Empty call

Decreasing enrollment growth and increasing test scores in Denver add up to no specific requests for new schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A fourth-grade student at Valdez Elementary in 2012.

For the first time in at least eight years, Denver isn’t calling for any specific new schools.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, the head of what was once the fastest growing urban school district in the country, cited slowing enrollment growth, limited money to build new schools, and rising test scores as the reasons.

Denver Public Schools released its annual “Call for New Quality Schools” in late December. In past years, the document included specific requests, such as a new elementary school in a fast-growing neighborhood or a new middle school to replace an underperforming one.

Anyone with an idea for a new school — or, increasingly, a replication of an existing school — could submit a proposal. The proposals weren’t limited to the specific types of schools the district was requesting, but it promised to provide buildings to those that best met its needs.

This year, the district isn’t doing that.

“Given current conditions, DPS is not making the promise of facility support in this year’s Call for New Quality Schools,” Boasberg wrote in a letter as part of this year’s document to community members and school developers.

That’s significant because securing a building is often the biggest hurdle for new schools.

The district will still accept new school applications, which are due April 2. The school board is expected to vote in May on whether to approve them.

The process of formally soliciting proposals for new schools was born in 2007 under former superintendent Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator, as a way to improve the district’s struggling middle and high schools and curb the number of dropouts.

Since 2008, the school board has approved 46 new district-run schools and 74 new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. But not all of those schools are open. Just 38 new district-run schools and 51 new charter schools have opened in the past 10 years, according to this year’s Call for New Quality Schools document.

Some opened to serve the growing number of students attending public school in Denver. But that growth isn’t predicted to last much longer. New enrollment projections show that due to declining birth rates and rising housing prices, the student population in Denver is expected drop from more than 92,600 students this year to about 91,200 students in 2021.

Other new schools replaced those the district closed for low performance. However, just one school is set to close at the end of this year because of persistently low test scores: Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter school in northwest Denver. It will be replaced by another charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, which already operates two schools in Denver.

Rocky Mountain Prep is among the homegrown charter school networks the district has granted approval to expand. Last year, the leaders of four networks — Rocky Mountain Prep, STRIVE Prep, University Prep and DSST — wrote an open letter asking the district to let them open more new schools to help meet the district’s ambitious improvement goals.

The school board has approved nine additional DSST middle and high schools that are not yet open, five additional STRIVE Prep elementary schools, four additional University Prep elementary schools and three additional Rocky Mountain Prep elementary schools, one of which is expected to replace Cesar Chavez starting this fall.

In his letter, Boasberg wrote that new schools have “played a critical role in ensuring families have access to high quality schools,” and he emphasized that will continue to be the case. But he also said, “we must be honest that some things are changing in our city.”

Read the entire Call for New Quality Schools document below.

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.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed to this story.