The candidates for a vacant seat on the Denver school board were put through lengthy questioning Thursday by the board, answering queries about the ideological split on the board, meeting the needs of English Language Learners and what programs best build critical thinking skills in students.
The series of interviews lasted nearly eight hours.
The vacant seat represents District 4, an expansive area that covers 15 distinct neighborhoods and 57 schools, from Stapleton to Five Points. Nate Easley recently resigned the seat to take over as head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. The new member is expected to be the swing vote on a board divided over the district’s direction. A community forum featuring these candidates will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at Smiley Middle School, 2540 Holly St.
Here are snapshots of the thoughts shared by each candidate.
Mary Sam laments failing schools
Mary Sam, a longtime and active force in DPS issues – first as a teacher now as citizen, said she remains most concerned about the dismal achievement results at many schools in District 4. She lamented the state of affairs at Montbello High School, her alma mater. The school ranks “red,” or accredited on probation – the lowest rating – in the district’s School Performance Framework.
On the changing ethnic make-up of Northeast part of the city, she pointed out that she lives in the community and taught there.
“Since I have taught and live with all those populations, I kind of know what’s going on in schools. I know about issues around kids who don’t speak English and what they need.”
Sam said she would work hard to involve stakeholders in key decisions, and if she believed the district should go in a different direction than the community wanted, she would “try to change their minds.” But if she didn’t succeed, she said she would do what community members wanted.
She did point out that the redeveloped Stapleton neighborhood, filled with urban professionals, is “pretty good lobbying for itself.” Still, she said she would include the entire community in her decisions.
“I would not leave them out of my advocacy. I believe every child has the right to grade level skills. That’s the bottom line.”
Interestingly, Sam said she would not run for re-election in November. So if the board chose her, she would effectively be an interim board member. Most of the other board candidates said they would put their names on the ballot in November.
Board member Andrea Merida asked her about social promotion. Sam said parents need more information about how their kids are really doing so the best decisions can be made for kids and families. Students may need tutors, smaller class sizes or even to be held back so that they can catch up.
“Right now parents don’t know their kids are below grade level. Teachers are afraid to tell them that. As teachers our duty is to let parents know where are kids are. I do believe in retention, and I take a lot of flack for that.”
In closing, Sam said she was “old-fashioned” and still valued textbooks, quality, classically trained teachers and a “good, strong curriculum,” and that she didn’t “hate” charter schools but that in her conversations with parents, that’s not what they are asking for.
“We need to fix the neighborhood schools.”
Lisa Roy says it’s time to think big
Lisa Roy, executive director of the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation, said she was honored to make the short list for the seat.
“I feel this opportunity to serve on the school board is something I would have not have possibly dreamed of before. It wasn’t on my list of things to do before I died. But the opportunity came up. I am passionate about education, I am passionate about Denver and Denver’s kids. I am a community-oriented person.”
As for her philosophy on board governance, Roy said she would make decisions based on “defined expectations” and use data to make budget decisions. She said all decisions would be guided by her desire to “put the needs of students first.”
Roy said Denver needs to start striving to become a “world-class district” and not just compare itself to other Colorado districts.
“Too many times we’re comparing ourselves to a mediocre standard when we have to prepare our students to compete in the world,” she said. “We can’t just keep our kids at what we think is a high standard.”
As far as the top three challenges faced by schools in the NE, she talked about the need for higher expectations districtwide. She acknowledged, though, that some students – such as homeless students – need a range of wraparound services.
“I believe that parents, teachers and students themselves have to have high expectations for kids.”
She said she was concerned about co-locating two very different schools, with different philosophies and outcomes, in one building.
“That’s one thing that’s disturbed me,” Roy said, mentioning Smiley Middle School, which shares a building with Venture Prep Charter School. “I don’t want to have a school within a school. I don’t want a school that serves one set of students one way, (and another set of students) another way.”
