The Grown-Up in the Room: DPS Board Candidate Emily Sirota

Denver may have one of the most heated school board races in the nation. Faction fighters on both sides of the political debate at Denver Public Schools would have you believe their opponents do not care about children in Denver. Battle lines have been drawn pitting friend against friend, former ally against former ally, community leader against community leader. Accusations fly about outside interference in neighborhood matters, the relative power of teachers unions, and the hidden agenda of corporate America to take over our schools (to allegedly create more consumers and "bean counters" than critical thinkers and visionaries, some say).

Above all the din of the warring factions, one rational, knowledgeable voice continues to bring voters back to the reason the school board exists: doing what's best for the children and families of Denver. Emily Sirota, candidate in southeast Denver's District 1, is disinterested in the circus-like politics of the DPS Board.

"I don't belong to one camp or the other; I intend to make decisions based on research about how students learn best. I work collaboratively, bringing together all of the stakeholders. I am not running as a slate. I am an independent thinker," said the red-haired mother of 10-month-old Isaac.

Sirota continued, "I'm a product of public schools. I believe in public schools. My mother was a teacher. In a few years, my child will be a student in DPS, and I want the very best for him."

I met Emily a number of times at political events, and have always been struck by her peaceful presence and thoughtfully-chosen words. At a Democratic event a few years ago, I asked David Sirota, Emily's husband, about his wife. "She's a saint," he told me. "You have no idea."

Emily studied Political Science at Indiana University in Bloomington, and met David in Washington when she was working for Senator Evan Bayh on health and social policy. David was working for the Senate Appropriations Committee. It was there she witnessed the mess created by President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Legislation. She then worked for US Rep. Baron Hill on tax, budget and housing policy.

Later, the Sirotas moved to Montana, where Emily, while working for Governor Brian Schweitzer, successfully worked on bringing all-day kindergarten to Montana's children. As an economic development specialist, Emily was instrumental in crafting Governor Schweitzer's Early Childhood Education plan by successfully bringing citizens, businesses, educators and other stakeholders to the same table. Sirota soon discovered working on public policy at the State level was "too late and too top-down."

Wanting to make a difference at the grass-roots level, she and David moved to Denver in 2007, where Emily enrolled in the Social Work school at the University of Denver, specializing in Community Practice. Since graduation, she has worked with non-profits, and to defeat a ballot proposal that threatened equal opportunity laws.

Former employer Governor Brian Schweitzer, recently in Colorado stumping for Emily's campaign, told a crowd of supporters Colorado needs Emily Sirota in Education. Emily understands that quality education relies on investing in the entire spectrum, from early childhood to adult education. Sirota's research in Education convinced her of the economic imperative to invest in Early Childhood Education as sound fiscal policy. Each dollar invested in Early Childhood pays dividends many times over for the state. One of the first things Sirota intends to do as a School Board Member at DPS is to make sure all kindergarten children have access to full-day kindergarten. "It should be an optional resource to the family, but it needs to be available to each and every student."

Sirota is adamantly against school vouchers. "In order to have strong public schools, we need to invest in those schools. Taking money out of their already-limited budgets doesn't help. If you believe in public schools, you need to invest in them."

When I asked Sirota if she would be in favor of vouchers for schools serving specific populations, such as autism, she was emphatic. "I don't want to mince words here. I am unequivocally against vouchers. If a given population is not receiving the very best education possible, that situation should be remedied internally. "

When asked what she would say to those who feel vouchers offer more choice, she said, "There is enough competition already. There are magnet schools, charter schools, schools in other districts. There is nothing but choice in Colorado. Parents can send their children anywhere. What we don't have here is a strong commitment to making neighborhood schools the very best they can be."

Sirota believes neighborhood schools build strong communities, and strong communities, in turn, support great schools. "Our schools need to offer opportunities for students to connect with the world outside. We need to emphasize learning foreign languages, encourage critical thinking skills, and de-emphasize taking tests. We should not be judging schools based on test results alone." She continued,

"We need to invest more in art, music, physical education -- subjects that honor the development of the whole child. Life's problems are not dealt with by multiple choice. Our teachers need to be empowered to go off-script a little, to take some risks, and to teach the things they are passionate about. When school is exciting, children not only learn, they continue to be life-long learners."

I asked Sirota what she would do differently than her opponent, Anne Rowe, who has been endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform, Latinos for Education Reform, and Stand for Children. "Their plan," Sirota asserted, "is attached to big, monied interests -- supported by hedge fund folks. Anne was quoted to say, 'We can't derail the path we're on'. Since then, remediation rates have skyrocketed. The Denver Plan goals have never been met. We need to do something smarter, based on educational research.

"We need to listen to the people who live in our neighborhoods, and support those neighborhood schools. We should take the advice of the school accountability committees before building more schools. New schools should not be built without first engaging the neighborhood in a process of developing a community vision."

"Take Creativity Challenge Community (C3) for example. It is planned to be co-located within Merrill middle school. The decision to locate the school in that building did not originate within the school community. It was a top-down decision. There was no ownership by the neighbors. Parents within the neighborhood had no say in the matter. They wanted the school to continue to grow as it was. There was not enough discussion about other options, such as using the closed Rosedale school.

"As a result, the School District promised the neighborhood it would be a temporary move -- that they would simply incubate the new program and move it out. The whole process created an environment of distrust that exists today. That is not the way to build a community invested in supporting and embracing great neighborhood schools."

Sirota continued, "There was a survey of DPS residents which supports the community engagement process I am describing. The findings told us three things: 1.) Parents do not want us to open too many schools. 2.) They want high academic standards. 3.) Parents support strong neighborhood schools that challenge every student... at every school. These opinions were reinforced in an Opinion-Editorial (Op-Ed) written by parents at Skinner Middle School. We know what parents want and what students need -- we need to deliver."

I asked Emily what role teachers unions played in her vision. "We need to believe in our teachers. We need to trust our teachers. We need to include teachers in decision-making process -- they have valuable contributions and insights to bring to the table. We need to create a collaborative, not competitive environment within our schools -- an environment where all the best minds are working together to reach high standards for our kids. Principals will be an important part of this vision. If we do these things, teachers will be inspired to do their very best work."

I asked Emily if she would choose one reason why Denver voters should vote for her. She answered simply, "I've met with all of the school board members and have attended a number of meetings within the district. I understand where things are, and where we need to go. We need to end the bickering. We need to end the drama, and bring back trust. We need to work together. Our children's futures are far too important to do anything else."

For more information about Emily Sirota, please visit Sirota For Schools.