There is no shortage of opinion about the type of person who should lead Denver Public Schools. For the past two months, the school board has been gathering feedback at special meetings and regular public comment sessions on the characteristics and qualifications that students, parents, teachers, and others think the next superintendent should have.
The board has given itself a deadline of Dec. 10 to hire the district’s next leader. Current Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced in July that he’d step down this month after nearly 10 years at the helm of Colorado’s largest school district — and one known nationally for embracing the “portfolio strategy” for managing schools.
Boasberg’s efforts to improve school quality — which included closing struggling schools and encouraging the expansion of high-performing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run — were controversial. The feedback the board received reflects the divide in the community between those who supported his reforms and those who didn’t.
Chalkbeat attended three special feedback meetings held in different corners of the city, and we read notes from seven others. We also attended three lengthy public comment sessions. Below, we’ve listed some of the main themes we heard, along with quotes from participants.
The next superintendent should be an educator who has spent a significant portion of his or her career as a classroom teacher.
“We don’t need a businessperson. We need an educator, period, point blank. Administrative experience, business experience — that’s a skill that can be learned. Learning how to work with a budget? There are classes for that.
“But actually caring? That’s not a skill you can learn.”
— Rachael Lehman, parent whose children attend East High School and Denver Discovery School
It should be someone who reflects the demographics of Denver Public Schools, where 77 percent of the nearly 93,000 students are students of color, 67 percent come from low-income families, and 37 percent are English language learners.
“We need a superintendent that has lived through a lot of the experiences of our kids.”
— Louise Campbell, seventh-grade teacher at Compass Academy
“It is very important to me that the next superintendent is a person of color because DPS is mainly students of color, yet we don’t see any representation. A superintendent of color would make us as youth of color feel different. We can relate to them and we know they would understand our struggle.
“When I look at a person of color as a leader, it reminds me that no matter what obstacles we have to go through, we can still make it.”
— Ilene Orgaz, student at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School
The next superintendent should be willing to live in Denver, and if he or she has children, to send those children to the public schools here.
“I would like a superintendent to be chosen who cares about the community of Denver. If you don’t care enough to send your kids there … that says something huge.”
— Lisa Yemma, eighth-grade teacher at Slavens K-8 School
He or she should value Denver’s universal school choice system, which allows parents to use one form to request to attend any school, including charter schools.
“The DSST [charter] middle school has brought my reading level from kindergarten level up to sixth-grade reading, where it should have been at the time. In middle school, I got into trouble, but with hard work from myself and help from teachers and my mom, I have learned to control my temper.
“What I like about the school is that most of the teachers have a sense of humor that matches mine, and the kids that I have met are my best friends. … I am really glad that my mom made us go here. I am really glad that we had this choice because if we didn’t, I don’t know what would happen to me or what my grades would be.”
— Ronald Griffin, student whose mother drives him more than 200 miles round-trip every day from their home in Pueblo to Denver so he can attend DSST: Conservatory Green High School, part of the district’s biggest charter network
“I’m so glad I had the option to choose the best school for my family, so I would like the next superintendent to ensure that families always have a choice in education.”
— Lupe Gonzalez, grandmother who has two grandchildren and one great-grandchild who attend University Prep Steele Street, an elementary charter school
On the flip side, he or she should put less emphasis on school choice and charters, and make more effort to strengthen traditional, district-run schools.
“This is a chance to bring in somebody without baggage — and to hire a superintendent who thinks that young children should not have to travel across town to attend an elementary school.
“You have been barking up the wrong tree for years, and I wish you would choose a different tree. Charters, choice, and enrollment zones haven’t gotten you what you want.”
— Maggie Miller, parent of a George Washington High School graduate
“You have the opportunity to create a fresh start. … We just want neighborhood schools. And if you didn’t hear me in the back, we want neighborhood schools.”
— Margaret Fogarty, parent of a student at Park Hill Elementary School
Then next superintendent should be someone who is committed to listening to community feedback, especially about controversial decisions — and acting on it.
“We need a superintendent that will be willing to listen and act on that anger that parents have when our schools are failing our students. … It seems we in the community have been getting ignored for quite some time now. That stops today.”
