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.