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Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg on what he learned during his six months abroad

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg visits a district summer camp in 2016.
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg visits a district summer camp in 2016.
Wesley Wright

Just before 9 a.m. Monday — his first day back on the job after six months of unpaid leave — Superintendent Tom Boasberg was waiting offstage in a packed downtown ballroom.

Two soon-to-be sixth-grade boys had the microphone and the attention of more than 2,000 Denver Public Schools educators gathered for the kickoff of an early literacy training.

The boys each recited a poem they wrote. As they bounded off the stage to thunderous applause, the returning superintendent met them with a hand extended for high-fives.

Boasberg has been superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district since 2009. In his unusually long tenure, he has overseen a raft of reforms such as closing underperforming schools and expanding school choice, which has engendered both praise and controversy.

In November, he announced that he would take an unprecedented six-month break starting in January to live abroad with his wife and three kids. Senior administrator Susana Cordova was named acting superintendent in his absence.

Now that Boasberg has returned, Cordova will assume the role of deputy superintendent, a position that didn’t previously exist, the district confirmed Monday.

We sat down with Boasberg to ask about his time away and the issues facing the district.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about how you spent the past six months.

For the last six months, our family was in Mendoza, Argentina, which is a small city on the western side of Argentina. My wife Carin and I took intensive Spanish language and literature courses at a local language school … and our children went to the local schools in Mendoza.

I think sometimes we drove each other a little bit crazy. But for the most part, it was just an incredibly fun time to be able to have lunch and dinner with my kids every day. To have the time to take them places, to do things, to share experiences. … And to be there to support them as they jumped into a very, very new and somewhat difficult experience in being the new kids at school, the only non-native Spanish speaking kids at school.

I was wondering if your kids went to school there. Was there anything you saw in the Argentine system that you admired?

It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here. My two daughters went to secondary school: 2,000 kids in 32 rooms. No air conditioning, no library, no gym, no computer room, no nothing. Just bare classrooms. A thousand kids went for five hours in the morning; a thousand kids went for five hours in the afternoon. I think it was very eye-opening for the kids about the level of privilege that we have here in the United States.

It was also very interesting to have my kids be second language learners and to talk every night about their learning process … (and) talk to their teachers, talk to their school leaders.

¿Hablas español?


What would you want to say to the Spanish-speaking families that DPS serves about what you learned?

Tengo muchas ganas de hablar con ustedes directamente en español. Y es una oportunidad para hablar sin interpretación, sin traducción.

It will be far from perfect. … I’m almost 52 and I found it was a little harder to learn a new language in my 50s than it was in my teens or my 20s. But we’re all learners, whether it’s learning a language or learning new ideas or new themes. I hope to be able to model that for our Spanish-speaking families: that I’m a learner. I’m going to struggle as much, maybe a lot more, than you will. But that’s OK and that’s part of being in a learning community.

In your time away from the district, did you reflect on your tenure as superintendent? What conclusions did you come to?

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be able to serve here. I missed our people a lot. I missed being with our kids in schools. I missed talking to teachers and school leaders. There were times when I was lonely. Not lonely from a family sense, but I missed the community here.

Kids in Argentina don’t get nearly as good an education as kids in the United States do. … We noticed there was less questioning and interaction and (less) emphasis on student voice and students talking and students owning their learning. It was sometimes a little more, ‘I teach and you learn.’ … That just reinforced how extraordinarily important (it is that our) classrooms (be) joyful and rigorous and personalized, and having the importance of student voice.

Several important things happened in your absence. The school board approved an innovation zone. The district solidified the criteria it will use to close chronically low-performing schools under its School Performance Compact. A board member resigned and the process to appoint a replacement was fraught with controversy. How closely were you involved in those things before or during your time away?

Before, very. I worked very closely with the innovation zone before we left. I think it’s a huge step forward. … It’s a really creative opportunity with lots of potential to think differently about governance and about flexibility and responsibility for our schools.

We worked very hard on the School Performance Compact and most of that was done before I left. So I’m obviously quite familiar with that.

I’d talk with Susana maybe once or twice a month. But I thought it was very important that she was superintendent and she needed to lead and she needed to be empowered to lead.

Denver has led the way on several education reforms for years. But now we’re seeing some states and school districts rolling back reforms, such as tying student test scores to teacher performance. Are there any tenets of school reform that might not have worked that need to be reconsidered, or anything you’re moving away from?

We’re constantly learning. … In every case where you’re moving, you’re moving toward something or away from something else. I’m not going to characterize it in those terms.

But I’ll also say I think one of the areas that Denver has been very different — and one reason it’s been able to have a lot more success than some of the other places — is how extraordinarily non-ideological we’ve been. There are things we’ve done that the right would love, things we’ve done that the left would love, things we’ve done that the center would love, and things we’ve done that people across the spectrum don’t love.

I’ll give you an example. If I think of the area where we’re spending the most resources this year, it’s our teacher leadership efforts. Teacher leadership is such an extraordinary effort to provide better coaching, supports and feedback for teachers. And to provide greater opportunities to attract and keep great teachers in the profession.

Is that — quote — reform? You can define it. Some of this has been, I couldn’t give a damn about the ideology or whether this group likes it or that group likes it.

When you say teacher leadership, what do you mean by that?

Teacher leadership is giving our talented, experienced teachers the opportunity to generally spend roughly half their time in the classroom teaching kids and half their time leading a team of teachers. Coaching, supporting, mentoring those teachers on their team. Driving stronger collaboration across the team. Trying to drive stronger peer-to-peer learning among teachers.

For our teachers, the traditional model in public education has been, if you want to lead, you have to leave the classroom. … And you don’t see that in any other profession. You don’t tell architects, ‘If you want to lead a team of architects, you can’t design houses anymore.’ … But that’s what the system told teachers. … What the teacher-leader role says to teachers who want to teach and lead is, ‘Hallelujah. Continue to teach and now you’ll have the opportunity to have half your day to lead the teachers on your team and to be part of the leadership in your school.’

While you were gone, people often asked if you were coming back. What can you say about your commitment to continuing to serve as superintendent?

I love the work. I’m incredibly grateful for team of people I get to work with. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve the kids whom we serve. And there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

The work we do in public education has more impact and opportunity to create equity in our society than any other job. And certainly, as we look around our country and our world today, the need for that — for equity in our community, for building a community where diversity is our strength, where people from all walks of life in our community feel that they have a voice, feel that they have a shot at the American dream — is even more important now than it was then.

So that means you’re going to stay for several more years?

I certainly hope so.

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