of two cards per family, and a parent or guardian must be present to register. Youth who get the cards also will be asked to complete a survey about their experience, Williams said.

City officials began giving away the transit cards Monday after Hancock’s speech at the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in northeast Park Hill. Sign-up for cards will be available this week:

  • Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday, Ashland Recreation Center, 2475 W Dunkeld Place.
  • Noon-5 p.m. Thursday, Athmar Recreation Center, 2680 W Mexico Ave.
  • Noon-5  p.m. Friday, Montclair Recreation Center, 729 Ulster Way.