13 years of reform

Bennet and Boasberg: Denver schools needed big changes, and the work isn’t nearly done

The Gates Family Foundation's Mary Seawell, Tom Boasberg and Michael Bennet (photo by Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).

The two men responsible for guiding Denver schools through dramatic changes over the last 13 years shared the same stage Friday and said their decisions to close two neighborhood high schools were necessary steps to give kids better opportunities.

Current Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor and former boss, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, were the headline speakers at “Schools as the Unit of Change: Building on Progress in Denver,” an event hosted by the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat; you can see our list of funders here).

Boasberg and Bennet, with the backing of school board leadership, have steered the state’s largest district through reforms that include creating a unified school choice system, closing low-performing schools and replacing them with schools the district deems more likely to succeed, and building a “portfolio” of district-run, charter, and innovation schools.

At Friday’s gathering at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Bennet and Boasberg defended their most controversial decisions, tried to claim an imperiled political center, and argued there is no shortcut to lifting achievement for all students.

Here’s what they had to say:

Closing Manual and Montbello high schools was the right thing to do, but mistakes were made

The year after arriving to lead the district with a resume as a lawyer and a high-powered investment manager with no experience in school administration, Bennet moved to close long-struggling Manual High School. In doing so, Bennet ushered in an era of closing low-performing schools in Denver — an option unthinkable in most other cities because of the fraught, if not impossible, politics.

Bennet on Friday described that as “a watershed moment” in the history of Denver Public Schools that “demonstrated that we were not going to settle.” (Manual reopened in 2007, and struggled again in the years that immediately followed).

Boasberg continued the practice of shutting low-performing schools, with board support. Since Boasberg took the role nine years ago, the Denver district has opened 75 new schools and closed 30 lower-performing ones.

If Bennet’s watershed moment was Manual, Boasberg’s was Montbello High in far northeast Denver, which was replaced by three smaller schools.

Boasberg called out the success in far northeast Denver — many more families keeping students in area schools, a doubling of the number of graduates. But he also acknowledged missteps, including focusing so much on academics that officials failed to make sure they kept an athletic program the community could be proud of.

“But again, the changes were very necessary,” Boasberg said. “The changes were all about, ‘How do we get better opportunities for more kids faster?’ … That is the gold standard, the north star.”

The future of schools in far northeast Denver is back in the spotlight, with some parents and community members advocating for bringing back a traditional Montbello High School.

‘Currents of orthodoxy’ are threatening efforts to solve problems

Both Bennet and Boasberg pride themselves on a consensus-building approach to tackling problems. But in 2018, staking out a moderate stance runs counter to the prevailing political winds, in which activists on both the right and the left are fired up and influential.

Boasberg warned against the perils of being carried away in “the currents of orthodoxy,” and extended that to people in the room who endorse Denver’s brand of education reform. This polarization is not confined to national politics. Right now, Denver Public Schools is caught between those pushing for faster change and community pressure to preserve neighborhood schools.

“Folks are being pushed to the edges on the right and left on politics,” Boasberg said. “Part of what we’ve been able to do in Denver for some time is to reject the orthodoxy of the left and right.”

Rather, he said, people in Denver have taken elements from both and figured out “how to put different pieces together that respond to the needs of our community.”

Boasberg said he strongly disagrees with people opposed to the district’s embrace of charter schools. “At the same time, it’s important that we don’t try to demonize those points of view or delegitimize it.” He spoke of trying to find common ground whenever possible, but recognizing disagreement is legitimate and normal.

Bennet, too, lamented the current state of discourse. “We are thinking of people who disagree as somehow not having a legitimate place on the playing field,” he said.

Denver has made gains in many areas, but shortcomings persist — and it’ll take time

When it comes to Denver’s efforts to lift academic performance, Boasberg leaned on the common expression about the “glass half full, and glass half empty.”

He was far more on the side of “half full.”

Boasberg noted a number of ways DPS is different than it was 13 years ago — doubling the number of African-American and Latino students graduating high school, cutting the dropout rate by 70 percent, and catching up to state averages on test scores by different demographic groups.

Yet this week’s release of results from a test known as “the nation’s report card” also underscored how far the district has to go: Compared to other large, urban school districts, Denver has among the biggest achievement gaps in the country between white and Hispanic students in reading and math.

Boasberg said people who say nothing has changed are “Chicken Littles” staking out a position “that is as ignorant and unhelpful and blinded as people who say everything is great, everything is cool, everything is working perfectly.”

While Boasberg has said he thinks the district’s aggressive goals are achievable, both Bennet and Boasberg underscored that getting any school district to where it needs to be will take time.

“If you are interested in making enduring change,” Bennet said, “there is no shortcut.”

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid up to $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson as much as $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

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Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works, a district spokesman said.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the contract says $60,000 is the maximum amount Antwan Wilson will be paid. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works.