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Denver teachers present their demands to the school board.

Denver teachers present their demands to the school board.

New groups aim to push back against Denver Public Schools, a stronghold of education reform

More than 10 years into some of the most aggressive school reforms in the country, discontent is coalescing in Denver. Two groups — one parent-led and one teacher-led — have emerged to push back against what they say is a myopic school district that doesn’t listen.

What the groups say they want and what the district says it wants is not dissimilar: quality schools for all of Denver Public Schools’ 91,000 students, more than two-thirds of whom are poor and more than three-quarters of whom are children of color.

But the parents and teachers disagree with how the district is trying to get there. For instance, they feel stung by DPS’s tactic of closing low-performing traditional schools, often over community objections. Those schools are sometimes replaced by charter or innovation schools, which are publicly funded but operate more independently.

“It’s sort of an elitist approach: ‘We know better than anybody else knows,’” said Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union.

Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district is open to hearing disparate views but acknowledged the perception it doesn’t always do that. While she said it’s making progress, especially on the emotional topic of replacing struggling schools, there’s more to be done.

“I think it’s important we have groups inside the district and outside the district who help push for change,” Cordova said. “I would be the last person to say we’ve arrived. There’s a lot we can celebrate, but there’s a lot we need to work on.”

The union has started a campaign called The Schools Denver Students Deserve. It’s being led by a cadre of young teachers with a social justice bent. They hope to re-energize the Denver Classroom Teachers Association by replicating successful efforts of other unions across the country — and as close as neighboring Jefferson County — that are partnering with parents to advocate for changes they see as beneficial for both teachers and students.

Unions are increasingly using their bargaining power toward that end: In addition to pay increases, teachers in Seattle negotiated 30 minutes of recess for elementary students into their most recent contract, while teachers in St. Paul, Minn., got the district to agree to hire 30 counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and teachers of English language learners.

“This is not the Teamsters of the ‘60s,” said Tommie Shimrock, a special education teacher at Denver’s Henry World School, which will be phased out and replaced by two new schools. “In 2016, we understand the union needs to be a progressive voice.”

Separately, a group of parents has formed a nonprofit political advocacy group called Our Denver, Our Schools. Their aim is to continue the momentum gathered by a northwest Denver father, Robert Speth, who challenged an incumbent reformer in last November’s school board race. With the union’s backing and a platform that called for strengthening traditional schools and slowing the growth of charters, Speth came surprisingly close to winning.

“It was a crushing defeat on some levels, but a lot of positive came out of it,” said Scott Gilpin, Speth’s campaign manager, a DPS graduate and parent of two students. “We met so many people from across the city, and it really validated our message.”

Speth’s loss was part of a trend that saw candidates who support the district’s direction — backed by deep-pocketed local and national donors who think the same — sweep the election. As a result, the number of board members who don’t has been whittled down from three to one to zero, so that all seven seats are now occupied by pro-reform members.

But unlike in nearby Jefferson and Douglas counties, the Denver reformers are not conservatives. They are not suggesting the district revise the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to ensure it promotes patriotism, like happened in Jeffco, or pushing private school vouchers, like in Dougco. Nor is Denver like Newark or Chicago, where the schools are largely controlled by the government rather than elected school board members.

“There was a clear enemy in Chicago,” said Michelle Rich, a social studies teacher at Denver’s Summit Academy who previously worked in Chicago and is part of the union’s campaign.

“In Denver, that enemy, it’s kind of unclear.”

The flavor of reform in Democratic Denver has been more plodding and pragmatic, and has gained momentum with each biennial school board election. The favorable politics have allowed DPS to undertake a raft of reforms that include linking teacher pay to student test scores, promoting school choice and taking drastic action when schools are floundering.

Since 2008-09, the district has closed or restarted at least 23 district-run schools and 14 charter schools because of poor performance, low enrollment or both, according to a DPS list.

In that same time period, the board approved 36 new district-run schools and 54 new charter schools, not all of which are open yet. Thirty of those district-run schools have innovation status, meaning they’re free from certain rules and can act more like autonomous charters.

Some of the new schools are replacements for shuttered traditional schools. Others are meant to keep pace with Denver’s population growth. Some parents and teachers say it feels threatening to know there are approved charter schools waiting in the wings.

“Teachers feel like the district purposely runs down a school so they’ll have a reason to say, ‘This isn’t working. We’re going to put a high-performing charter in there,’” Shamburg said.