Yet Roy did seem to be a proponent of school choice.
“Parents want the best for their kids, and they trust folks who are in education to give them what they think they are supposed to have,” she said. “Kids learn at different rates and in different ways. We need to connect kids to the schools that work best for them.”
As for the ideological divide on the school board over charter schools and other reform strategies, Roy pointed out that she has a master’s degree in counseling.
“The answers lie within ourselves. My goal for us is to work on a common goal…It’s sort of like a family. I don’t take sides. I listen to every perspective. I’m going to do what’s best for the kids, and I believe you all have the same mission.”
As for meeting the needs of English Language Learners, Roy said the Spanish language should be embraced by students across the district.
“Dual language is so critical. We are one of the few countries where we think it’s inappropriate to speak two languages … Colorado in general has not embraced dual language learning as much as it could.”
Board member Jeannie Kaplan question Roy about her job and a possible conflict of interest.
Roy didn’t directly address a conflict of interest but said she could take a reduction in pay and hours so she would have time for school board work.
Sean Bradley pledges to fight for kids
Sean Bradley, national director of legislative affairs for the American Federation for Children, lives in Green Valley Ranch.
Before working for the AFC, he was the director of governmental affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
But he didn’t emphasize school reform, choice or charters in his comments. He focused on his passion to ensure that all students graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. And he said he supported teachers’ unions, pointing out that many of his family members were members of labor groups.
“Our kids in (Northeast) Denver need an objective leader to stand for them regardless of costs. It is not my responsibility to protect the adults in the room. I want to provide the best opportunity for students.”
Bradley said he believed parents choose schools for three reasons: safety, convenience and high academic performance. He said his job on the board would be to provide all three. He also highlighted the need for the district to do a better job with special needs children.
“The pipeline to prison is a serious matter,” he said. “We just don’t have time to wait any longer.”
Bradley said he’s visited 15 schools in the NE over the past couple weeks and talked to many community leaders and constituents. If named to the board, he said outreach would be a primary goal.
Bradley said that too many schools in the NE are facing challenges with their turnaround plans. He said schools ranked red in the School Performance Framework need to get to blue or green.
“We need to be careful when we are closing schools and when we’re making decisions,” he said. “We can’t send students from one failing school to another.”
Bradley also pointed out that people of color in the NE distrust the school board and the district.
“My job – if and when I’m up there with you – will be to help cultivate that trust, help them understand (the board) can be an ally for them, an advocate.”
Bradley said he believed the biggest challenge in the district is that “our kids aren’t learning fast enough.”
“The district is working hard to catch up with the demands of our students, but we’re just too far behind,” he said. “People in my community just don’t know what’s going on here. “
Bradley said he has many ideas about closing the achievement gap – one of them involves hiring and retaining the highest quality teachers. To that end, he suggested changing rules so that retired teachers with lots of experience can be brought back into schools. He also said communication needs to be improved between homes and schools for people who speak different languages.
He said as a black male professional, he would be a good role model for students – especially in schools where the only black males students see might be security guards.
Kaplan questioned him about a disparity she saw between his resume and work on school reform initiatives and what he was telling the board.
“Reading your resume is telling me one thing but what I’m hearing you say is completely different,” said Kaplan, pointing out Bradley’s work with the League of Charter Schools.
“You worked for a lobbying association that is very much on one side of this philosophical divide.”
Bradley, though, said he would make decisions independently while acknowledging his “strong education reform roots.”
”It’s what I do for a living, it’s what I’m passionate about, but I’m also mindful and very respectful and very open to doing all we can to maintain our traditional public schools in our neighborhoods.”
Board member Arturo Jimenez asked him about vouchers.
“Colorado has been very clear about vouchers. Douglas County is going through a lawsuit right now.”
“I support choice. I support all gamut of choice, but it has to be defined by students in low-income homes and chronically failing schools.”
