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Boasberg: Despite controversies, push for equity, diversity in schools will continue

As the 2013-14 school year ended in May, a number of Denver Public Schools communities were roiled by impending changes or rumors of changes that could fundamentally alter the education landscape at those schools.

In particular, a move to open the exclusive 30-year-old International Baccalaureate program at George Washington High School to more students, and rumors about a possible shared ninth-grade academy for East and Manual high school students created uproars. It wasn’t the only change Denver school officials are pushing as an effort to increase equity and diversity in its flagship schools. In 2013, the DPS board decided to move the popular and successful McAuliffe International School from the predominantly white and affluent Stapleton neighborhood to Smiley Middle School in a more racially and socioeconomically diverse section of the Park Hill neighborhood. That move takes effect with the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Historically, DPS leadership has been reluctant to cross swords with the powerful parent constituencies at places like Stapleton, East and George Washington, let alone come into conflict with multiple groups simultaneously. But with Superintendent Tom Boasberg entering his sixth year on the job, backed by a school board more unified than in recent years, could it be that district leadership decided that now was an opportune time to fight some tough battles?

Chalkbeat sat down with Boasberg this summer to discuss these moves, and the guiding principles that underlie them. This Q&A has been edited for length.

Can you talk about the core beliefs or grand vision that underlie some of these moves?

These issues are the most emotional and some of the most important in our society, around race and class and neighborhood, and they all get played out around the schools. The first core belief in play here is quality. Our goal first and foremost is to have our schools be quality schools that deliver quality education for kids; rich or poor, brown black or white. [This means] they have good teachers and strong  leaders and rich course offerings and strong collaborations that challenge kids. Because unless your schools are high quality, nothing else matters, right? Everyone is going to try to go to a place where they perceive that they can get a higher quality education and that is true for affluent folks, it is true for folks  in poverty, it is true regardless of the color of your skin.

Paired with that is a core belief in equity and diversity. It is a publicly stated core belief. The new revised Denver Plan starts with our core beliefs around students, around equity being at the core of our mission, and diversity being a real gift. Our kids tell us how much they want to be in schools that reflect the diversity  of the commuity they’re a part of. Most of our parents support that, some with greater degrees of enthusiasm  than others.

Many families live in Denver because of the diversity. Kids want to be in schools and want to be in programs that are diverse. It doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions. Yes, of course there are. It doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of long held suspicions and biases and mistrusts and fears. Yes, there are. But ours is a society that has centuries of issues and concerns around issues of race. So I think we start with those core beliefs in quality, core beliefs in diversity, and a real belief that those two go hand in hand. They are not in any way opposed to each other or inimical to each other, but that they go hand and hand and that’s what our kids want and  our families want. They want high quality schools that are diverse schools.

Some would argue that the best way to get high quality is through diversity.

It is not the sole way; there are absolutely schools [whose students] are overwhelmingly low-income kids, kids of color that are very high quality schools. But I do think there is a lot of research that shows that low-income kids do better generally in mixed-income schools and higher income kids do very well in mixed income schools. That evidence is compelling.

In recent months, you’ve made decisions around boundaries for the new Stapleton High School that include a lower-income community. You’ve moved McAuliffe to Smiley. Now you’re taking on IB at George Washington and possibly East/Manual. Why now? Why all of these almost simultaneously?

Actually, we have been taking very significant steps toward this for multiple years…We took two years in conversation with Stapleton and Park Hill over removing Quebec Street as a boundary line between [the two neighborhoods] and having the community enrollment zone. This has been a pretty constant and consistent thread that we’ve had. And as we go into each of these, we ask how do we structure enrollment systems and boundaries in a way to promote diversity as opposed to lessen diversity?

What prompted the effort to open up the IB program at George Washington, which has been highly successful for 30 years as an exclusive offering to top students?

I tremendously admire the strength of the IB program. I think it is an extraordinary program and absolutely I am 100 percent committed to continue having a wonderful, first-class rigorous IB program at George. But I think it’s fair to say [its lack of diversity] has been a question and concern that has been going on for quite some time. We thought it was important that we be willing to work with the community and try and bring  forward the changes we are proposing. We are committed to change and absolutely to working with the community on the changes. We are very committed to making the changes real.

