Changes are afoot for the school reform group Stand for Children in Colorado, and that means even more money, door-knocking, charges and counter charges leading up to the Denver school board election in November.
Sonja Semion, 35, who has served as the organization’s interim executive director for the past five months, this week becomes the Colorado chapter’s new executive director. Along with helping keep Stand’s coffers full, she is overseeing Mateos Alvarez, 37, the newly hired metro director who will be the public face of Stand for Children in Denver.
“I think we’re really, really poised to start to do some really great things – getting folks engaged who have never been engaged in electing reform-minded candidates,” Semion said this week. “Our goal is to really make sure Denver continues in the path of reform. I would love to see a strong board majority as a result of the elections in the fall.”
While critics accuse Stand of being an out-of-state, teachers union-busting special interest group, the personnel changes at Stand suggest that the organization is taking a more grassroots approach.
For starters, Alvarez himself is a union guy, having most recently worked as an organizer, political director, and president of SEIU Local 105, a union representing 6,000 janitors and healthcare workers. His goal is to boost Stand’s member numbers by engaging parents on their turf — in predominantly Latino neighborhoods very much like the one he grew up in — around school issues they care about.
To achieve that goal, the 500-member Colorado chapter of Stand plans to elicit input from communities on matters pertaining to their children’s education and boost efforts to engage parents in campaigning.
Without revealing names of potential candidates Stand could endorse, Semion said the organization is busy working on its campaign plan. Four of the seven board seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs in November, making it possible the board’s dynamic — which tends to follow Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s reform agenda — could shift. Already, national education organizations are eye-balling Denver as a place to watch — if not become more directly involved in the election.
Stand historically has backed candidates that promote more school choice and school and teacher accountability, and Semion said the organization will target candidates that would speed the pace of those reforms. “We’re looking for the right mix of leadership on the [Denver school] board,” Semion said. “Denver’s made some great changes, but we would love to see that happen at a faster pace.”
New faces at Stand in Colorado
The recent appointments bring a sense of stability to an organization that has experienced its share of staff shake-ups since it landed here four years ago. Most recently, Jennifer Draper Carson, who ran unsuccessfully in 2011 for a seat representing northwest Denver on the school board, left her position as Denver metro director for Stand and moved to Michigan.
The executive directorship has been empty since former head Paul Lhevine left in October after only 10 months. Semion said both sides determined Lhevine “wasn’t a good fit” with Stand and vice versa. (Lhevine could not be reached for comment.) Before that, Lindsay Neil ran the organization until she was tapped by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to run the city’s Office of Education and Children.
In its 2011 tax return, Stand for Children claimed credit for helping to “maintain a 4-3 pro-reform majority on the Denver school board by playing a key role in the election of two reform candidates.” The group patted itself on the back for playing a significant role in the candidate recruitment process and reaching 21,000 voters through phone banks and door-to-door canvassing. The group also touted its work to ensure the successful implementation of SB- 191 “by influencing the Colorado State board of Education on the rules for implementing the teacher and principal evaluation system.”
Stand’s outreach in Denver
Aside from people involved in school politics and issues, Stand is actively engaged in recruiting parents in low-income neighborhoods that the organization has identified as lacking access to high-quality schools for all students.
Stand’s current focus is on the Far Northeast and southwest Denver, Mateos Alvarez said. But it’s also focused on things happening in the legislature, such as teacher evaluations and effectiveness, Common Core State Standards and the READ Act.
Alvarez, former organizer for the Service Employees International, and, before that, MOP (Metro Organizations for People, now known as Together Colorado), said he plans to let parents determine Stand’s agenda in Denver — as long as it fits with the national organization’s guiding principles.
“Parents drive our work here,” Alvarez said. “They help us work toward results we want to see.”
In addition, he said he is “working with our organizers to build up our member base and to train them to begin to prepare for what is to come.”
As an example of a typical Stand scene, a group of parents recently showed up in their telltale blue Stand for Children (with the words “Stand with us” on the back) T-shirts at the state Capitol to endorse the school finance act proposed by Sen. Mike Johnston. They told personal stories about how the current funding situation in Colorado was short-changing their kids.
For Alvarez, the work with Stand is personal. He grew up in Fort Collins in a neighborhood where Spanish was often the main language spoken, and extended families lived in close proximity. His family first came to Colorado as migrant workers.
He said he struggled in elementary school and felt like an outsider. He quickly fell behind.
“I internalized those feelings,” he said. “I felt very sad and frustrated by those experiences. Early on, school wasn’t the funnest place for me.”
However, he found mentors over the years and ultimately graduated from the University of Northern Colorado.
Semion described the hiring Alvarez as a “coup for the organization,” which has seven paid staffers.
“He’s got a strong focus on organizing, and a lot of experience with groups we’re currently working with,” she said.
Members of Denver’s school reform community say there is always a place for Stand — primarily because of its hands-on work in local communities.
“Stand is qualified to … do organizing at the school and neighborhood level, which is a hole the [ed reform] community doesn’t address very well,” said Alexander Ooms, a policy analyst for the Donnell-Kay Foundation and a member of Stand Colorado’s advisory board, which has been dormant the past five months. “There are too many of us policy dorks and not enough people closer to the ground.”
Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver, another ed reform group, agreed.
“I think it’s important to have an organization like Stand working with teachers and with parents to organize around improving public education,” Schoales said. “We need the existing groups — they’re doing great work — but there are so many kids and schools and teachers… there’s just enormous amounts of work to be done.”
But not everyone wants Stand in town.
Stand’s critics not swayed by shift in approach
The organization attracted critics right out of the gate in 2009 when two Stand organizers sent letters to DPS principals asking for help identifying parents who might join Stand for Children’s campaigns. Organizers erred by using the name of senior DPS administrator Brad Jupp — who at the time was on loan to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington working on policies around teacher quality — in trying to arrange meetings with principals without Jupp’s knowledge. The letters raised questions about whether the meetings were sanctioned by the district.
Further suspicions were aroused when it became known that Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s sister served on Stand’s national board, and that Boasberg and Stand’s co-founder and CEO Jonah Edelman grew up together and were childhood friends.
“When Stand for Children came to Denver four years ago, their first paid staffer said their mission was to affect the 2009 Denver school board race, and Tom Boasberg’s sister was on the board of directors,” DPS board member Andrea Merida said.
“Since then they have become a conduit of hedge fund and private equity money from Chicago and New York into Colorado politics. They doubled down on supporting Republicans and an extreme public education agenda in last year’s legislative races, and when they lost, they fired the executive director within days,” she said.
It’s no secret that Stand does get heavily involved in local elections — although not by cutting checks. In the 2011 election, for instance, Stand provided more than $43,000 in non-monetary support in the form of canvassing help and staff support, according to campaign finance reports. Then candidate Anne Rowe received nearly $22,000 in non-monetary contributions, while Draper Carson received about $23,000.
Semion said she doesn’t worry about any hard feelings by candidates who may not be endorsed by Stand. In the realm of politics and endorsements there are “never really permanent friends or permanent enemies.”
“There is always an opportunity to find some kind of middle ground,” Semion said. “It’s not about Stand for Children. It’s about parents standing up.”