local leadership national impact

Denver’s longtime superintendent turned the city into a national school reform favorite

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Boasberg sits in a meeting with school board members in 2017.

Over Tom Boasberg’s nearly 10 years as Denver superintendent, he made a national impact.

He pioneered a model of school reform that involved close collaboration — rather than hostility or solely competition — with charter schools, helping inspire a national push to bring similar policies to cities across the country.

By marshaling unusual levels of political support, donations from both local and national philanthropies, and a lengthy tenure, Boasberg was able to execute on that vision, even if the effectiveness of his approach remains the subject of fierce debate.

“What Denver realized is you could fight charter school growth or you could work with the charters to achieve your goals,” said Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which studies and has supported the portfolio model, which Denver has embraced. “They’ve been at the forefront of a lot of really important developments in the field.”

Today, over half of Denver’s public schools are either charters or “innovation schools,” which are district-run schools given charter-like flexibility. The city has a common enrollment system for district and charter schools. Boasberg also led the charge to close schools deemed low-performing, even over the opposition of many in the community.

But while he championed the bread-and-butter education reform playbook of charters and test-based accountability, he pushed for school funding, more integrated schools, restorative justice, and the rights of immigrant children. He also described his approach to school choice as driven by concerns about equity, and pushed charters to accept more students with disabilities and for in-demand schools to take in more students mid-year.

During his tenure, Denver became a magnet for money from national philanthropies that support charter schools, while also attracting the attention of other school districts looking for models. Delegations from cities including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. have trekked to Denver to examine its approach, while the head of Kansas City schools and Boston media have highlighted Denver’s tactics, too.

What enabled Boasberg’s lengthy tenure was the backing of the city’s school board. The degree of support ranged from 4-3 to 7-0, but his allies never lost their grip on the board for his nearly decade-long tenure — a sign, backers say, of his deep well of support in the city.

Many of those members’ campaigns were supported by pro-charter donors. In last year’s contentious board races, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children spent hundreds of thousands of dollars combined to back pro-Boasberg candidates. Those dollars outstripped substantial spending by local teachers unions, which often butted heads with Boasberg.

Local and national philanthropies interested in education reform also saw Denver as a testing ground for key initiatives.

In 2009, the district netted well over $4 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to fund its school accountability framework and teacher performance pay system; in 2012, it took in another $4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support collaboration between charter and district schools. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the district recently received $375,000 from Dell and $335,000 from the Walton Family Foundation to support its enrollment system, touted by some as a national model.

The district’s approach has also drawn substantial support from local funders, including the Donnell-Kay Foundation and Gates Family Foundation.

(Chalkbeat is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates, Donnell-Kay, Gates Family, and Walton foundations.)

Advocates of the portfolio model — which posits that schools of all types will do best when they are given autonomy, are held accountable for results, are chosen by families, and have their overarching functions like enrollment overseen by a central body — have highlighted Denver as a model. (Although Denver has a “portfolio management” team, Boasberg, like many other district leaders, avoids this term, referring instead to the district’s “family of schools.”)

“Denver still has a long way to go but its progress offers hope to other urban districts with elected school boards,” wrote David Osborne in a book promoting the portfolio approach, which uses Denver as a case study. “A combination of courageous leadership, political skills, and positive results has yielded broad support for its strategy.”

Boasberg continued and expanded on policies begun by his predecessor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. Senator, creating unusual continuity of leadership. But there were still fierce local fights about the direction of the district.

Boasberg faced pushback locally both from those who wanted to slow down the expansion of charter schools and those who wanted to speed it up. Two critics of the district’s direction won seats on the school board in the most recent election.

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy,” said Brandon Pryor, a local critic and member of Our Voice, Our Schools. “But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.”

Earlier this year, former Denver student Vanessa Quintana spearheaded an initiative at the state’s Democratic convention to condemn the group Democrats for Education Reform. She was driven by Bennet’s closure of her high school in 2006.

“When Manual [High School] shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school,” she said. The school eventually restarted, but continued to struggle under Boasberg.

In 2015, the district adopted a new policy meant to demystify its school closure rules, then closed an elementary school for poor performance. The rollout was widely seen as rocky, and the district halted its closure policy this year.

Boasberg has faced pushback from local school choice advocates, too, including those who felt he wasn’t tough enough on low-performing schools or aggressive enough in expanding charters.

Meanwhile, last year, U.S. Secretary of Education and charter advocate Betsy DeVos criticized Denver’s approach to school choice as not expansive enough — something that charter advocates in the heavily blue city privately celebrated.

The effectiveness of Denver’s approach remains an open question. Test scores and graduation rates have improved, and students’ academic growth has outstripped that of many other cities. Still, yawning disparities between the district’s low-income and higher-income students remain.

Research on those questions is surprisingly limited for a city whose approach is so widely touted. Studies have shown that Denver’s charter schools generally outperform the district on standardized tests, but there is little if any research on how the city’s reforms have affected school performance across the board.

Lake, of CRPE, says that while other cities can take lessons from Denver, she warns leaders not to believe they can easily transport the policies of one city into another.

Every local context deserves its own approach,” she said. “I don’t think there should be any cookie cutters.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.