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‘More From Our Schools:' Getting past political bickering

Kristina Tabor is the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s director of communications.

Last week, a series of forums kicked off, dedicated to finding ways to improve Denver Public Schools while elevating the dialogue around Denver’s school board elections.

The event, called More From Our Schools, isn’t a candidate forum or a debate; it’s a gathering of people with multiple viewpoints who want the best for Denver’s school kids. Unfortunately, this kind of get-together doesn’t happen much in Denver. Donnell-Kay’s Associate Director Kim Knous-Dolan described why in her EdNews commentary in late August.  Others echoed her point at last week’s forum: It’s time to abandon rhetoric and bridge differences.

Mayor Michael Hancock encouraged this attitude too during his introductory remarks. He said there is no greater moral imperative than putting kids first and then asking how to ensure all kids access to high quality schools. Hancock rightly remarked that the forums and the mayor’s Denver Compact are opportunities for the education community “to do something absolutely transformative. Something where we’re not advocating but we’re actually just going to work to make a difference.”

So how can we step away from politics, stop fighting and move forward with reform? The forum’s moderator, AEI’s director of education policy Rick Hess offered his take. Though the education community might disagree on how to improve schools for all kids, he said:

That doesn’t mean that one or another of us doesn’t care about kids or is only interested in some personal agenda. It just means the world is a complicated place. You have to have the ability to understand their challenges, their concerns and then try to identify opportunities to work things out.

Hess encouraged developing sympathy for other points of view, even when you end up in disagreement, and finding common ground whenever possible.

The forum’s audience did find common ground. It seems most everyone agreed on the same goal: Achieving high academic standards for all kids. Now for the tough part: How do we do that? Methods that were mentioned at the forum include prioritizing 3rd grade literacy; closing the achievement gap; and addressing pitfalls in testing and standards. At the next forum, on October 11, PBS education reporter John Merrow will moderate a conversation with a few national education experts and help strategize and actualize high standards across DPS.

Denver Public Schools are already taking steps to reach this goal, and school performance data presented at last week’s forum shows Denver outpaces others in many areas. But there’s still a long way to go before we reach those high standards. A+ Denver’s Executive Director Van Schoales’ (and an EdNews blogger) explained that while DPS’ growth overall is good relative to other districts and the state,  low income students are growing at a slower pace than their peers.  And, although Denver’s dropout and graduation rates have improved, college remediation rates are on the rise.

But data is just one of several important parts to this conversation. At the forum, Hess pointed out that though these numbers can help make good decisions, it can’t replace human judgment and capacity. Data doesn’t stand alone; it takes people sitting and talking together at a forum like More From Our Schools to figure out ways to improve schools.

The stage is set for a continuing civil discourse around how to improve Denver Public Schools.  The October 11 event is open to the public, and the Donnell-Kay Foundation, A+ Denver and Mayor Michael Hancock invite you to join us in finding strategies for reaching this common goal of high academic standards for all kids.

For more information on how to attend – and to listen to podcasts from last week’s event – visit MoreFromOurSchools.org.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.