There have been several attempts in the past to make changes to this program, and they’ve always failed. Why is it different this time?

I think we all know some of the political pressures and political opposition on this particular issue. Why now? We have very strong feeder patterns for the school. You see real strength in the elementary schools; the middle schools are significantly stronger too. This gives us confidence. We have a lot of families who want a really, really good high school and have said to us that [George Washington] as it currently exists isn’t right for my kid. My kid is not an IB kid and the tradiitonal program is not as strong as it needs to be and I have concerns about going to a high school with the degree of  separation that we have. So we’ve  got a lot of families knocking on our door saying we want the change.

Are there families that are opposed to the change? Yes, there are. And I respect and understand their concerns and I think  we are going to be extremely strong in continuing to emphasize and reemphasize that we will continue to have an extraordinarily rigorous IB program at GW. I had the remarkable opportunity to go to a very rigorous school [the private St. Albans school in Washington D.C.] and it gave me incredible opportunities in terms of the kind of college I could go to and then opportunities later in life. I want our kids to have exactly that kind of extremely rigorous and challenging opportunity that I had and that kids in IB at GW have benefitted from.

How significant will the changes to IB be?

I believe we can have the IB program at GW look like every other IB program in every other high quality IB school in the state that I’m aware of. That means don’t put all ninth and 10th-graders into an all-or-nothing choice, where you have to take all IB courses or you take none, and you separate the kids from the moment  they even seek to come to the school. Sometimes we try to play these issues of quality and diversity against each other and say these are opposing values. I don’t think they are. Will every kid in George Washington go into the IB Diploma Program? Absolutely not. That’s not true at any other high quality IB program. Those  ninth and 10th grade courses, they will be equally as rigouous as they are today; more kids will access them, that is great. Many kids won’t be prepared for them, and they won’t be in those courses.

At George, we’ve had a program for 30 years, and while it has had wonderful, wonderful aspects, the degree of separation is too high. There is a large degree of support and consensus around that. we need to work very closely and carefully with the school and parent community on what this transition will look like. For example: What are the  sequence of courses to go into the AP program? Wha are the right set of standards to make sure the kids who  take the pre-IB courses are absolutely prepared and supported in taking those courses? We’re really committed to having those conversations and at the same time committed that the level of separation that currently exists needs to go down.

You stirred up the hornet’s nest with talk about a East-Manual ninth-grade academy. Where does that stand?

The proposal on the partnership between East and Manual has been something East has been considering for a long time, that long predated [current principal] Andy Mendelsberg. I do think we have heard loudly and clearly the questions  and concerns there. From the beginning we’ve said in that conversation we should start with the basic question of should there be some form of partnership between East and Manual. Then if the answer is yes, what  are the diffeent partnership structures?  What could they potentially look like? This was one where some of the folks in the advisory groups had said ‘stop talking philosophically and give us  an example and let us comment on an example.’ And in retrospect we probably would have been better off saying no to that. We need to have the broader conversation first. That’s where  we’re going to go back and start in August.

One of the never-ending debates concerns neighborhood schools vs. diverse schools. In a largely segregated city, how can you have both?

We deeply believe in neighborhood schools and deeply believe in having good schools in communities for kids to be able to go to. That’s the overarching goal of the new draft Denver Plan, great schools in every community. At the same time we have worked, particularly at the secondary level, to examine creations of community enrollment zones. Instead of having for example one middle school in a boundary, having a somehwat larger boundary and having multiple  choices for families in that community to go to.

Historical and current patterns of housing segregation are very real. At the same  time Denver is going through significant demographic changes. In Denver in many neighborhoods if you put a compass point down on the map and draw a very small radius out from it a half mile, you will often find within that circle you draw, not a lot of racial and economic diversity. But if you take that compass and `draw it out a little further, maybe a mile, mile and a half, so you have a three-mile diameter circle, there are many, many places that are very richly diverse.

What does success in this regard look like 10, 15 years down the road?

Success looks like more and more families insisting and demanding that their schools be high quality and diverse. That we’re able to make significant progress from some of the conversations we’ve been having for the last several decades: that quality and diversity somehow can’t go hand in hand. So what I would like to see 10 years from now is high quality and diverse schools; schools that look more like our community.