Theresa Peña is in her eighth and final year as a member of the Denver school board.
When I first joined the Denver Public Schools Board of Education eight years ago we had a tremendous group of school board members representing the interests and needs of students and teachers, working with multiple superintendents with a single goal in mind: Improved student achievement.
A shared goal does not mean there wasn’t vigorous debate. We publicly talked and even argued about the best way to move the district forward, but regardless of the differences in opinion we worked together.
We have made great progress and sustained improvements in DPS. Some of those positive indicators include: Five-year increase in number of high school graduates; double-digit increase in number of AP tests taken and passed; five-year growth in proficiency outpacing the state performance on CSAP; three consecutive years of enrollment growth. Yet there is much more to do.
That progress and the future of our students are now at risk due to the actions of three current school board members. Through their direct involvement or the work of their surrogates, they are trying to recall Nate Easley, fire Superintendent Tom Boasberg and undo the initiatives of the Denver Plan, all of which would damage the academic interests of our kids, our teachers, and the Denver community.
How we got here
In November 2009, Denver elected three new school board members and one incumbent. Since then Jeanne Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida have established voting records that clearly demonstrate their allegiance to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association first and foremost:
- Kaplan and Jimenez voted against granting innovation status to Montclair Elementary, despite the overwhelming support of parents, teachers and community members. Montclair is currently rated as a green school, meets expectations, in the district performance framework. (February 2009)
- Merida and Jimenez voted against the approval of alternative education programs in southwest and far northeast Denver. (November 2009) This despite the fact that the two high schools in southwest graduating only about two-thirds of their students and in far northeast the high school graduates only about 60 percent of its kids.
- Kaplan, Jimenez and Merida voted against the placement of West Denver Prep, the district’s highest performing middle school, at Lake Middle School. At the same meeting all three also voted against the turnaround strategies for Lake, the lowest performing middle schools in the district. (November 2009) Despite their objection to these decisions both school programs are already improving the capture rate in northwest Denver.
- All three voted against a comprehensive plan for Far Northeast Denver, a plan intended to improve student achievement and close the achievement gaps; to ensure the effectiveness of our teachers and our principals; to ensure all students have access to rigorous standards-based curricula and assessments; and to provide coordinated and comprehensive systems of support for the whole child. Instead they preferred to disrupt the community process and not to allow the creation of high performing schools for a neighborhood that suffers from a lack of high-performing schools; particularly in the feeder pattern for Montbello High School, where just 6 out of every 100 freshmen go on to college without needing remediation and where more than 1000 students currently attend a Denver Public School outside of the Far Northeast community, often riding more than an hour on a bus to and from school in an other part of the city. (November 2010)
- Merida and Jimenez voted against Race to the Top which would have brought millions of dollars to Denver Public Schools. (January 2010)
- All three issued a press release challenging the refinancing of pension certificates of participation (PCOPs), a deal Kaplan and Jimenez had previously supported, that facilitated the merger of the Denver Public Schools retirement system with the state’s retirement system, PERA; a deal that improved the financial position of the district and resulted in millions of dollars going to schools. (March 2010)
- Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez voted against board support of SB191, a bill which promoted the principle of mutual consent in hiring and accountability for the performance of principals and teachers as fundamental to the success of schools and its students. (April 2010)
- All three voted against a resolution by the board in support of effective teaching. The intent of the resolution was to direct the superintendent to work with DCTA to develop a plan in support of mutual consent hiring and to eliminate forced placements in our lowest performing schools and school that have the highest levels of poverty. (April 2010)
- At the end of every school year principals make a decision to grant tenure to teachers who have taught in the DPS for three years or to non-renew their contract. Annually fewer than 5 percent of these teachers are non-renewed. Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez selected four teachers who were recommended by their principals for non-renewal and voted against the decision. (May 2010)
- Jimenez introduced a resolution to halt the new school process, a process designed to increase the number of high performing schools in Denver, but especially in neighborhoods with a preponderance of low performing schools. After much public outrage he settled for a year long community process in Northwest Denver to identify the needs of our kids in that section of the city. (June 2010) In the meantime almost 25 percent of elementary kids choice out of Northwest Denver schools and 55 percent choice out of the high school.
- All three voted against the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report in June 2010 (CAFR). A failure of the board to accept the CAFR would have resulted in a loss or delay of future funding to the district. (November 2010)
- Merida helped form DeFENSE, an organization apparently created to criticize the current regime.
