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Our DPS Weekly: Passing the Torch of Leadership

Jul. 17, 2018
Tom Boasberg with student in class

“After much reflection, I have decided it is time for me to step down to fulfill my commitment to my family and pass the torch of leadership.”

Dear DPS Community,

Some walked, some danced, some bounded. Many beamed, many cried. Watching over 4,000 of our seniors take their moment in the sun on our graduation stages in front of their families and friends this spring was exhilarating.

To see so many of our young men and women succeed in school every year and graduate ready for the next steps in their lives is what has made me proudest during my nearly ten years as your superintendent. Many of these students are the first graduates in their families. Tomorrow, their younger brothers and sisters will follow these pathbreakers.

This is our mission and the mission of public education — to do everything possible to make our public schools engines of opportunity for our community. Our schools can and should serve as society’s most powerful drivers of equity and social justice in a nation so desperately in need of both.

I am grateful for the progress Denver’s children have made and keenly aware of the work still ahead of us. After much reflection, I have decided it is time for me to step down to fulfill my commitment to my family and pass the torch of leadership. As you know, DPS has an experienced and committed Board of Education and leadership team, including our talented deputy superintendent Susana Cordova, and I am confident that the transition to new leadership will be successful and DPS will continue to move forward. I have committed to serve for another three months to help lead through the transition.

Read the letter from Denver Public Schools Board of Education President Anne Rowe.

Serving as DPS’ leader has been the honor of a lifetime for me. The talent and commitment of our students and our educators never cease to inspire me. Spending time in classrooms, meeting with students, and collaborating with teachers, school leaders and district leaders have brought me great joy and given me great hope.

Growth in DPS: How Far We’ve Come

Our progress tells a powerful story in the years since the launch of the first Denver Plan in 2006:

Our graduation rate has risen by nearly 30 percentage points, resulting in nearly 2,000 more students striding across our graduation stages every year. During this time, we have nearly doubled the number of Latino and African-American seniors graduating every year.

And we’re not just graduating more kids – more are going to college and they’re better prepared to do so. The number of students enrolling in college in the year following graduation has increased by over 80% in the past decade, with our students of color demonstrating the most progress.

During that time, the number of African-American and Latino students enrolling in college has doubled. And, with our focus on college readiness, a remarkable eight times as many African-American and Latino students are getting college-ready scores on Advanced Placement exams than a decade ago.

These high school results build on the success we’ve achieved with our earliest learners. When we began that first Denver Plan, the reading proficiency level of our third-graders was 25 percentage points below the state average – we’ve now narrowed that gap to three points and we’re on track to eliminate it. Our tenfold expansion of full day preschool opportunities, thanks to Denver voters’ support of the Denver Preschool Program, has been a key contributor to this.

These substantial academic gains have produced dramatic enrollment increases over the past decade. As more and more Denver families have returned to and stayed in our city schools, DPS has experienced the largest enrollment increase – 30% — of any major American city. We have replaced decades of declining enrollment and across-the-board budget cuts with growth and resulting investments in our future.
What this means is that we have helped turn conventional wisdom about public education on its head. For too many years, the idea in much of this country has been that if you want the best school for your child, whether you are rich or poor, you should leave the city and go to the suburbs.

But the data make clear that no matter your income or ethnicity, your children will grow more academically and make more academic progress in DPS than in the excellent suburban districts that surround us. This change bodes well for the future of our city.

What We’ve Learned About What Works

I want to touch briefly on some key lessons learned over the last ten years as we think about our next steps going forward.

First, there are no shortcuts. For our schools to eliminate opportunity gaps that have historically been so deep within our society requires much hard work. That work requires deep belief in all our kids, a commitment to social justice, a willingness to innovate, and a very high level of skill and teamwork from our teachers, our school leaders and all our education professionals.

We must continue to build those qualities and capabilities over time through a painstaking commitment to learning and excellence. And, we must continue to innovate — learning, improving and finding new and better ways to serve our children. When the status quo has not worked for our kids, we must challenge that status quo.

In education, it is far easier to take down and destroy than it is to build. Our children require something better and different. Building takes time, commitment and a long-term view that is often at odds with our short-term political culture.

Second, nothing matters more than our people and our culture. Without the right people and culture, no curriculum or pedagogical method matters much. That is why the most important driver of our growth has been our investment in our people.

