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Opinion: Schoales taking helm at A+ Denver

The A+ Denver citizens committee is about to get a makeover, with longtime Denver education reformer Van Schoales taking the helm of the organization later this month.

By hiring Schoales, the A+ board and its co-chairs, Terrance Carroll (former speaker of the state House of Representatives) and Mary Gittings Cronin (who ran the Piton Foundation for 21 years) would seem to be signaling a desire to raise the organization’s profile and sharpen its edge.

(Full disclosure: Schoales and I are old friends, and he is a frequent contributor to the Education News Colorado opinion and commentary blog)

Cronin said the organization would continue to pursue its mission – “to harness the power of Denver’s civic leadership to build public will and advocate for reforms necessary to dramatically increase student achievement in public education in Denver.”

She said expects that Schoales “will relate well with Superintendent (Tom) Boasberg and we look forward to him reenergizing and reactivating the membership of A+.”

But she also made it clear that Schoales’ job isn’t to act as head cheerleader. “We expect that under his leadership the focus of A+ will continue to be as it has been, which is providing support to the DPS reform agenda, but also very importantly holding the district accountable for results. Everything is focused on academic success for kids.”

From his perspective, the timing couldn’t be better, Schoales said Monday evening. “In the last few years, Denver has gone from being not even in the top 20 cities for school reform to now being in the top five.” He said he hopes to make A+ an instrument for “accelerating and deepening” the reform work in Denver.

When then-Denver Superintendent Michael Bennet first conceived A+ early in his tenure, he talked about bringing together a group of what he called 100 or more “substantial citizens” to monitor the working of Denver Public Schools and give him a broad-based reality check. He got ex-mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña to co-chair the organization when it launched in 2006 and assembled a cast of high-profile, influential business and civic leaders.

A+, which is non-profit and non-partisan, played a key role in pressuring DPS and the teachers’ union to make adjustments to the ProComp teacher compensation system in 2008, after DPS and the union reached an impasse in contract negotiations over how to change the plan.

After that, however, A+ flew under the radar for a spell. The organization played a crucial but largely behind-the-scenes role in organizing the community meetings last year that led to the controversial Far Northeast turnaround plan to be implemented starting this fall.

Laurie Hirschfeld Zeller, the most recent president of A+, resigned last January.

Schoales is a natural fit with A+, Cronin said, because he often advised the group during his years working under Cronin at Piton, and, more recently, in his role as executive director of Education Reform Now. Schoales will continue to devote about 20 percent of his time to that national education advocacy group.

I would imagine that given the stakes for the district and city in this November’s school board election, and Schoales’ outspoken nature, The group’ decision to hire him is causing some anxiety at 900 Grant St. and among those who will be running the campaigns of school board candidates supportive of the district’s current agenda.

That’s not to say Schoales will side with the three board members who oppose much of Boasberg’s agenda. Scroll through the EdNews opinion and commentary blog and you’ll find an abundance of heated debates between Schoales and board member Andrea Merida on a variety of issues. Here’s the most recent example.

Schoales will push hard, accept no easy answers and on occasion make people on all sides of issues uncomfortable.

But he emphasized Monday that “this is less about me than about mobilizing political leaders” around education reform. He said he believes Denver is ready to move beyond a divided school board toward forging consensus about improving outcomes for all students. He said last week’s 7-0 board votes to approve a bevy of new schools was a positive sign.

“Now is the time to turn it up several notches,” Schoales said.

Expect the education reform debate around Denver to get even livelier and more interesting now that Schoales will be among those leading the charge.

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