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The larger issues at stake in the fight over an IB program: a parent’s view

This is the third in a three-part series of First Person essays in which members of the George Washington High School community present their takes on the proposed changes to the school’s International Baccalaureate program. Read the previous pieces in the series here and here, and read all of Chalkbeat’s coverage of the proposed changes here

During the past six years of his tenure, Denver Public Schools’ Superintendent Tom Boasberg has been told repeatedly that George Washington High School needs the support of the district to provide better academic programs for its students, particularly in regard to the development of a solid Advanced Placement (AP) program. He has heard it consistently from students, parents, and teachers.

Why has nothing been done to improve all academic programs at GW until now? Improving the academic offerings at schools should have been among our superintendent’s highest priorities.

GW’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program is a well-respected academic program. It is the best IB program in the state of Colorado, and one of the best in the country. It provides its students the skills they need to succeed in college and beyond, but it is a difficult program and requires many hours of study beyond classroom time.

The program is demanding and it is unrelenting, so it is not an academic program for any student. It is for those able and willing to do high level work in six subject areas for two complete years, followed by comprehensive final examinations at the end of the senior year administered by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Access to strong academic programs at every Denver high school should be a priority for the DPS’ leadership team. Sacrificing one program to benefit another is a poor alternative to building up two or more strong programs that serve larger groups of students.

Why does our superintendent want to take the chance that he might destroy a small, highly successful magnet program on the chance of making that program accessible to all?  Were he to use the same logic with the program offerings at Denver School of the Arts (DSA), then DSA’s stellar arts program would be similarly compromised.

Perhaps these ill-advised actions by our superintendent are the result of his lack of vision for our traditional public schools and his inability to collaborate with those schools’ stakeholders. It might be that these shortcomings translate into the diminished and ineffective leadership at the school level.

If consistent and strong leadership were as important to our superintendent as he purports, one would expect GW to have had only one principal with an excellent team of competent administrators during the six years that my daughters attended GW. Instead, there were three different principals, each with his/her own team of assistant principals. The result was no continuity and no ability for the staff to build on any previous accomplishments.

George Washington is my family’s neighborhood high school, but most families in GW’s boundaries send their children to East High School.  They believe, with ample evidence to support their beliefs, that East’s AP program is better than GW’s.  Since East has a much larger student population than any other Denver high school, it receives more money and therefore can provide more academic and athletic offerings.

East has a wide range of courses and can field the largest and best athletic teams in Denver, as well as offer outstanding music programs.  Our superintendent’s district-wide implementation of the “choice” enrollment tool, combined with the ability of each principal to decide enrollment numbers for his/her school allows East to increase its student numbers while other high schools struggle to meet enrollment projections.  Resources follow students through Student Based Budgeting (SBB), thus East thrives while other schools suffer.

Surely our superintendent understands those economics, yet somehow his strategic focus on “equity” does not extend to schools with declining populations. He should use the “choice” tool to positively influence the “choosing” of schools, and to drive the resulting allocation of financial resources toward making the budgets of competing schools equitable.

Our superintendent’s greatest failing, however, is that he does not listen to communities. He does not hear student voices, he does not respond to parent concerns, and he does not collaborate with teachers. In fact, he dictates rather than leads. Communities care about kids. Communities care about each other. Communities can bring about enduring and positive change.  However, when the GW community speaks, our superintendent pretends to listen, then tells us what he wants us to hear. There is community engagement, but no community collaboration.

All over Denver our communities have argued for strong neighborhood public schools. They have not clamored for charter schools to replace those schools. Our superintendent’s actions, however, follow the national trend of declaring urban public schools to be “failing” schools and then to replace them with charter schools.

Perhaps that is the ultimate plan for George Washington High School – to make it a “failing” school by destroying its best academic program and initiate a downward spiral for the school. That is a strategy that just might work for our superintendent and our federal government.

Now think about this. If George Washington can fail, maybe East High School will be next. Our superintendent has already announced that change is coming to East High School, as well.

We at GW now know that Tom Boasberg is not listening.  Do you?

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.