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.”

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.