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DPS board forum focuses on reform initiatives, community engagement

Reforms implemented by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg were at the forefront of the discussion at Stand for Children’s Tuesday night forum for DPS board candidates.

Four of the seven DPS board seats are at play in the election, which could potentially upset the current balance, which favors Boasberg’s reforms. Stand for Children, which was characterized as driven by out-of-state interests during the 2009 board elections, has traditionally supported pro-reform candidates. All nine DPS board candidates were present at the forum, which was the final step in Stand’s candidate vetting process prior to endorsements.

The event included speeches from parents and former students about their experiences in DPS. In the months leading up to the forum, the members of Stand’s Parent Endorsement Committee surveyed their neighborhoods and interviewed most of the board candidates. Only Joan Poston, late-minute entry in the at-large race, and Rosario C de Baca, who did not return Stand’s interview requests, did not go through Stand’s interview process.

The parents on Stand’s endorsement committee questioned the candidates, focusing on engaging people of color and educating a diverse student body.

Here’s what candidates had to say about some of the most discussed issues.

Diverse communities

All candidates agreed that the school district needed to serve all the city’s communities. Many expressed dismay at the disenfranchisement of students and parents. District 3 candidate Meg Schomp of Central Denver and District 2 candidate Rosario C de Baca of Southwest Denver called for school board meetings in the communities and additional school welcome centers for recent immigrants.

Several of the candidates had ties to minority and disadvantaged communities and all reemphasized their commitment to empowering students and working with disadvantaged communities. C de Baca said, in Spanish, that she “knows what it’s like to be an immigrant and not understand English.” She supports initiatives that ease the transition into the school system and improve English-learning.

However, many of the reform efforts Boasberg has undertaken proved to be more contested.

Principal selection

The issues of how to hire, train and maintain good school leadership came up repeatedly. While everyone agreed on the need to have good leadership, not everyone agreed as to where that leadership should come from.

District 2 candidate Rosemary Rodriguez, of Southwest Denver spoke for the majority of candidates when she stated the need to “attract good people, support them and hold them accountable.” She and others thought that there should be pathways for non-traditional candidates applying for principal positions. Rodriguez and others emphasized the need for parental involvement. “Accountability, that’s our job as parents,” she said.

Rodriguez’ opponent in the Southwest Denver race, C de Baca, felt that leadership had to also come from other areas of the school. “We need to recognize the leadership in faculty and the leadership in parents,” she said. “Otherwise the principal just carries out orders from central office. Not every school fits the same cookie cutter.”

For Kilgore, a District 4 candidate from Northeast Denver, the district’s effort in defining a good principal have been a success. ” I want to compliment the work DPS, especially John Youngquist, has been doing to figure out what a great principal is,” he said, naming the district’s Director of Principal Talent Development.

School turnaround effort

For Kilgore and Landri Taylor, his opponent in District 4, the district’s controversial school turnaround efforts in Far Northeast proved to be a very clear split. The turnaround effort in Far Northeast drove a comprehensive overhaul of several of the city’s lowest performing schools in 2011, including the establishment of several charters in the district and faculty turnover. When asked how to continue the improvements that the Northeast turnaround efforts produced, Kilgore disagreed that there had been improvements.

“The number presented are partial numbers,” said Kilgore. “I don’t think we can really say for sure that there has been a change.”

Kilgore criticized the entire Northeast turnaround process, saying the community involvement there “was pitted community against community.” He would support community engagement that’s “the opposite of the far Northeast turnaround.”

Taylor, for his part, applauded the efforts. He singled out Green Valley Elementary School, a Northeast turnaround school, and said, “we want more schools like that school.” For him, Taylor said, “what is important is how did the turnaround come about.”

As far the community involvement in the reform efforts, Taylor said the turnaround happened “because [parents] stood up and said we want better schools.” Later on, he said, “we know engagement in far Northeast. We want to share that success with Denver.”

North High School and STRIVE Prep’s co-location

The three at-large candidates, Michael Kiley, Barbara O’Brien and Poston, were questioned as to the success of the North High School/STRIVE Prep co-location. The decision last year to move the high-performing STRIVE charter into the North High School was fraught, with some North students, parents and faculty concerned that the move would detrimentally affect their school. Although the decision-making process on the co-location was unanimously panned by the candidates, they had different explanations for its failure.

Kiley stated that some of the 2011 bond money should have gone to finding an alternative to co-location. “They should have taken some of that $500 million in bond money to fin other opportunities for the STRIVE school,” said Kiley. “Co-location is not my preferred option. Co-located schools are not getting the same opportunities as other schools.”

For Poston, the issue was accountability. “There is just new new new but afterwards there isn’t the support that’s needed, there isn’t the drive,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what happened with the co-location but there has to be some accountability for decisions that are being made.”

As for O’Brien, the process for North High School and STRIVE Prep “wasn’t a good one. It’s the responsibility of the school board to make tough decisions but also to make sure voices are heard.” However, school options for parents was a major theme of the forum and O’Brien agreed with many reform supporters in this case, saying that the important thing is that “parents have a right to have an option. Every neighborhood school should be very high-quality and ever parent should have options.”

Teacher Evaluations

The candidates from Central Denver (District 3), Meg Schomp and Johnson, split in their support for DPS’ initiatives, including teacher evaluations. Their disagreement centered on the use of standardized tests as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

Schomp, like many critics of current reform trends, objected to the use of standardized tests to measure student abilities. “I think that knowing whether students can move onto the next grade is more important than whether they can fill out a high-stakes standardized test,” she said. “Teacher evaluations are too dependent on these tests. You have to account for the differences in students’ backgrounds as well.”

The role of standardized tests in teacher evaluations did not bother Mike Johnson, who pointed to growth scores, rather than absolute achievement, as a way to account for students’ backgrounds. “Fifty percent of the evaluation includes portfolio reviews and other aspects,” Johnson said. “I am in favor of DPS’ initiatives. LEAP is an imperfect step in the right direction. It’s a win for students, teachers and principals.”

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