The newly-elected members of Denver’s Board of Education have a long to-do list: closing the achievement gap, negotiating teacher contracts, approving school renewals, setting the budget.
But no item may be as pressing as revising the Denver Plan, the supposed blueprint for the district’s reform efforts and goals.
The plan, a 68-page document outlining the district’s core beliefs and goals, is widely accepted as inapt and in need of a complete overhaul, several DPS board members and observers said last week.
Board director Anne Rowe, who has been quietly laying the groundwork throughout the year in anticipation of a fresh start with a new board, said the work on the Denver Plan will begin in earnest immediately.
Three new members, former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, Mike Johnson and Rosemary Rodriguez, will be sworn in Nov. 22, one day after the current board term ends.
The new members replace Mary Seawall, Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida.
Landri Taylor, who was appointed to the board earlier this year, won a full term in last week’s election as well.
Revisiting the plan, which was first written in 2005 and updated in 2010, has been an item on the board’s agenda since February 2012. It was then that reform-minded education advocacy nonprofit A-Plus Denver, in a letter to DPS’ board, dubbed the framework “poorly established” and said its goals were “disjointed.”
Those goals, spelled out in-depth on the second to the last page of the document include that “all students will graduate from the Denver Public Schools prepared for postsecondary success” and that “the number of high-performing schools as measured by the School Performance Framework will increase.”
An update to the plan has remained unfinished largely based on the inability of the current board to have constructive conversations, Rowe said. She believes the new members, who are expected to establish a 6-1 majority generally unified in support of the current administration’s goals, will be able to engage in a different debate that will yield a plan by June of 2013.
Problems with the plan
Rowe likes to point out there are parts of the plan that are working. But even before she was elected to the school board in 2011, she had her eyes on improving the urban school district’s vision.
“The Denver Plan can become more robust with regards to setting measurable goals,” she said. “We really need to articulate what we’re focusing on. The Denver Plan has a lot in it. But there needs to be some vision, core beliefs, theory of action, high level goals, strategies, and the measurements to show (the community) we’re going in the right direction.”
She hopes a revised plan will be a document district stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large— can use to hold the system accountable.
“I think that to provide a great education to kids, you not only have to do it well, but you have to articulate it well,” she said. “We need to have accountability: how do we know we’re going in the right direction. Without a plan going forward, it would be very hard for me to measure any organization whether they’re successful or not.”
The current plan has made it impossible to understand the district’s successes and failures because the across the board goal outlined in the plan — a 3.5 percent annual growth in state assessment scores, graduation rate and growth — is arbitrary, said A-Plus Denver chief Van Schoales.
And, as Schoales pointed out, the district is having a hard time meeting those goals, however unmethodical they are.
“There are too many objectives and it’s not focused,” said Schoales of the cumbersome document. “We believe a strategic plan is crucial for the district to improve.”
Path to the plan
In the nine months leading up to last week’s election, the board contracted the Panasonic Foundation, which specializes in evidence-based accountability in high poverty school districts, to act as a facilitator while it retools the Denver Plan, Rowe said. The board has also hosted several retreats which have centered around two questions: what is a great education, and what should a DPS graduate know and be able to do after graduation, Rowe said.
“The new board will dive in,” Rowe said. “Our intent is to work collaboratively with the district, find best practices, talk to various organizations and, most importantly, reach out to the constituents in our community — both the people who work in our schools and the parents and students who go to our schools. There will be an inclusive discussion around this, because that’s how we’re going to get the best plan.”
Schoales believes the board should have a working draft for public comment by early spring. And while an utilitarian blueprint is paramount, Rowe said the board is not going to rush the process.
“We’ll engage the new board as quickly as possible,” Rowe said. “Coming up with a revised Denver plan that is engaging, that is thoughtful, will take some time.”
But, Rowe believes, the discussions moving forward will be more advanced than the ones in the past.
“We would spend a lot of time discussing whether a school was a charter school or not,” Rowe said. “Opposed to what is happening in a school to create a high level of achievement.”
Kaplan, one of three board members who regularly and publicly criticized the district’s administration and its trajectory, was partnered with Rowe to secure a consultant and lead the conversation among board members.
She dismissed the claim the minority held up the process.
“It’s puzzling to me how the minority could have stopped anything,” she said. “I don’t think we were able to stop anything significant.”
Kaplan said the 6-1 supermajority will be entirely accountable to the success of a new Denver Plan.
“There will be no excuses,” she said.
The lone opposing voice to the broad reform agenda backed by the new, expanding board majority is taking a combative wait-and-see approach.
“They have all power,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver. “They can silence me at meetings if they wish to. They can do whatever they like. It’s really in their court, to either include the voice of northwest Denver or not. I do plan on being more of a watch dog. I do plan on speaking out more.”