Who Is In Charge

Clashing views aired on student counts

Worries and hopes about changing the way student enrollment is counted were laid bare Wednesday at a meeting of a panel studying the issue.

Justin Silverstein
Consultant Justin Silverstein did a lot of listening during the Dec. 15 meeting of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee.

The debate among members of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee spotlighted the divide between school administrators and school reformers on the issue and also highlighted the political difficulty of making any change in student counting during a time of declining state financial support for schools.

Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 (and in a window of time around that date).

Last spring, legislators approved a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies pupils based on average enrollment in districts over a school year.

Counting enrollment is a complex issue but the concerns line up like this:

• School districts worry that use of average daily membership could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, they resent claims that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count and they feel inclusion of graduation and dropout rates as part of the new state accreditation system for districts provide incentives to keep kids in school.

• Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts and students that need it most, especially at-risk kids. Some also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school – and that the current single-count system provides an incentive to push difficult students out after the count is tallied.

Both views were on display Wednesday.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry
Aurora Superintendent John Barry

John Barry, superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools, was the leading skeptic in the group.

“This is a large administrative overhead cost unless we get some kind of state-funded system so it wouldn’t be an unfunded mandate,” Barry said. Although he stressed he wasn’t speaking officially for the influential Denver Area Superintendents Council, “Right now they’re very concerned” about a possible change.

“The best way to approach this would be to reward districts with funding” to retain students, Barry said. “My question is … is the investment in the time, money and effort [for a new counting system] worth it when we could be focusing on something else?” Barry repeatedly used the question, “Is the pain worth the gain?”

Barry also asked, “Do we have any data that this [kind of counting system] has significantly affected student achievement?”

Mark Fermanich, one of the consultants doing the study, replied, “I don’t think there’s a lot out there.”

Alex Medler
Alex Medler

Alex Medler, vice president of the Boulder-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a former Colorado Children’s Campaign official, advocated the reform view.

“We have disincentives now for doing what’s right for kids,” he said. “We have to address removing the incentive” to counsel kids out of school after the Oct. 1 count.

Fountain-Fort Carson Superintendent Cheryl Serrano raised a fear that’s often voiced by school leaders – “Is this just a way for the state to cut?’

Vody Herrmann, school finance chief for the Department of Education, said, “That wasn’t the intent” when the law was passed, and Medler said, “No one here is looking to reduce the overall investment in education.”

Serrano said she also feared a switch actually would benefit districts with fewer poor, low-achieving students. “I think you’re going to see the rich get richer.”

Mary Wickersham
Mary Wickersham

Mary Wickersham, an education advisor to outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter, noted repeatedly that school funding is tight and declining. “If you have a fixed pot of money, you can’t have winners if you don’t have losers” when the counting method is changed.

A key issue in the debate is the potential cost of the verification and auditing required to make sure districts actually are serving the students they claim.

“It’s going to be verification that takes the work,” Fermanich said. He and fellow consultant Justin Silverstein briefed the panel on questions that asked school districts about the time required to manage the current count.

Medler wondered how tight verification needs to be. “No one wants money going to kids who aren’t there” but “at some point, we need to say it’s not worth it to solve every [data] problem.”

Herrmann defended verification in general, saying that the state has $4 to $8 million a year in “audit exceptions” – state aid that districts claim but which they may not be entitled to receive.

“They are doing everything they can to generate more money. It’s not every district, but we have some that are flagrant,” she said.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of the bill that created the study, sat in on part of the meeting. “I completely agree that this [changing the count system] isn’t going to fix it all,” but he said that other states use different systems from which Colorado might learn.

Johnston told Education News Colorado recently that he would consider introducing ADM legislation during the 2011 legislative session, depending on what the study and the advisory panel come up with. The panel is to hold its last meeting the week of Jan. 2.

Because of delays in raising the private funding required for the project, the study, being done by the research firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, didn’t get started until last month. The advisory committee had its first meeting Dec. 1, and the report is due Jan. 7.

More information about the project

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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