Analysis

Five issues to watch as Denver Public Schools students return to the classroom

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Denver's McMeen Elementary School in 2014.

Denver Public Schools understandably gets more attention than any other school district in the state.

It’s Colorado’s biggest school district and a nationally recognized petri dish for reform. As a skyline of construction cranes stand testament to the city’s booming growth, DPS continues to grapple with the ever-present challenges of educating students on the margins of society.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg just re-upped for another two years leading the country’s fastest growing large urban school district — and he has a largely supportive board behind him. Although some schools got a head start, most of DPS’s roughly 90,000 students said goodbye to summer Monday.

Here are five issues to watch in DPS this school year:

Equity and integration

Equity is an omnipresent DPS buzzword, and providing a great education for all lurks at the heart of many a district initiative. Closing achievement gaps between students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities and their peers is a priority of the district’s Denver Plan 2020, its strategic planning document.

To that end, the district incorporated equity into its School Performance Framework, its color-coded guide to how schools are doing.

An open question is how integration of schools fits into this vision.

DPS has promoted shared enrollment zones — in which traditional neighborhood boundaries dissolve and residents in a larger geographic area pick from a variety of schools but may not get their first choice — as a tool for promoting school choice and integration. Will that eventually help lead to more integrated schools? Or when given a choice, will families opt for schools that will keep races largely separate?

School segregation has received national media attention in recent months, and the spotlight will fall on Denver this year with the 20th anniversary of the end of school busing.

Elections

Three of the seven school board seats are in play in November. This may seem like somewhat of a snoozer, since the outcome will not swing the pendulum away from board support (for the most part) of the district’s direction. But it could result in an even more united front — and 7-0 votes.

Boasberg on the record
We asked DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg what his list would look like. His answers:
  • An emphasis on classrooms being “joyful, rigorous and personalized” and giving teachers the training, coaching and feedback to realize that.
  • The expansion of DPS’s teacher leadership program, which created a hybrid role in which teacher-leaders teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities.
  • Expansion of career and technical education programs at several high schools.
  • The district’s offer to give school leaders more flexibility and autonomy.
  • Developing stronger school leadership pipelines and preparation.

There’s a compelling argument for the value of voices that push back. But a united board can be hard-nosed, too, and some insiders say the current majority has asked harder questions of Boasberg than the previous one from a more closely divided era.

The most hard-fought race is shaping up to be in northwest Denver’s District 5, where lone consistent dissenting voice Arturo Jimenez is leaving because of term limits.

Will candidate Michael Kiley assume that mantle by tapping into the same anti-establishment feeling that carried Rafael Espinoza to a Denver City Council seat in the same neighborhood? Kiley faces Lisa Flores, a former senior program officer at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation who would mesh well with the current majority.

In southeast Denver’s District 1, Anne Rowe has the advantage of incumbency. She faces upstart Kristi Butkovich, who has criticized “privatization” of education. Records show another potential wild card in District 1, Mike Zink, took out petitions on Aug. 17 but has yet to turn them in. (UPDATE: Zink, a self-described conservative with Tea Party leanings, said Monday he has decided not to run, citing a lack of time and money).

Board chair Happy Haynes so far lacks an opponent for her at-large seat.

Greater autonomy — if schools want it

In a major shift, DPS offered principals the chance to opt their schools out of centrally approved curriculum, teacher training and assessments this school year and go their own way. About one-fifth of principals seized the opportunity.

A more decentralized district is a significant turning point for a district with a historically strong central administration.

What will this end up looking like? What kind of choices will principals make, and why? How many will take the option next year, with more time to plan?

“I think principals have tremendously welcomed it,” Boasberg said in an interview last week. “I think we’re early in the process. The biggest concern we heard from principals last year was, ‘I wish I would have known this earlier.’ Now they do know it, they have multiple months to plan out as they think about their own budgets and their scheduling and their own processes.”

Manual High

What’s next for Manual, the proud but long-troubled high school in near northeast Denver at the heart of the city’s African-American community?

The school has been the focus of one failed reform effort after another, and most recently has suffered from a decline in academic performance and a staff exodus.

The man charged with turning things around this time is principal Nick Dawkins, who is banking on a new career and technical education program bankrolled by Kaiser Permanente as a catalyst.

The Manual community has another major issue on the plate this fall — a new middle school to be co-located on the campus. The hope is to bring a much-needed additional quality middle school to the area and steer more area kids to Manual.

Three schools are seeking to fill that role — a spinoff of McAuliffe International School in Park Hill, Denver Dual Language Academy and Denver School of History Speech and Debate.

New schools — and where to put them

The district faces several other decisions about new schools, including in southwest Denver and seeing through a major expansion of the homegrown charter school juggernaut that is DSST.

In June, the DPS board approved a plan to add eight new schools to the network, in addition to nine existing schools and five previously approved. Four of the schools — two middle schools and two high schools — will focus on the humanities, a break from the DSST model. The district will decide on a location for a new DSST middle school this fall.

One subplot to watch — the charter network’s growth comes as the district faces increasing pressure in gentrifying northwest and northeast Denver for stronger traditional neighborhood schools. If space becomes a premium, will those visions be at odds?

In southwest Denver, where choice and transportation continue to be vexing issues, DPS will choose from both charter- and district-run options for a replacement for Henry World Middle School and a new middle school to share a campus with Abraham Lincoln High School.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.