Fred Franko brings even temperament to school policy
Fred Franko, of Park Hill and founder and director of the non-profit Colorado Out-of-School-Time Network,said he would bring a thoughtful, analytical, mission-focused, and outcomes-focused perspective to the board.
He said he is “not confrontational.”
He said he believes every child should have an individual education plan to make sure each child’s particular learning needs are met. And, he said every school in the district should be an “innovation school.”
“We have to prepare children not just for school, but lifelong learning,” Franko said, singling out that students need help with study skills and financial literacy.
Ultimately the goal of the district is “not just accountability but success.”
Franko said board members need to operate under clearly articulated processes and be honest and open with community members and each other.
He said he views the most pressing issues facing DPS as high drop-out rates and low graduation rates, especially for male students of color.
“That is a starting point. We need to focus on moving the needle there.”
He said he also believes the district could do more around school readiness initiatives, including meeting the social and emotional needs of children.
Franko also advocated for more professional development for teachers.
On the achievement gap in the district, Franko said quality preschool, after-school and summer programs are essential. As for as programs that build critical thinking skills in students, Franko said he was a fan of “project-based learning.”
“I am very much a believer in that. … There is also the potential of blended learning in the classroom.”
Merida asked about what the primary needs of the Latino community in NE Denver are.
“My experience, to admit it, is narrow,” Franko said, adding that he would consult with community groups in the area to find out what they saw as issues and solutions.
Landri Taylor says kids need to know they’re loved
Landri Taylor, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, talked passionately about supporting kids and making sure they know somebody loves them and is looking out for them.
On the pending federal court decree that, when approved, will guide Denver’s efforts to meet the learning needs of English language learners, he said it serves “as a template.”
“It serves as a role model across the country,” he said. “It gives broader input for parents, a better role for teachers to understand, increases teachers that have to implement any of this policy.”
Taylor did say it’s essential that the teachers have the training they need to effectively implement the requirements of the decree.
He also stressed the importance of instilling critical thinking skills in students.
Taylor said he comes from a family of teachers, including his mother, sister and brother and that inquiry-based learning was integral to their lives.
Asked about student engagement, Taylor said that is one of his core passions. That is why he brought a program called Kids Vote to Colorado and to DPS years ago.
Merida asked him about best practices for stopping bullying and promoting safe school climates and whether he supported the district’s “positive behavior system.”
“Positive behavior can’t be talked down, it has to come from a peer group,” Taylor said. “You have to give the opportunity (to students) to know they are going to govern themselves.”
Taylor also said he endorsed anti-bullying strategies and programs developed by the Anti-Defamation League.
As far as challenges in the NE, Taylor, who was a critical force in the Far NE school turnaround plan, said the district has had “some great, great successes.” He said parents are more engaged than they have been in years in the schools.
“We’re on the right pathway,” he said.
However, he said the biggest challenge remained developing high-performing school leaders.
Board member Happy Haynes asked how much control individual schools should have over their budgets, hiring and schedules.
“You can’t create a bureaucracy when it comes to hiring and budgets. I believe in local control and local accountability. But you have to make sure standards and guidelines are there.”
The bottom line is that kids need to be “put in an environment that raises expectations of what we want them to achieve.”
“We have to put that responsibility on our principals, and make sure we have given them the tools to be great leaders so they can make decisions in a quick, transparent way.”
Kaplan asked him to cite examples of academic success in the Far NE.
Taylor talked about his work mentoring students at Collegiate Prep and how students there have changed in recent years.
“Students now want to achieve, and desire to achieve. They’re moving their growth at a level I have not seen before.” He said the same thing is happening in the learning center at Montbello High School.
“You don’t see adults or kids standing around them, they are working.”
Jimenez asked him how he would connect with Latino constituents.
Taylor said he was a “product of the civil rights era” and that he also made sure Hispanic contractors were part of the building project at Stapleton, where he worked as vice president of community affairs for the developer, Forest City Enterprises.