— Cliff Harris, parent of three students in southeast Denver
“I hope to see my superintendent come to my school, or any school, and talk to students. I believe the new superintendent should let students know they support and care about them. Students should always come first, and I hope the new superintendent will make time for our voice and perspective.”
— Cameron Casados, recent graduate of DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School
“What I’ve heard in many of my interactions with families in Montbello, Sunnyside, the Cole neighborhood, and elsewhere is that very often, they have felt the decisions regarding their children’s educations and futures happened to them, rather than with them.
“Many drastic changes have been made, such as restructuring schools, closing schools, and selecting charters, which have an enormous impact on students and their families, and in which they felt they had no say.
“The next superintendent needs to be someone who views students and families as co-creators of the education system, not merely as recipients of it.”
— Adrienne Deshaies, former teacher in northwest Denver and current community organizer with Together Colorado, a faith-based parent advocacy group
The next superintendent should not be a diehard for one type of school reform strategy or another, but rather someone who will build bridges between factions.
“I want a superintendent who knows how to bring communities together and is above this fight of reform or traditional.”
— Alexis Menocal Harrigan, parent and former district employee
“There are so many great things that happen at DPS. One of the ones I think is distracting is the argument that happens so often between the reform side and the anti-charter side. Please do not pick someone who is one or the other. If one side wins, then by definition, the other side loses.
“Most parents, they believe in some path in the middle, and that’s what you want for a superintendent: someone who can listen to both sides.”
— Tom Downey, parent of three students in northeast Denver
The next superintendent should continue addressing long-standing district problems, including persistent gaps in test scores between more privileged and less privileged students.
“Last year, my daughter was going to a school that was too easy for her. I was told she had a behavior problem, which I knew meant that she was just bored and not challenged in her classroom enough. … I advocated that she be tested for her eligibility in the gifted and talented program in DPS.
“This year, my daughter was selected to be part of the gifted and talented program. I am very proud of her. … When she got to the school there, I noticed very quickly that she was one of four Latinos in her school, and [there were] two black students, as well. … I asked some of my friends who send their students to schools on the east side whether their students had done gifted and talented testing — and all of them said they didn’t even know what that was.
“The district has to come to the table and admit that we have more to do to confront this achievement gap in our city. … White students in DPS are outperforming students of color by double digits. The education our children are receiving is unequal. … I hope the next superintendent will build more intentional systems of equity.”
— Ana Orozco, graduate of Denver’s South High School and current parent
“I’m currently living in an area where 90 percent of the students in my community are not reading on grade level. Ninety percent. The possibility of that number including my son keeps me up at night. What am I supposed to do when the options in my community are clearly not meeting our needs? … What happens if he goes to a school where young boys of color are overrepresented in discipline actions?
“This year, I have taken the time to learn about school quality and school choice. And what I learned is that the majority of schools in my community are not meeting expectations set by the district — and the few that are have long waiting lists.
“But a spot on the waiting list is not the same thing as a good education, and every child in our city deserves a good education. … I hope that as you all prepare to choose the next superintendent, you think about the 35,000 children without access to great schools.”
— Erica Aragon, parent of future Denver Public Schools student
“I have a very hard time understanding how some schools in our district can afford to have their own planetarium inside of a school, while other schools don’t even have a basic library, or arts and physical education.
“I have served on CSCs — the budgeting and governing body of schools — where we have had to cut some of these positions, as well as classroom teachers. We want our students to be prepared for the future, but we cut their ability to learn creatively. … Without this kind of funding, without equitable funding, we will never close the achievement gap.”
— Jeannie Nelson, parent of four children who attend Denver schools
“We need to be doing more as a district to support our staff and students of color with more intention and accountability. The lack of intentional diversity, equity, and inclusion work presents itself every day in the classroom.
“If we are not prioritizing and addressing those biases, we are not building an equity mindset as a core part of our district culture.”
— Elizabeth Barrett, parent of a student at DSST: Stapleton Middle School
The school board is continuing to collect feedback via an online survey that will close at noon on Oct. 12.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.