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Denver superintendent’s goals include dismantling ‘oppressive systems’

Two masked students sit at desks. Superintendent Alex Marrerro, wearing a mask and a suit, stands and talks with them.

Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero, right, chats with Sasha Punkay, 16, left, and Scarlet Harrison-Barretta, 16, center, at Denver Montessori Junior Senior High School in August 2021.

Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post

In anticipation of the Denver superintendent’s first evaluation in October, the school board has approved the criteria for evaluating his first year on the job.

The metrics are related to the retention of educators of color, the adoption of social and emotional learning curriculum, the rate of out-of-school suspensions, and more.

Superintendent Alex Marrero started the top job in Denver Public Schools in July. His arrival coincided with the school board’s adoption of a new type of governance that requires it to set overarching goals called “ends statements.” The board has five.

In summary, they are:

  • The district will be “free of oppressive systems and structures rooted in racism.”
  • Students will receive a well-rounded and culturally relevant education. All students will score at grade level on district tests, and students who score below will achieve “significant academic growth.” Students with disabilities will have the resources they need.
  • Students and staff will be mentally and physically healthy.
  • The district will be a safe environment where the impacts of COVID are minimized.
  • Graduates will be ​​independent, lifelong learners who can make well-informed decisions.

As the school board’s sole employee, the superintendent is in charge of making sure the district is moving toward those overarching goals. To that end, Marrero has crafted a set of metrics, called “reasonable interpretations,” by which the board will measure his success.

Last week, board members unanimously approved metrics related to four of the five goals. They delayed voting on metrics related to the second goal because Marrero said he needed board members to further define what they meant by a well-rounded education.

Per Marrero’s latest contract, which was approved in December, five months after he started the job, the board must evaluate his performance by Oct. 31 each year. Documents prepared by Marrero and approved by the board say he will be successful if he achieves 75% of his targets. Marrero wrote that he expects to achieve some targets by the end of this school year, but it will take until the end of the next school year to achieve others.

The metrics board members will use to evaluate Marrero direct him to: 

  • Open at least four “community hubs” by the start of next school year. The community hubs will offer “programs and services that support social, emotional, physical and academic needs of students,” according to a document written by the superintendent. Marrero has said he will pay for these hubs with savings from job cuts in the central office.
  • Identify at least two “enduring systems of oppression” within the district to be dismantled.
  • Retain educators of color and multilingual educators at the same rate as other educators, as measured by preliminary teacher retention data available in September.
  • Establish a community advisory panel that includes representation from at least 10 organizations that serve historically marginalized communities.
  • Increase the percentage of students and families of color who report feeling a sense of belonging in the district, as measured by an annual survey. Last year, 68% of Black students and 69% of Latino students said they feel they belong at their school, while 91% of Black families and 93% of Latino families said they feel welcome at their child’s school.
  • Increase from 33% to at least 85% the number of schools that have a curriculum dedicated to social and emotional learning.
  • Increase from fall to spring the percentage of staff members who quantify their well-being in a twice-yearly survey as a 7 or higher on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Ensure the rate of out-of-school suspensions doesn’t exceed the rate in 2018-19, the last school year before the pandemic. In that year, 4.25% of students were suspended, though the rate was higher for Black students, who were disproportionately suspended.
  • Keep in-person schooling “a priority when our current health conditions allow.”
  • Ensure every district-run high school offers a financial literacy course. As of now, 21 of 23 high schools offer these courses. A group of recent Denver Public Schools alumni called Ednium has been pushing the district to prioritize financial literacy.
  • Re-establish benchmarks for graduation rates after pandemic-related disruptions. Graduation rates dipped statewide in 2021, with Denver posting a 74% graduation rate.

The board is set to vote next month on the metrics related to the last overarching goal, about offering a well-rounded education. According to a draft, those metrics will include:

  • Re-establishing baselines for participation in and achievement on state literacy and math tests. In 2021, more than half of Denver students in grades three through eight opted out of the Colorado Academic Measures of Success, or CMAS, tests. Scores were lower, too.
  • Ensuring that students who score below grade level on state tests experience high academic growth year to year, as measured by student growth percentiles.
  • Reducing the number of students in kindergarten through third grade reading below grade level. Last fall, just 46% of students were reading at or above grade level.
  • Ensuring that 70% of students in district-run schools report in an annual survey that their lessons are culturally and linguistically relevant.
  • Ensuring that 50% of students in district-run schools report they have “student agency.” That’s measured by five questions including, “I get to choose some things I learn in school” and “I know my strengths and weaknesses.”
  • Ensuring that all students learning English as a second language receive high-quality instruction as determined by a program review.
  • Ensuring students with disabilities receive the support they need, as measured by metrics including the timely completion of initial special education evaluations. A Chalkbeat investigation found the number of initial evaluations fell during the pandemic.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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