Update, Aug. 30: Ulcca Joshi Hansen announced she is dropping out of the race.
An education researcher and author who works in education philanthropy and has two children in Denver Public Schools is running for an at-large seat on the Denver school board.
Ulcca Joshi Hansen will face several opponents for the seat, which represents the entire city. The seat is currently held by board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, who is not running for re-election.
Hansen, 47, said she was partly inspired to run by one of DPS’ most difficult problems: declining enrollment and the possibility of closing more schools. As Hansen sees it, the issue is not that small schools are bad but that they are too expensive for the district to run.
She’d like to think creatively about how to solve that problem and others. For example, she said, what if instead of closing small schools, the district brought them together to save money by sharing curriculum, training sessions, and art and music teachers?
“At this moment, there are challenges and opportunities, and there’s a moment for the board to lead in conversations with the community about what our 10-year vision is for Denver Public Schools,” Hansen said. “How do we allow all students to have access to the kind of education that parents who have choices can make for their children?”
Three of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs Nov. 7. In addition to declining enrollment, the board will need to respond to safety concerns, which became more prominent after a high-profile shooting inside East High School this past spring.
The election also has the potential to change the dynamic of the board, which has been marked by infighting and power struggles between some members.
Hansen is the chief program officer for Grantmakers for Education, a member organization for education philanthropists. She’s also a longtime education researcher, conducting research in Denver and elsewhere, and author of a book called “The Future of Smart: How Our Education System Needs to Change to Help All Young People Thrive.” She began her education career as a public school teacher in Newark, New Jersey.
Hansen serves on the board of directors of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, a group of semi-autonomous DPS schools that has gone through some tumult recently. She also previously served on the board of Denver charter school network Rocky Mountain Prep.
She is married to state Sen. Chris Hansen, who ran unsuccessfully for Denver mayor this past spring. The family lives in the Montclair neighborhood, and she said their two teenage sons will attend George Washington High School this fall.
Hansen said she’s not entirely opposed to school closures but she’d like DPS to pause and think differently about solving the financial hit caused by declining enrollment: Could the district co-locate small schools with local nonprofit organizations? Would electrifying DPS school buses and buildings save enough money to keep some small schools open?
On school safety, Hansen said she agrees with the board’s recent decision to overturn a 2020 ban on police in schools and reinstate school resource officers in some large high schools. But she said each school should be able to decide whether they want an SRO.
“It should be a decision that leaders, educators, and parents in a community make together,” Hansen said. “The flat banning of it, while I understand why we wanted to do that, I think that was a pendulum too far in one direction.”
Hansen worries about the effect of the pandemic on students’ mental health and said she’d like DPS to take more steps to address it. She’d also like to bring back families who’ve left DPS for private schools by boosting the quality of the public schools, and she’d like to deepen DPS’ partnerships with the city on everything from parks and recreation to child welfare.
In Denver, school board candidates often get sorted into two camps: those supported by the teachers union and those supported by education reform organizations. A dividing line is often whether a candidate supports charter schools and school choice.
Hansen supports both, though she takes issue with the fact that DPS does not provide transportation to most families who choose a school outside their neighborhood.
“If we’re going to do choice, we’ve got to figure out transportation,” Hansen said. “It is not meaningful choice if I cannot get my child to school and back.”
As for charter schools, Hansen said DPS has invested too much in charter school networks and not enough in single-site charter schools, which are more likely to be founded by people of color to serve specific communities. A charter called the American Indian Academy of Denver closed at the end of this past school year due to low enrollment and a lack of funding.
But in general, Hansen said the political debate in Denver too often focuses on the type of school — charter, innovation, or district-run — and not enough on what a school offers.
“We have spent a lot of time having debates about governance models when I actually don’t think that’s what ensures a strong portfolio of choices for families,” Hansen said.
She cited Montessori as an example. Montessori is a curriculum that encourages students to work independently on hands-on tasks in multi-age classrooms.
“You can have really strong Montessori programs that are charter public, that are district public, that are innovation,” Hansen said.
If elected, Hansen said she’d focus on building relationships with her fellow board members as a way to change the board dynamics, which have been fraught.
“I believe first in having people over to have a BBQ and some drinks and talk about your kids and talk about what brought you to this and what do you value,” Hansen said.
After working in education as a teacher, researcher, author, and nonprofit leader for 20 years, Hansen said, “If I can’t step in and bring whatever I know and have learned to work with colleagues and the community in Denver, what’s the point? This is my home.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.