What's Up in Denver's Public School System?

Did you know that Denver Public Schools has a plan for "transforming" the schools in Montebello and Green Valley Ranch?
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Even if you live in Stapleton, it's easy to lose track of what is happening in far Northeast Denver's schools out there in Green Valley Ranch and Montebello. Case in point, did you know that Denver Public Schools has a plan for "transforming" the schools in Montebello and Green Valley Ranch? The plan looks like this:

  • Ford Elementary would be replaced by a campus of the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) magnet program.
  • Green Valley Elementary would undergo "turnaround," meaning a new principal would be hired and teachers would have to reapply for their jobs.
  • McGlone Elementary also would undergo "turnaround," though their recently-hired principal would stay.
  • Oakland Elementary would be replaced by a campus of the SOAR charter school.
  • Noel Middle School would be replaced by a 6-12 arts program with 100 students per grade; a KIPP charter school would be co-located at the school.
  • Montbello High School would be replaced by a 9-12 Collegiate Prep Academy with 150 to 200 students per grade. A Denver Center for International Studies 6-12 magnet program would open at the school as would a High Tech Early College.
For more, read Nancy Mitchell's article here.

If these reforms sound familiar, they should. Each has failed miserably at one time or another in other parts of Denver during the past five years, most notably -

  • Making teachers reapply for their jobs failed as part of the turnaround strategy at North High School.
  • Operating more than one school model in a high school building failed at Manual High School, and, resulted in Michael Bennet shutting the school down.
  • Closing schools and moving students into new buildings with new schools has, historically, resulted in students attending schools that perform worse than the school they left.
For example, the students now attending Horace Man/Trivista and Cole are in schools that perform at a lower level than the schools the student's left in 2007. Students attending Place are slightly better off than they were at their old schools, and students at Greenlee are far better off than they were at Del Pueblo. Of course, DPS keeps messing with Greenlee, so who knows how long this will be the case.

Despite the individual track records associated with these reforms, DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg has combined these failures into one big reform and unleashing it on Montebello and Green Valley Ranch. Recognizing this, members of the public who attended DPS' meeting to unveil the plan voted against it.

When asked to what degree the Boasberg plan would improve student achievement in far NE Denver,

  • 44% of the meeting's attendees said it would significantly lower student achievement
  • 12% of the attendees said the plan would lower student achievement
  • 21% said the plan would not impact achievement at all

By my count, that means 77% of the attendees at DPS' plan unveiling said they did not believe the plan would make far NE Denver's school better, and would probably make things worse.

So what's a superintendent to do? Well, a good superintendent would probably take a long, hard look at the plan and make some modifications based on the meeting's results.

That's not what current superintendent Tom Boasberg plans to do, however.

Two days after the meeting, Boasberg told Denver Classroom Teacher Association (DCTA) President Henry Ramon that DPS would go through with the far NE Denver plan just as it was described at the community meeting. As these words left Boasberg's mouth, Michael Johnson hosted a phone bank to support the far NE Denver schools plan. (You remember 191 Johnson, right? He's the guy rep'in the 33rd Senate district.)

Apparently, the citizen working group supporting the creation of a far NE Denver schools plan didn't buy into the whole deal, either. According to several members of that committee, the "planning" process left a lot to be desired.

I was told by one member of the committee after another that the process started out okay, but when the group broke for the summer and returned in August, the planning committee was presented a DPS-created plan and was then asked, do you support this plan?

Many of the working group members found this form of planning to be inauthentic. They raised concerns that the DPS-created plan did not address a number of community concerns, that the plan did not include input from teachers and school leaders, and that the plan included too many new school options that the community had not asked for.

Despite these objections, DPS continued to ask the question, Do you support this plan?

(For those who saw the film Marathon Man, you will likely never forget the scenes where Dustin Hoffman sits in the dentist's chair with Lawrence Olivier towering over him, drilling Hoffman's un-anesthetized teeth, asking, "Is it safe yet?" while Hoffman screams at the top of his lungs. Do you support this plan?)

Should you have any doubt of the political and business pressure behind this latest "reform," the Denver Post printed an editorial, going hard after opponents of Mr. Boasberg "who are against school reform in far NE Denver."

Of course, the Denver Post wrote this editorial the day after Boasberg and his trusty school board side kick, school board president Nate Easley, went to visit the Post's editorial board. Ol' Nate, ever the sophisticated craftsman of messaging, told a fellow school board member after the editorial ran, I didn't know they would write an editorial. We just went down there to talk to them.

Despite his election a year ago that was based on a campaign built around the importance of community involvement, Easley no longer seems to care that much about the community he represents. But then again, community participation doesn't pay Easley's bills. The Denver Scholarship Foundation, aka DSF, does.

Easley is the deputy director of DSF. As deputy director, he reports to the executive director who, in turn, reports to Easily as school board president. The job of school board president doesn't pay Easley's bills, either. So Nate does what he's told, because the real power behind the DSF is the DPS superintendent, whom Easley is also supposed to oversee but who could easily have Easily fired at DSF.

This is what passes for governance at Denver's public schools.

On another front, I found this sentence in the Denver Post's editorial particularly interesting:

Their [presumably the unhappy residents of far NE Denver] input certainly ought to be considered, but it cannot derail a well-developed plan that has been in the making for some 20 months and has had significant community input.

As usual, the Post pays no attention to detail, or didn't know that the public-facing portion of DPS' planning exercise had only been occurring for 7 months. This makes the usage of "20 months" very illuminating.

No doubt either Boasberg or Easley slipped and used the 20-month figure. Now we are left to ask what went on in the 13 months prior to DPS' public facing planning effort, an effort put together in an attempt to legitimize this latest DPS scam on the community.

The DPS Board of Education will vote on this issue November 18th. Most interesting to me is whether or not Mary Seawell will support the plan. Ms. Seawell likes to talk about process and implementation, but doesn't always vote that way. My guess is Seawell will vote for the plan, and then move on, hoping no one remembers that vote when the wheels come off two years from now and the schools of far NE Denver are in worse shape.

In the mean time, we'll find out a lot more about the thinking behind far NE Denver as the race for Denver mayor heats up.

Michael Handcock, the city councilman representing far NE Denver, hopes to become Denver's next mayor. He has hired former Bill Ritter political hack Evan Dreyer to direct his mayoral campaign. Handcock is walking around pressing the flesh, glad handing any Denverite who might someday give him $1.50.

Here is my near-term prediction:

  1. Handcock will start campaigning on his success at reforming far NE Denver's troubled schools as soon as the Denver Board of Education votes to pass the existing far NE Denver plan.
  2. Handcock will tell everyone who knows no better that he led a well-formed community effort to take back these schools, because he and others are tired of Denver's poor, minority population getting the short end of the education stick.
  3. Next, Handcock will announce the support of Michael "191 Johnson," who represents the population just across the highway from far NE Denver. Johnson, having grown up and attended school in Vail and then Yale, is another man who is sure he knows what is best for poor kids.

Handcock will have a lot of success getting his message out, too. He'll have access to Patrick Hamill's bankroll. (While reading this, maybe you live in one of the houses built by Mr. Hamill's company, Oak Wood Homes? Oak Wood Homes are all over far NE Denver.)

The team of Handcock & Johnson will be formidable, backed by Hamill's money, mark my words. It's gotta be enough to make mayoral candidate Chris "King of the 2008 DPS PCOPs" Romer nervous.

Set your clocks, Denver. This circus starts November 19th on this one.

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