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Board member Jennifer Bacon: Post-election, Denver Public Schools requires a new vision

Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.
Denver Post file

I loved reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my fifth grade students. They’d always ask to watch the movie to see what was actually in the factory. But instead of playing the movie, I assigned homework: Design your own factory. For those who saw the movie, I pushed further. I wanted them to push their imagination and come up with their own dream. The assignment was about vision. In Denver, we now have to embrace a wider vision of what is possible.

Denver voters have chosen who will join four of us on the school board. There were sides, but as someone who didn’t neatly fit in either — as a former charter school dean and a union-endorsed candidate — I don’t believe there were any villains in this race. Everyone who ran truly believes in the power of public education and the potential of the school district. I commend them for having the courage to run and the hope that all kids can thrive. We did see a flip, but there is room for everyone on this board.

I did not endorse in this election cycle because I felt as a community we needed to finish the conversation we started two years ago when I ran for the District 4 seat in northeast Denver. The big question needed answering: How do we feel about the direction of Denver Public Schools over the past 10 years, or, what is working for us and what is not? Policy and change should be cyclical; it’s created, evaluated, and should be adjusted.

Over the past two years our landscape has begun to change. We have taken major steps anticipating the answer to the above question. We welcomed a new superintendent from our community who represents many of our students. We reached a new agreement with our teachers that validates their talents. We made difficult cuts to our central office to put more money where it matters. We hit pause on our school closure policy and took more responsibility as a district for student performance at all our schools. And we started the redesign of the school performance framework by asking ourselves and our broader community what makes a school quality. We stopped thinking about each school in a silo. We confronted declining enrollment and asked about the impact of opening another school on a neighborhood. We made it clear that schools should not be replicated if they are not performing, and we became more realistic about what we mean when we say innovation.

With this week’s election, we must move forward to answer a new set of questions: What is our bigger vision? We’ve done a serious amount of community listening to inform this vision. I look forward to hearing our new board members’ vision from their campaigning. I want to take the opportunity to lay out a vision based on my experience over the last two years.

We must urgently address a widening achievement gap by ensuring excellence for all our students and embracing the needs of our students. We must focus on dismantling the competitive culture and focus on building collaboration amongst our schools. We need to design regional plans for our schools as we confront declining enrollment in some neighborhoods and growing enrollment in others. We are continuing to audit our operations for inequities and inefficiencies while planning for long-term sustainability. And now more than ever we must tackle our teacher belonging and retention issues.

We will embrace the family in “family of schools.” Families help each other. What happens to a family member impacts another. We will examine and celebrate the successes of our innovations. We must partner with families to make sure it works for them as well. We assess the impact of actions associated with one school on the others in the region. We take what we’ve learned as best practice and collaborate across all school types to ensure not only inclusion, equity, and excellence, but also that there is a great school that fits the needs and interests of students and families within walking distance of their home.

We know how we want to be involved. We are all qualified to contribute to the education of our students. We will push ourselves — district, teacher, student, family, and neighbor — to embrace our imagination to design and build the programs, schools and district we need.

Let me be the first to welcome our new board members to the Denver Public Schools board. We might have differences, but our differences don’t divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences that keep us from pushing our imagination. We now can push our imagination to think about what we can build, instead of what we would change. From the minds of all of us, matched with the skills and tools we’ve developed, we can build our dream DPS. I am excited to get to work with my new colleagues.

Jennifer Bacon represents northeast Denver on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. She was elected in 2017.

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