I’m a proud graduate of Denver Public Schools. Today, I’m the principal of East High School. In the decades between, I’ve served local schools as a teacher, principal, area superintendent, and chief academic officer.
That means I’ve had a front row seat as Denver became an exciting place in the education world. The district has experimented with new ways of running schools and paying teachers, and seen its schools improve in some areas along the way.
But I worry that the hype has led us to forget that many, many thousands more of our students remain significantly underserved in the Denver Public Schools. I see too many of our students enter elementary, middle and high school without the academic preparation to thrive at the next level.
That informs what I hope the Board of Education is looking for in our next superintendent: a different perspective.
Our last five superintendents have more than one thing in common. For one, all have led from a white male perspective in a majority minority community. Today, more than 75 percent of Denver Public Schools students are students of color.
The last superintendents also all entered as “alternative” voices, never having taught in a Colorado public school and never having had a child in a Denver public school. At least the last three of them led with a focus on innovation.
These superintendents proved that innovation matters. From ProComp to the portfolio model, innovation has helped our schools. And yet — why hasn’t more happened to propel our students toward the equitable outcomes that they deserve?
That question has led me to others. Has that innovation come out of a deep understanding of our city’s challenges? Have the people in our communities been a source of that innovation?
While we have come a long way for our students, many beyond the walls of our schools do not see that our four-year graduation rate remains just 66 percent.
Many do not see that the gaps in test scores, reading levels, and graduation rates between students of color and their white counterparts continue to be unacceptably large, while those between white and Hispanic students are some of the widest in the U.S. Our compensation systems are some of the most confusing.
Until we face those harsh realities, celebrating our successes in too loud a fashion rings hollow. So, we need a new superintendent for Denver Public Schools who can face those challenges — clearly acknowledging and owning our greatest challenges, our deepest faults, and our harsh realities.
We also need a superintendent with a deep investment in and understanding of our Denver community and our children. It’s time for innovation to draw on our shared knowledge.
Finally, we need a superintendent with a clear commitment to supporting our teachers and principals. They need to deeply respect the role that each play and commit to provide what these professionals need, when they need it. I’ve watched the district’s bureaucracy evolve and grow over time, limiting our strong principals and teachers.
Our graduation rate means we are preparing to watch about 30,000 young people in Denver drop out of our schools over the next decade. This must stop.
Our Board of Education has the opportunity to select a superintendent who is responsive to the needs of our children, who understands our community, and who leads in a way that ensures the equitable outcomes that our students deserve. I hope they do so.
John Youngquist is the principal of East High School in Denver, Colorado. A version of this piece originally appeared on A Plus Colorado.
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.