The recent poll from the Colorado Polling Institute affirms what we already know; that the Denver Public Schools Board of Education is not working for our students, teachers, and families. Even though 55% of the respondents in the poll have an unfavorable view of the Board, a majority of respondents also rated the quality of education in DPS as good, fair, or excellent.
I am grateful to the teachers, school faculty and the principals who worked hard to get this school year up and running despite the ineffectiveness of our school board.
Over the last several years, we have watched our school board become mired in self-interest and frozen by inaction. At this point, DPS has a board that has lost its guiding values and is not able to approach and engage the highly complex work required to lead our schools into the future – and it’s hurting our students, families, teachers and community trust. As a former principal and regional superintendent, I’ve experienced first-hand what it’s like implementing board policies; the good, the bad, and the situations where no policies exist that school leaders are left to handle.
With decades of experience creating opportunity from challenges in schools from the Westside of Denver to Aurora, I do know this: there is hope. There are four priorities that we need to engage with urgency to begin to serve our students and educators well. These priorities are: safety, mental health, transparency in a strong organization, and re-engaging a primary focus on teaching and learning.
As a principal, I have felt the weight of responsibility for the safety of students and staff members every day we have school. And as a parent of two daughters in DPS, I have felt the anxiety and frustration of waiting for my kids outside of the school during a school shooting. Our district has not done enough to ensure safety and more could be done immediately.
DPS needs to create a solid agreement with our safety partners. For example, it has been 10 years since a Memo of Understanding has been agreed upon by DPS and the Denver Police Department. There was a commitment by our district to have an agreement in place prior to the beginning of this school year, but our current board failed to make that happen. DPS also needs to redesign the discipline matrix so that it is in agreement with policy and law, empowers school leaders to make decisions, and secures the safety of all students and educators in the school setting.
Efforts to bolster mental health in DPS have not kept up with the escalation of teenage suicide prior to the pandemic, an increase in needs driven by the pandemic, and the more recent increase of violent episodes in our schools. We must double the district’s mental health resources provided to school sites and triple the number of Denver Health School-based Health Clinics in our schools.
We can also invest in school-based Support Team Assisted Response programming, where mental health workers respond to issues with or instead of deans and police, and service centers similar to Cherry Creek’s “Traverse Academy,” a multi-layered approach that includes incidental and outpatient services.
Major decisions like closing or opening schools cannot be made without a level of transparency that allows a clear view into the current status and future projections of our finances. Right now, it is difficult for parents and families to see into the work of the school district. Even school board members do not have a strong understanding of our policies and how they should be applied, or the current status of the district’s $1.3 billion budget. Community members have a right to understand how our budget is funding our priorities and how these investments are paying off over time.
Through all the recent crises and distractions, DPS needs to ultimately rediscover its primary responsibility: teaching and learning. Every effort of our school district should be aligned to ensure that every student, especially Black, Latino and Indigenous students, has the learning experience they deserve with the teachers that serve them. By ensuring our systems are focused on teaching, we can make DPS the number one school district in which to work in the Denver metro area.
Our current School Board is failing our students and educators – and I know we can do better. With a functional school board that has experienced leadership, we can support our educators and keep kids safe so that they can learn and thrive.
John Youngquist, of Denver, is an at-large candidate for the Denver School Board of Education.
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