Southwest Denver parents and activists are pushing the district to move faster to improve schools in the neighborhood, but are still far from a consensus on exactly what changes are needed.
At a community meeting convened on Wednesday by Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez and a coalition of advocacy organizations, residents and advocates agreed that a plan to boost the neighborhood’s struggling schools was overdue. But they disagreed about whether charter schools or in-district solutions would be most effective and about how the district should serve the area’s many English learners.
This week’s meeting comes on the heels of DPS’s decision to delay plans to open two new schools in southwest Denver next year, including one run by charter operator Strive.
DPS officials say they are working steadily to improve schools despite the delay, but parents and advocates have claimed change is not coming quickly enough.
The quality of schools in the southwest, which is home to some 22,000 students, has been the subject of concern and discontent for years.
“This is something that’s been going on for decades and generations. The school board has known it, the superintendents have known it,” said Marco Antonio Abarca, a board member of Latinos for Education Reform.
Wednesday’s meeting began with a barrage of statistics illustrating the neighborhood’s plight drawn from a report called “Ya Basta”—Enough is Enough—released by a coalition of local advocacy groups last spring.
“We’re saying that now is the time for change,” said Van Schoales, the CEO of A+ Denver, one of the groups behind the report.
“We’re here to demand from the school district high-quality public schools in southwest Denver,” said Oscar Castillo, a member of Stand For Children. “It’s disappointing to see a slow response on the part of the district.”
Castillo and other parents spent the evening advocating for more school choice, more high-quality elementary schools, and better transportation options in the neighborhood. One mother described how her child had to travel an hour to get to school. Another said students need a restorative justice system, healthy food, high standards, and extended time in school.
Schoales said efforts in the Far Northeast, where many schools have undergone intense turnaround efforts and others have been converted into charter schools, could be a model for improvements. Several parents said they hoped Strive and DSST, networks of high-performing charter schools, would move into the area, and one charter operator used the public comment section to recruit families.
But Padres & Jovenes Unidos, originally slated to cohost the event, chose not to host because it did not agree with the other sponsoring groups—Stand For Children, Latinos for Education Reform, A+ Denver, and Democrats for Education Reform—that charter schools are the answer.
Members still showed up to the Wednesday’s meeting to call for change.
“Our strong recommendation is to improve our schools, not to replace our schools,” said Ricardo Martinez, the group’s co-director. “Not all charters are bad. They’re good incubators for best practices. But we feel the incubation period is over. We know what works and we should do our most to replicate those practices in our schools.”
In this heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhood, there was also disagreement about how the district should work with students who are learning English.
One commenter said research showed students should begin learning English at the very beginning of their school careers. A first-year Teach For America corps member spoke in both English and Spanish to illustrate the benefits of bilingual education.
Darlene LeDoux, DPS director of academic achievement for English learners, said the district’s current program, in which some students learn in their native language before focusing on English, is research-based and benefits students. “It’s imperative to retain culture and the connection to family,” LeDoux said.
Nearly a third of the comments came from school and advocacy group leaders. Two staff members at Compass Academies, which plans to open in the neighborhood next year, used the comment time to present a slide show featuring images of teachers and kids. And David Hicks, founder of the Colorado Construction Institute, described his school—now in its second year—and said the district shouldn’t neglect career education in favor of college preparation for all.
Rodriguez told the crowd that she planned to share their perspectives with the district. She said she planned to host additional meetings and events, including having a college fair for elementary-aged students in the area and having a community-wide conversation about restorative justice and bullying.
Though the meeting was not organized by DPS, district officials and board president Happy Haynes came to listen to comments and talk to attendees. DPS officials have said they are already working with community members and schools in southwest Denver to address concerns.
After the meeting, Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, said she and other DPS staff had already been in conversations with community members in the neighborhood. She said the district was taking a different approach to school improvement in southwest than it had in northeast Denver, where dramatic changes and turnaround efforts led to some pushback from community members.
She said parents in southwest should already be seeing some improvements. One school is receiving a new leader; other principals are learning strategies for coaching teachers. “The principal should be more visible, there should be changes in the kind of work students are doing…it’s not nearly as flashy as, we’re going to shut this school down and bring in a brand-new program, but it’s the kind of work that will pay off.”
“You heard here in the room this tension between urgency and, don’t close down all our schools, don’t make the same mistakes,” she said. “I thought it was a very balanced conversation around the role high-performing charters can play, about the role of improving neighborhood schools. I think it’s really a good way to move into a region-wide approach to thinking about this.”
Rodriguez said more people came to the meeting than she had anticipated. “People thought there was an opportunity to be involved. People are aware we have room to grow and want to come up with steps to achieve it.”
She said she wasn’t surprised that most of the meeting participants had ties to the advocacy groups that had organized the meeting.
“They wouldn’t join an advocacy group if there weren’t something to advocate for,” Rodriguez said.