Above all, we have focused on how to help our educators develop the complex skills to be effective teachers, teacher leaders and school leaders and to work effectively in teams. As a result, I believe we have the strongest teacher development and school leader development programs in the country, all of which are built on the district’s shared core values.

A key part of this effort has been our Teacher Leadership and Collaboration, the largest teacher leadership program in the nation. This year, nearly one in ten of our teachers will teach half the day and lead teams of teachers the other half the day. This builds stronger teacher teams and helps our best teachers develop their leadership skills, while allowing them to coach and grow their colleagues.

Third, we are better together. We must work together and learn together to reach our goals. The changes we seek are too far-reaching for individuals, no matter how talented, to reach them alone.

We will never reach our goals if we instead are focused on all the civil wars that hold us back – whether teacher vs principal, school vs district, charter vs district or union vs management. We are not and must not be each other’s enemies.

Denver is viewed as a national model for district-charter collaboration with a focus on equity. We have full equity among our district and charter schools when it comes to serving students with disabilities and those learning English, enrollment practices, funding and access to buildings. The result is better opportunities for all kids.

Fourth, academic excellence and a whole child focus are not at odds with each other. They complement each other. We have focused at all grade levels on educating the whole child – ensuring not just that our students receive strong academic supports but equally important, strong social, emotional and mental health supports. That is why we have invested so much in increasing the number of counselors, social workers, school psychologists and nurses in our schools.

Fifth, parents are our most important partners. To strengthen this vital partnership, we have grown our parent-teacher home visit program from one school and a couple of dozen teachers to now one of the largest in the country. This last year, over 1,000 teachers from more than 100 schools made over 12,000 visits to the homes of parents and guardians to talk about how they could work together to best support students. We need to continue to expand this program and all opportunities for parent-teacher partnership.

Finally, resources matter. We are very grateful for Denver voters’ support of our bond and mill levy efforts in the last decade, but Colorado cannot continue to be a state that is so far below the national average in school funding. We must continue to work with our state to increase investment in public education to offer our children better opportunities and our educators a level of compensation that will attract and keep the very best. As discussed more below, these resources must be focused on our highest-need students and highest-need schools.

Moving Forward With Equity as Our North Star

While we celebrate our gains, we are also keenly aware of the need to make more progress faster with our students of color. The legacy of racism and inequality in our country has created barriers to opportunity for too many of our young people. Opportunity gaps in our schools perpetuate opportunity gaps and inequities in our society.

We have taken many steps to address these opportunity gaps: expanding preschool, providing significantly more funding to our higher-need schools, increasing incentives for principals and teachers to work in high-poverty schools, and providing critical training around bias and culturally responsive education. An honest assessment of our data makes clear that these steps are not enough.

As a community, we must better come to grips with the challenge that equity does not mean equality. Although we have done much (and more than any school district I know of) to shift resources toward our highest-needs students, it is clear that they require even greater supports if all our kids are to succeed. In a world of limited resources, this is a difficult and contentious conversation but a necessary one if public education is to fulfill its mission.

Above all, this means that we must come together as a community to push more far-reaching changes in critical areas, including:

  • Providing significantly more financial resources and district supports to high-poverty schools.
  • Strengthening supports, recognition and differentiated compensation so that our most talented school leaders and teachers serve in our highest-poverty schools.
  • Ensuring higher expectations for all children by openly addressing biases and stereotypes, by strengthening culturally responsive education, and by having clear accountability for performance.
  • Offering more learning time (including summer school and early childhood), more opportunities for tutoring and smaller group instruction, and higher intensity social and emotional support for our students in poverty.
  • Continuing to increase socio-economic integration at our schools so children in poverty are not concentrated in high-poverty schools.

None of these steps will be easy but all are vital if we wish to realize our shared vision that Every Child Succeeds. The work of so many DPS educators already testifies to the promise of a just society. It remains our job to fulfill that promise, and I believe we will.

In closing, I want to thank our Board of Education for your leadership and partnership. I also want to thank our teachers, our school leaders, our support staff and our district leadership team for your remarkable passion, commitment and dedication to the success of our kids. It has been an honor to work with you.

Most of all, to all our students, I believe deeply in each and every one of you. You fill me and our entire city with pride, with gratitude and with hope for our future.