Dear DPS Community,
Today, I want to focus on three things: a question, a claim and a proposition. Before I dive into that, it seems useful to take our pulse. Perhaps you’ve noticed that DPS has been in the news lately. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize those who have an outside view of our organization. It is to share that as we are working collaboratively alongside our students, families, community, Board of Education and team members, we know it is best to keep our focus on what we are trying to accomplish — to get better at getting better. Our challenge is that there is much debate and little consensus on how to consistently achieve that.
For us, “better” means all students thrive in school and accomplish their dreams after graduation. A school district that aims to get better at getting better will have continuous improvement as its focus and priority. School-based staff in these systems align their goals and actions with District goals. They share knowledge. They help staff in other schools grow and improve.
When I look around DPS, what impresses me most is that we embrace controversy — especially if it is about a topic we ought to care about. Heck, controversy beats apathy any day. We should care deeply when the topic involves student well-being. After all, improving the quality of the learning experience for those attending public schools just makes sense. Today’s students will solve tomorrow’s challenges and power the economic engine of tomorrow’s society. A little controversy about an important topic is understandable, especially in a society that values free expression. So, we accept that.
Part One: A Question
So, the question is this. Despite our best efforts, why have performance gaps persisted for so long?
For almost 20 years, the overall achievement of DPS has trended upward. The trouble is that we have only modestly narrowed gaps between racial groups. DPS has declared itself “the Equity District” where “all students succeed”. At the same time, systemic inequities have resulted in far too few Black, brown, low-income, multilingual learners and students with disabilities succeeding at high levels. Now, due to the pandemic, and an expired Strategic Plan, these gaps have widened! So, whether we admit it or not, aspirations are not matched by the facts.
Part Two: A Claim
The claim I want to make today is that we have the power to achieve the results we desire — as long as we identify and break down the systemic barriers that are in our way.
In a world full of uncertainty, two things seem clear: the system we have is perfectly designed to get us the results we have, and the hallmark of our work — and the new Vision for the Denver Public Schools — is “Every Learner Thrives.” These simple words define why we exist as a school district.
The reference to “Every” speaks volumes. We must take action to ensure that Every Learner Thrives, regardless of circumstance. We must recognize that a healthy school system provides a pathway and support needed so every student can pursue their dreams. After all, the business we’re in is maximizing potential, not reinforcing advantage and privilege. Nonetheless, the tragic truth is that, when we don’t narrow gaps in access and opportunity, it perpetuates the advantage of some over others.
When we don’t overcome these gaps, we are contributing to an oppressive system. It is the defining characteristic of a supremacist system in a majority society. As uncomfortable as it may make some, all signs point to the fact that our forthcoming community-curated strategic plan will plainly name and address this. That is significant.
Of the many obstacles that may impede our effort to design a system that learns to get better faster, one barrier stands out. It is the reason why the late-great Dr. Sharon Bailey, author of the powerful Bailey Report, said “equity has remained elusive”. It is the reason we don’t get where we want to go. It is plainly and simply the defensive behavior of individuals and our organization. While defensive behavior manifests itself in a variety of ways, it always has two parts: the first is “deny the problem”. And, the second is “cover up the denial.”
In DPS, we typically tend to be able to find the right words to describe our work and our goals. The trouble is that, to date, we haven’t successfully “walked our talk”.
It is almost certainly the case that superintendents in all large urban school systems are called on to navigate different political agendas within their respective communities. And to be sure, every superintendent brings a particular worldview to the role. Every superintendent has a theory about what works. I have been intentional about learning from the community and tasked myself with delivering what the community wants via our next Strategic Plan that is Community-Led and District-Supported.
Erasing inequity in schools requires countering a national narrative that views difference as a deficit. This narrative sees difference as a problem to fix, not a gift to value or a possibility to explore. Effective leadership takes steps to ensure that those they serve have what they need. It not only grasps this — but also addresses this. Equal opportunity is necessary but not sufficient. Some students will need added support so they can capitalize on (and benefit from) the opportunity. Opportunity without added support is a hollow promise. Our aim should be to remove barriers, so students feel they are free to learn as they learn best. We can’t lose sight of the idea that students should be supported to pursue their dreams, whatever they are. Our collective responsibility is to see and know what students need and meet them where they are.
Students I encounter in our schools are energized when a school provides choices that prepare them to contribute in a meaningful way to making the world a more humane and just place. The students I meet and visit with are animated when they talk about school-based experiences with trusted and respected adults who help them figure out where they came from, what they can do, and who they can become.
Part Three: A Proposition
The Superintendent’s Transition Advisory Team had three working groups. One of them produced Priority Areas related to “Student Experience and Achievement”.
Included were three areas of focus. One is to “support teachers and educators through a focus on well-being, culturally and linguistically responsive and sustaining professional development and evaluation and opportunities to lead change.” Within that, there are sub-components. One says to “Address and support well-being by training on what it means to dismantle a system of oppression and a supremacist system.”
My proposition is this. This goal of closing the gaps in access, opportunity, and performance is within our reach. To do so, we must focus in a relentless way on dismantling a system of oppression and a supremacist system, and we must refrain from engaging in defensive behavior (both as individuals and as a system).
We won’t be surprised if naysayers question our efforts to reorganize central office staff. But, if they agree it is time to move beyond defensive routines (denial and cover-up) and deposit supremacist structures in the dustbin, then we welcome them as fellow travelers on this journey. To be clear, it is not solely about the central office. There are glaring issues in our school ecosystem — how we group schools, support schools, and students. We need to address all of these as we face the needed changes in our school district. Our scholars, families, and community members are counting on us to do so. I hope that others in our community will join in supporting DPS efforts to do what is needed to eliminate gaps that perpetuate the advantage of some over others.
Dr. Alex Marrero