big boundaries

Three new elementary enrollment zones coming next year to northeast Denver

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Marcus Landry, 5, in the lunch line at SOAR at Green Valley Ranch charter school.

Elementary school students living in northeast Denver will be part of enrollment zones next year, which means they will no longer be guaranteed a seat at the school closest to them but will be asked to choose from several nearby schools.

To alleviate an array of school boundary concerns, the Denver school board voted 6-to-1 Thursday to create three new enrollment zones: two in the growing far northeast Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods, and one in the gentrifying near northeast neighborhoods of Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West.

The vote brings to 14 the number of enrollment zones in Denver Public Schools. The zones are big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily their first choice or the school closest to where they live.

However, after learning lessons from previous zones, the district will give students in the new zones “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

The new elementary zones include a mix of district-run schools and charter schools.

The two zones in far northeast Denver will be divided by Tower Road, a major thoroughfare in the area. The zone west of Tower Road includes Archuleta Elementary, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone east of Tower Road includes Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

This map shows the zones and which students will get enhanced priority where:

Map provided by Denver Public Schools.

The north-central zone includes four schools: Whittier ECE-8 School, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

This map shows the same for that zone:

Map provided by Denver Public Schools.

Two other schools that are physically located in the boundary won’t be part of the zone: Polaris Elementary, which is a magnet school for highly gifted students, and Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a charter located in the same building as the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, district officials said it would be impossible for school buses to service the charter school, which would be necessary if it were included in a zone. But the board instructed the district to “continue to evaluate the ability to add Downtown Denver Expeditionary School into the zone in the future.”

Board member Carrie Olson was the only one to vote against creating the zones. She said her vote was influenced by concerns she heard from families and community members, who she noted often feel the district isn’t listening to them.

Some parents who addressed the board Thursday expressed opposition to the zones. Amy Carrington said she was “dumbfounded” by the idea.

“I cringe at what amazing resources DPS could be providing every school, and especially struggling schools, with the amount of money, time and effort put into the choice system,” Carrington said.

The zones will have the most impact on incoming kindergartners and new students. Current students won’t have to reapply to continue attending their schools.

The district has used enrollment zones to compel families to participate in school choice, and to encourage integration, which has had mixed results. A community committee tasked with recommending ways to increase integration recently suggested setting up even more zones.

“I do think enrollment zones are showing great promise and doing some of the things we want to do for our kids with regard to access, equity and integration,” board president Anne Rowe said Thursday.

The reasons for creating the three new zones have to do with enrollment trends. In far northeast Denver, where there is still vacant land and developers are building more single-family houses, the number of students is expected to increase, putting a strain on the schools closest to the development. The zones are a strategy to more evenly distribute any new students.

In near northeast Denver, the opposite is occuring. The student population is decreasing as neighborhoods gentrify and housing prices rise, pushing lower-income families out. As a result, the number of students in some school boundaries has dipped too low to sustain those schools.

The recent closure of Gilpin Montessori elementary school in Five Points also made it necessary to reconfigure school boundaries in the area, district officials said.

All three new enrollment zones are expected to have more seats than students, officials said, which will increase the likelihood that students will get into their first-choice schools.

The school choice process for next year begins in February.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.