Antwan Jefferson commits life to changing communities
Antwan Jefferson, a former English teacher at Montbello, moved to Colorado from Virginia about a decade ago. His wife is dean of a school. Both are committing to having an impact on students, families and communities.
Jefferson said parents are often most concerned about their own child’s needs, but that he would work to ensure that people are thinking of the big picture needs that a school district must address.
He said one of the top challenges in the Far NE is varying levels of community involvement in the schools. He, too, said there is a lot of distrust of the district by people in District 4.
“I would work to engage the community in ways that make sense, not just community meetings at school,” Jefferson said, pointing out that meetings at churches or other locations might make more sense.
Further, he said inequity in terms of access to resources remains a major issue for the district.
“Expectations seem to be inconsistent. Not just from adults, but from students themselves.”
As far as the ideological divide on the school board, Jefferson said, “I don’t have an interest in changing ideologies.” He did say it was critical for anyone serving on the board to keep “the education and wellbeing of the children at the core.”
“My personal ideology cannot trump the voices of the community. That’s just wrong. My job is to represent.”
He said the biggest challenge facing DPS as a whole is that “it doesn’t work well for all students.”
He said linguistically diverse students and others “have a hard time.” He said it’s critical that teaching colleges start training future educators how to work in diverse communities by having field work in those communities – and not just in schools.
Jefferson was pointed in his response as to why an achievement gap exists.
“Part of the reason it exists is because education is horrible.”
He said the way success is measured is not consistent with the “endeavor of education.” He said there’s a difference between “education” and “schooling.”
Merida asked him what he knew about the Latino community in Montbello that others may not know.
“I don’t know if I feel qualified to answer that. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. Latino students in Montbello are not all the same. They have varied backgrounds….The Latino students I know want to be educated well, and want to feel the work is relevant to them.”
Jimenez asked him about his views regarding charter schools.
“Ambition works. Creative ideas work,” he said, noting that he’s been impressed by the community building he’s seen at some charter schools.
But he said charter schools should not be allowed to filter applicants.
“I don’t mind an application process so long as it’s not used to screen. I think that’s discriminatory.”
He also said charters should come from the community – not be “imposed” on communities by outside forces.
In his application, Jefferson said he would only decide whether to run in November based on reaction from the community.
MiDian Holmes shoots for quality choices
MiDian Holmes, the Denver head of the school reform group Stand for Children, said she wanted to run because of her own personal experiences after graduating from DPS.
She recalled one interviewer for a job expressing shock that she was so articulate.
“You shouldn’t have to be faced with that type of ridicule,” Holmes said. “I’m a hard-worker. I graduated third in my class.”
Holmes said the district needs to be focused on students “above all else.”
She said the top challenges in the Northeast are funding, school assessment, academic growth and college readiness.
Holmes said the district needs to do a better job building a “benchmark” for schools.
“Our schools are yearning for a systemic approach.”
She, too, described a lack of community engagement as a problem and cited the ongoing lack of trust between residents and the district.
“(The board) needs to effectively engage the community to make them feel greater ownership over their schools. At the same time, I understand urgency. It’s my duty to engage in strategic communication with my constituents. There is no way I could do this alone.”
As for the achievement gap, she said it’s “heartbreaking but not hopeless.”
“Schools in the district are not creating a quality learning environment. Until every child has access to high-performing teachers and curricula, the gap will continue to grow.”
She said there’s a need for “targeted professional support.”
Merida asked whether her work for Stand would taint her decisions if chosen to serve on the board.
“I’m a believer in public education, period. There are a lot of different avenues that will get us there. I support the modified consent degree and all facets of it.”
She said her affiliation with Stand actually brought her in closer contact with Latino parents.
Kaplan remained concerned.
“Stand (for Children) is a very politically divisive organization. You talked about asserting your independence. I want to know how that will play out.”
Holmes pledged to think independently and make her own decisions.
