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Denver Compact focuses on early ed

The focus of the Denver Education Compact is officially “cradle to career,” but discussion at the group’s first working session Monday kept coming back to the front end of that arc.

Specifically, making sure that every child is prepared for kindergarten is emerging as a dominant theme for the group, with the belief that doing so is the first critical step toward ensuring that Denver will be “a more economically sound, competitive city,” in Mayor Michael Hancock’s words.

“I think it gets back to it’s not at third grade that you have to start working on kids, you really have to start working on them, I think somebody said, at prenatal,” said Kaiser Permanente Colorado president Donna Lynne, a co-chair of the compact.

Hancock made education a key focus of his mayoral campaign year. A cornerstone of his education platform was creation of the compact, which was launched Aug. 25 with the announcement that former Denver school board member Theresa Peña would serve as executive director. Peña’s first official day in her new job is Thursday.

The first full meeting of compact members took place Oct. 20. That session served mostly as an opportunity for members of the 24-person executive committee to make one another’s acquaintance – although many are familiar names from other education or civic enterprises – and be briefed more fully on their mission.

On Monday, meeting in a conference space at the LoDo offices of DaVita, more than half the compact’s executive committee members gathered to discuss a proposed set of goals brought forward by the group’s co-chairs – Lynne, Hancock, and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Those goals, intended as launching points for the compact’s work, are:

  • Every child prepared for kindergarten
  • Every child graduates from high school ready for college and career
  • Every student enrolls, persists, and graduates from a postsecondary institution
  • Closing the achievement gap for low income and students of color

Not every compact member at Monday’s one-hour session embraced each of those aims with equal enthusiasm. Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, took issue with the idea that every student needs to graduate from some form of postsecondary institution.

“I don’t think our economy is even set up to accommodate every student graduating” from a postsecondary school, she said. “To say, ‘every student,’ we have a lot of dissatisfied, educated folks working in jobs where a degree is not needed.”

Brough added that the group could establish as a goal a percentage of students pursuing postsecondary education, “but I don’t think it’s 100 percent.”

The bulk of the discussion centered on the idea that if young children aren’t better prepared than postsecondary attainment will be moot.

Tom Boasberg / File photo
Tom Boasberg / File photo

“All the data shows that it is so important … you absolutely have to start with the gaps that are evident when a child is four years old, five years old, six years old,” said Boasberg. “How do you close those?”

Boasberg was one of several to suggest that kindergarten readiness is so crucial that the compact might consider adopting that as the only focus for its initial years, shifting to other goals later.

“If you don’t get that right, you’ll be spending a lot of time ‘rehabbing,’ so-to-speak, students who get to third grade and aren’t ready,” said committee member Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality.

In addition to establishing goals, the group talked about the importance of establishing benchmarks so that there is greater accountability.

“The benchmarking, to me, is a critical point,” said Hancock. “If the goal is to have every child be kindergarten-ready by 2018, to be able to say in 2015, ‘Okay, we are 80 percent there,’ is critical to me.”

Similar efforts have been launched in cities such as Boston, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky. The Cincinnati-based Strive Network has been instrumental in crafting education compacts in those cities and has been advising Hancock’s team.

While most of Monday’s meeting was focused on the four potential goals, the conversation did range – briefly – beyond those parameters.

Daniel Ritchie, chairman and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, said “We have a serious problem in the country with ethics … at every level, and it starts at the school level.”

Mentioning the website schoolsucks.com (an online term paper site) and the proliferation of cheating, Ritchie suggested the compact consider “the whole issue of integrity. This is not a religious issue. This is a practical issue, and I think we need to address it.”

The conversation soon shifted back toward the link between a strong start in early education and producing young adults who will ensure a future Denver that is globally competitive.

“What I think employers want is they don’t want to remediate young people,” Lynne said afterward. “We want to make sure we are hiring people without having to remediate them. We want to make sure we’re hiring them in Denver, and not having to go outside of Denver because kids in other school districts – or states, God forbid – are more prepared than somebody in Denver.

A meeting of the full executive committee is set for Dec. 12, with goal-setting discussion on the agenda.

“I think people are very anxious to get working,” said the compact’s interim director, Janet Lopez.

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