- Kaplan is a cohost, along with the DCTA, of an event (a Diane Ravitch speech), proceeds of which will support a 527 committee, Friends of Education, that has been silent about its specific aims, but is spearheaded by Easley recall supporters.
So what’s the point? Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez have publicly and/or privately demonstrated a desire to fire Tom Boasberg. Boasberg was hired to continue implementation of the Denver Plan; the district is currently in year four of a 10-year implementation plan. All three voted in March 2010 to support the ongoing work in the Denver Plan. And as I mentioned earlier the district is seeing sustained, albeit slow, growth in academic performance.
The district has attracted over $80 million in grants to support our work, so clearly there is local, state and national support for our approach, although not necessarily from the three board members in question. They represent the minority view of public education in Denver: Spend more money, keep chronically low performing schools open and ensure that the teachers union leads the charge to transform our schools.
The Easley recall effort
So why are they so mad at Nate Easley? Jimenez recruited him to run for the office, and he had the support of all three and the DCTA during the campaign.
Recall supporters allege a conflict of interest between his job as deputy director for the Denver Scholarship Foundation and his board duties, but he had that job when they recruited him, so clearly that’s not the real reason. Easley was threatened with recall if he did not vote against the Far Northeast plan. He ignored those threats and the recall was launched.
Easley represents the best of Denver Public Schools. He is a graduate of Montbello High School, has a Ph.D in education and has spent his entire career working in support of kids, especially the most disadvantaged, and for public education.
Nate’s mother raised five kids and sent all onto college; Nate was a teenage father by the time he graduated from high school. He not only has walked in the shoes of the kids he represents he has aspirations for them to achieve well beyond what he was able.
Since Nate was elected to the school board his district has seen many positive changes for kids and their families.
- Five of the districts top 20 growth schools in 2010 are in northeast Denver.
- 23 percent of the district’s highest performing schools (those rated as distinguished or meets expectations) are in northeast Denver.
- Using savings from the 2008 bond program, the district is building a new $5.5 million Early Childhood Center in Far Northeast Denver which will serve approximately 300 three-, four- and five-year old students.
- From fall 2009 to fall 2011 the number of neighborhood middle and high school options in far northeast Denver will nearly double, from nine to 17 schools.
- Beginning in the fall of 2011 every family in near and far northeast Denver will have access to bus transportation through their neighborhood. Previously only 10 percent of families were eligible to receive transportation.
- An 8 percent increase in enrollment, equal to 2,000 students, from 2008 to 2010, including an increase of 3 percent since 2009. If enrollment growth is a surrogate indicator of satisfaction then the families in northeast Denver is demonstrating support of the Denver Public Schools.
So if they flip Nate’s seat then they can finally claim the majority on the board. Then they can fire Boasberg, undo all the foundational work of the Denver Plan, and the window of opportunity that has existed in Denver will close and our 80,000 kids will once again exist in the mediocre quagmire of a failing urban school district.
As a parent, a DPS graduate and a member honored to serve on the Denver school board, I am outraged by their behavior. I am stunned they have the audacity to try to undo the work and rewind the gains that our teachers, parents and students have worked so hard to achieve.
I am saddened that Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez have tarnished the reputation of a board that has been nationally recognized for our commitment to kids and achievement for all. Mostly I am disheartened for our kids. They will be the ones to suffer the greatest harm if this recall is successful.
In April 2007 then Superintendent Bennet and a united board wrote of our vision for a 21st century school district. We closed the editorial with the following statement:
“Rather than shrink from this inevitable change, Denver – its community, business, civic and religious leaders and all of its citizens – must seize this opportunity and make it their first cause. Ten years from now, let them say that Denver was the vanguard for reform in public education. Let them say, 10 years from now, that in Denver we saw what others could not, and laid down our adult burdens to lift up our children. Let them say that a spark flew in Denver that ignited a generation of educators, children, parents and communities and gave them courage to abandon the status quo for a shimmering future. We can do this in Denver; it is simply a matter of imagination and will.”
During the 2009 school board election there were many pledges of support and promises to mobilize for continued reforms in DPS. The truth is many avowed reformers did not come through during that election.
If people do not fight against the recall of Nate Easley and do not fight this November to make sure Denver has a school board committed to reform, our city will be changed forever.
This fight is about Nate. It is about a majority of a board and a superintendent who believe that all Denver kids deserve to attend high-performing neighborhood schools, it is about turning around low graduation and high remediation rates. This is about making tough, wrenching, courageous decisions so that all kids in Denver have a school district worthy of their dreams.
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