“Even in my affiliation with Stand I’ve been independent. I haven’t been a puppet. You have to be able to take a stand. You have to come to the table with a valid voice and that voice has to be your own.”
Hansen aims to close “opportunity gap”
Taggart Hansen, an East High alum, chief counsel for labor and employment for CH2M Hill and a former educator, said he wanted to be on the board to expand the number of high-performing schools, ensure schools provide a safe and secure environment and close the “opportunity gap.”
He said a child’s zip code, race or language can’t determine that person’s “destiny.”
“We need to ensure a quality curriculum and have high performance standards.”
He said the board needs to “set the vision, set the direction of the district, and also set the tone at the top, ‘Does the decision I’m about to make give every child an opportunity to obtain a high quality, excellent education?’”
He said he tends to make decisions based on data and available information rather than ideology.
Hansen said the main challenge facing the district is “sustaining the progress DPS has made.” He added that if the progress is “not sustained, it quickly falls back.”
While expressing support for the current reforms underway in the NE, he said the district must be “cognizant of the community” when it makes sweeping changes.
He said it’s the school board’s responsibility to remove any barriers to access and expand choice, “real choice, in every neighborhood.”
He said the district must make sure traditional, charter and innovation schools are of a high quality and schools need to be held accountable “at all levels.”
On the consent decree, Hansen said “language should never mean a barrier to educational success.”
“We need to tackle it,” Hansen said. “If this board doesn’t faithfully implement (the consent decree) it’s not going to do any good.”
He also touted the importance of art and music, saying those are subjects that most help students in the real world and develop critical thinking skills – yet they’re too often first on the chopping block when budgets dip.
On dealing with controversial decisions, he said, “turmoil is going to be part of any change – particularly when you are dealing with very complicated issues.” Still, he said board members need to stand up for what’s right.
“Too often (people) haven’t had the backbone to say, ‘Yes here, yes now and here’s why.’”
“You have to help explain to people so they understand that perspective.”
Additionally, Hansen described school finance as “the next great civil rights issue.”
In his application, Hansen said he would “most likely” run for the seat in November if he is appointed.
Vernon Jones Jr. brings view from the trenches
Vernon Jones, Jr., assistant principal at Manual High School, would bring a voice from the trenches to the board. However, while a district employee can run for a board seat, he will have to choose board service or his job if selected, according to district policy.
But Jones said since the district “innovates” on all other school issues, it should “innovate” its policies to consider a staff member’s ability to sit on the board.
Jones’ primary issue and concern is that the district’s policies guide “great practice.”
He said board members need to commit to reading all material and documents before them, not just scanning documents only minutes before a meeting.
“This is serious business,” he said. “We need to be learning constantly as a board. We need to make sure we are listening to our community. We can’t do this in a bubble. We can’t say we’re high and mighty because we’re sitting behind this dais.”
He said the board needs to make tough decisions – even decisions Superintendent Tom Boasberg may not agree with.
Jones lamented a trend of high turnover among teachers and leaders in struggling schools in his community.
“We need to make sure good leaders are there for the long haul,” Jones said. “We need to have teachers who want to teach – not people exploring whether they want to teach.”
Funding needs to target the district’s needs, he said. “We need to make sure more money is in the hands of the school than there is in the central office.”
He said the biggest challenge is the slow pace of change.
“We are tranquilized by gradualism. We celebrate small steps too often when the steps we need to take are much bigger. Dr. (Martin Luther) King said, ‘Why do we have to wait?’”
Jones also said the district needs a clearer vision and mission. “I do believe as a district we chase money too much. We chase whatever the latest grant is of the day. I think that’s because we don’t have a vision as a district.”
In terms of the achievement gap he said it’s the “district’s job to eliminate it.”
“The achievement gap exists because the system is ultimately the same system.., things have not changed as much as we think they have. We expect different results and keep doing the same thing.”