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Denver schools superintendent’s listening tour to inform new strategic plan

Denver schools Superintendent Alex Marrero high-fives a young student wearing a pink backpack in a school hallway. The superintendent is wearing a suit and a face mask.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero, seen here high-fiving students on the first day of school at Marrama Elementary, has laid out a path to creating a new strategic district plan.

Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post

Denver Public Schools’ strategic plan expired last year with most of its goals unmet. Now, Colorado’s largest school district is on the path to create a new plan under a new superintendent that will be shaped by hundreds of hours of community feedback.

The plan will guide a district recovering from two school years interrupted by the pandemic and grappling with a host of long-standing issues, including a stated commitment to equity that hasn’t erased racial disparities in student discipline, test scores, and graduation rates.

The strategic plan will be shaped by the results of a listening tour undertaken by Superintendent Alex Marrero during his first 100 days, a process that yielded a mix of positive and negative feedback, as well as other documents, including a report commissioned by the education advocacy group RootED that found more frustration among parents, students, and teachers. 

The next step is for a committee of district staff, parents, and community members to come up with six to nine recommendations by mid-December for what the strategic plan should focus on. Another committee will make those recommendations more concrete and actionable by May, said Marrero, who started as superintendent in July. Strategic plans often act as guiding documents, with academic targets districts want to hit and strategies to get there.

The plan’s strategies will tie back to new goals adopted by the school board earlier this month. An overarching goal sums up five more specific ones. It says, “The Denver Public Schools will provide students with racial and educational equity to obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing citizens in our complex world.”

“The first sentence made me catch my breath,” said Maria del Carmen Salazar, an education professor at the University of Denver and co-chair of the committee coming up with strategic plan recommendations. Salazar is a Denver Public Schools graduate who often tells people she succeeded despite her education in a district she said was once a “dropout factory.”

“As I was reading [the board’s new goals, which it calls ‘ends statements’], I thought to myself, ‘This is it,’” Salazar said. “This is the promise of public education. It will dismantle the poison of white supremacy and low expectations for children who look like me.”

Three-quarters of Denver students are students of color and nearly two-thirds come from low-income families. While graduation rates and test scores have improved over the last 15 years, wide gaps persist between white students and Black and Latino students. 

The district’s previous strategic plan included lofty goals, such as that 80% of third-graders would be reading on grade level by 2020. But the district failed to reach most of them. For example, under more rigorous state tests rolled out midway through the previous strategic plan, just 38% of third-graders were reading on grade level in 2019.

Marrero’s vision for the new strategic plan is that it be largely informed by the feedback gathered during his listening tour. In the first 100 days of his superintendency, he visited 68 of Denver’s more than 200 schools, and had more than 100 meetings with about 2,000 people. He prioritized meeting with historically underrepresented groups, including Black and Latino families, LGBTQIA+ groups, and families of students with disabilities.

About 10,000 staff, family members, and students in the 90,000-student district completed a survey that asked the same three questions Marrero asked in his meetings: What’s going well? What needs improvement? And what advice do you have for me?

A 94-page report sums up what he heard. Much of it was positive, especially from students and families. A top theme was an appreciation for the district’s teachers and staff, Marrero said.

“From the family and student surveys, it is important to note that one of the most frequent responses to the question about need for improvements was ‘nothing / everything is fine / generally content,’” the report says.

That’s different from a report commissioned by RootED based on 200 survey responses and interviews with 92 Black, Latino, and Indigenous parents, students, alumni, and educators. Brenda Allen, a professor emerita of communication at the University of Colorado Denver and another co-chair of the committee coming up with strategic plan recommendations, was one of the researchers who analyzed the responses. 

She said the tone from participants was a combination of frustration and fatigue with not feeling valued by the district, as well as a sense of resilience and hope that things will improve. Participants spoke of the need for the district to hire and retain more educators of color, provide culturally relevant curriculum, and cut off the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Many times we raise our voices so that they can listen to us, but they just ignore us, and at the end people get tired and no longer want to raise their voices again,” one anonymous participant is quoted as saying in the RootED report. “There is no point.”

Similar themes — especially the need to diversify the district’s teaching force, which is mostly white — came up in the listening tour report, even if the overall tone was more positive. 

Students said teachers sometimes fail to honor their preferred pronouns or special education plans, and teach outdated curriculum. Parents raised concerns about inequitable school funding and poor district communication. Educators asked for better working conditions.

“Tasks should be reduced to what is really necessary,” one anonymous teacher is quoted as saying, “valuing quality instruction and equitable outcomes.”

The committee that will make strategic plan recommendations was instructed to read both reports, along with other documents, including a report summarizing 22 interviews with community “thought leaders” commissioned under former Superintendent Susana Cordova, who resigned last year.

The committee’s recommendations are due Dec. 14. Three subcommittees will make two to three recommendations each. The three subcommittees are focused on student experience and achievement, equity and excellence, and operational effectiveness.

Allen is heading up the equity and excellence subcommittee. She said she’s cautiously optimistic the process will lead to a strategic plan capable of changing the experience for students of color. If she were to interview them again 10 years from now, Allen said she hopes she’d hear a “sense of thriving, a sense of being valued, and a sense of being treated with dignity.”

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