Cordova disputes that notion. “I don’t think it’s fair to say the only thing we do is create more charter schools,” she said. “What is important is that we create high-performing schools.”

The results of Denver’s reforms have been mixed. Enrollment and graduation rates are up. And the district did better on state tests this year than many others with similar numbers of low-income kids, according to an analysis by a local reform advocacy group.

But many DPS schools are racially segregated. The district still has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, the latter of which is one of the widest in the country. And teacher turnover is high: 20 percent of teachers left DPS last year, compared to a state average of 17 percent.

Most frustrating for parents like Jennifer Wolf, however, is the perception that the district doesn’t respond to what the community wants. For her, that’s traditional, comprehensive, district-run schools-down-the-block. But those types of schools are becoming a rarity in her northwest Denver neighborhood, she said, despite she and her neighbors asking for them.

“It felt like my neighbors were constantly getting invited to community input sessions and then whatever they would say wasn’t taken into account,” Wolf said. “It seemed like these community listening sessions were just to placate people, but they weren’t really being heard.”

Wolf is part of Our Denver, Our Schools. After an April kickoff meeting leaders said drew more than 60 people, the group came up with a list of values, including that the district should invest in neighborhood schools and not open more charters until it improves the ones it already has.

Gilpin said the goal right now is to grow the fledgling organization. While Denver has several pro-reform organizations, such as a local arm of the national non-profit Stand for Children, this group stands out for its more defiant stance.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children in Colorado, said the issues DPS is grappling with “are complex issues without clear-cut solutions. It’s going to require all of us coming to the table to find a solution that puts kids first.”

She said that while her organization supports the district’s vision, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for contrasting views. “If there are folks who disagree, there’s an opportunity every two years to elect people to the school board,” Frickey Saito said.

The next school board election isn’t until 2017. Wolf said she hopes Our Denver, Our Schools will “embolden people who are wanting to step up to those leadership positions. And for them to realize there’s a base of parents and educators who support those same ideals.”

The union held its own kickoff in February, followed by an event it billed as a People’s Meeting in mid-May. With school board vice president Barbara O’Brien in the audience, several teachers stood at the front of a high school auditorium and presented their demands:

— Less testing

— Smaller class sizes

— A full-time nurse, full-time social worker and restorative justice program in every school

— A district-wide requirement that schools provide art, music and physical education

— That the next school to open in DPS be a “community school,” a concept that incorporates many of those same elements and is being disseminated by the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of community organizations and labor unions.

The meeting had an us-versus-them tenor, with teachers presenting the crowd of about 75 people with statistics the district says are false, including that DPS spends $3 million per year on testing. (A DPS spokeswoman said the figure is actually about $1 million.)

Parents and teachers shouted questions at O’Brien and interrupted her as she tried to explain that in many ways, she agrees with them. Some of their demands, such as those calling for more electives and less punitive student discipline, are similar to current district goals.

“The categories you hit on are absolutely the right ones,” she told the teachers.

Where the district and its critics often differ, O’Brien said in an interview, is in how to respond to persistently struggling schools.

“I wish we could fix every neighborhood school,” she said, “but the track record is that’s only successful 50 percent of the time. So then what do we owe the students? We think owe them something different that has a track record of success.”

She said she wishes the community could move past the debate that pits charter schools against district-run schools to focus on which schools are getting the best results. And she said the board would prefer programs like restorative justice be encouraged, not mandatory.

O’Brien emphasized the district is willing to work with any and all groups.

“This is a really good place to be in,” she said. “A little conflict doesn’t bother me at all.”

Cordova echoed that sentiment.

“We live in a democracy and in a democracy, not everybody is going to agree,” she said. “We have a school board that is democratically elected to help provide leadership and guidance for our schools, and they absolutely represent the perspectives of the constituents they represent.

“Even so, voices from the minority are important voices to listen to and pay attention to.”

Whatever the size of the conflict, it may not be over anytime soon — at least not if the energetic young teachers behind the union’s campaign have their way. They said they see the efforts of those fighting for change in DPS not as a series of meetings but as a movement.

“DPS likes to tout ideas of choice,” said Shimrock, the special education teacher. “Choice is happening. Students and families are choosing what they want their schools to look like. The district will have to make a decision about whether to answer that.”