THE BLOG
04/13/2011 12:22 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2011

Denver Public Schools: Putting Children First and How Adult Politics Have Clouded the Discussion

In Denver's mayoral election, there has been a great deal of focus from candidates on the importance of improving our education system, particularly the discussion of reform efforts at Denver Public Schools (DPS).

Several candidates for mayor have suggested that mayoral control of schools is an option they would consider under "the right" situation or "certain circumstances." I disagree with that position. DPS has a democratically elected school board whose powers and authority are established in state law. The elimination of that board or alterations to their authority would require a state-wide vote. Though I have been disappointed by some of the actions by members of the DPS Board, their role is an important one and not something I believe the mayor should usurp by attempting to eliminate that board and replacing that elected body with mayoral control or a mayoral appointee.

While the Denver mayor does not control DPS, the role of the mayor in Denver's educational system is an important one. The mayor must be an advocate for students, hold leadership accountable and ensure that teachers and students have adequate resources for success. It is not enough to improve standardized test scores. We must fully prepare our students to compete successfully in a global economy.

Unfortunately, too much of the discussion -- in this campaign and in the broader debate about our schools -- has been reduced to placing labels on people or organizations and efforts to vilify those who disagree on the specific course of reform or school improvement to pursue. At the bottom of this article is a link to "Building a World-Class Education System," my paper on improving our education system. Because so much of the conversation about improving our schools has been clouded and overshadowed by what many refer to simply as the "Reform Debate," I offer my thoughts on this below as a preface to the paper discussing what I believe we must do going forward.

It is a sad reflection on the state of political discourse that the debate about how to improve our schools has become so defined by "which side" somebody is on as though there are only two sides and you must align with one or the other and valuing any idea from one makes you an opponent of the other. Too many people on both sides have drawn deep lines in the sand, pitted communities against one another and made unwavering support of their organization, not improving our schools, a litmus test for serving as Denver's next mayor. Just a few weeks ago, a young boy approached a member of my campaign staff and asked "Is James one of the people that wants to fix our schools or one of the people who wants to close them and make me find a new school?" As I sat trying to put together a clear answer, I thought again how tragic it is when adult politics comes before meaningful solutions and sound-bite driven rhetoric replaces honest discussion and debate.

Current dropout rates in DPS are unacceptable. Too many graduates are ill-prepared for college and require remediation to perform at local community colleges. According to a 2010 report from the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, only 7.9% of students who attend a DPS high school starting in the ninth grade are prepared for college without remediation when they graduate. Denver School of the Arts, a DPS magnet school, is the only school in DPS to have improved remediation rates since 2006, with 19% of their students attending a Colorado college requiring remediation, according to data submitted to the Colorado Department of Education. Of the students who attended West High School, 90.7% of those attending a Colorado college required some remediation, a 29.6% increase since 2006.

Everyone can agree that our schools are in need of change, improvement and reform. For too many students, the current system is not working and the changes needed in DPS are not happening at the pace necessary to prevent our children from falling further behind. Improving our schools is too complicated an issue to be measured by most "yes" or "no" questions or by questions that require a candidate to "choose a side" as having the "right" answers. I reject the notion that if you question the specifics of how reform is being implemented that you are "anti-reform" and equally reject the suggestion that if you say reform is needed, that charter schools have an important role to play in the future of our schools, that you are anti-teacher or anti-neighborhood schools. This is in fact exactly the problem plaguing the debate about the future of our schools and reform in DPS -- that constructive conversation has lost the battle to the politics behind the discussion and an objective view of what is best for our children too clouded by the political desire to align with one group or another who will wield their organizational or financial power to further a, too often, self-serving agenda.

What we need, I strongly believe, is not a mayor who comes into office as an advocate for one side or the other in a debate that has become filled with more rhetoric and politics than collaborative dialog, but somebody who will provide a neutral forum for constructive debate about our path forward. That forum is not the superintendent's office or the current school board and that forum is not at a table where the only seats are for the teachers unions or the education reform advocates. The next mayor must be committed to holding DPS accountable, partnering with the district to pursue the reforms needed to turn around under-performing schools, ensuring that neighborhoods and communities are engaged in decisions that impact their children and the mayor must constantly and consistently demand that we keep our childrens' education -- not the ideology of any one group -- our first and only goal and measurement.

Charter schools and non-union teachers are neither the panacea and answer to all of our woes nor are they the enemy. Neighborhood schools and union teachers are not the only model or choice that should be available nor are they the root of all of our problems in education. When I was on the DPS Board, the teachers union was at the table, helping to craft ProComp, a pay-for-performance plan now in place at DPS that is a national model for such plans. The Denver Preschool Program, where I was proud to serve as the founding CEO, provided access to high quality preschool to more than 15,000 Denver families and would not have been possible without the support of the business community. We have charter schools that have demonstrated remarkable results and are a fantastic opportunity for our children, many with teachers that joined the profession through alternative licensing programs like Teach for America (TFA). We have neighborhood schools that are serving our children well and setting the bar statewide in student improvement where teachers are traditionally credentialed and members of an education union. We also have schools of all stripes that have not proven effective, do not serve the needs of all students in the community -- whether gifted students, students with special needs, English Language Learners or students who may not go to college but need to be prepared to enter the workforce.

A recent study reported that during the first three years of a new teacher's career, there is little difference in student performance among students in classrooms led by credentialed, union-member teachers compared to students in classrooms led by teachers who come from alternative programs like Teach for America -- that in fact teachers from all backgrounds have similar improvements in student performance. If time and further studies show this to be true, then we need to be open to the role that TFA and others can play in bringing more people into the teaching profession. That same study reported the improvements in student performance come primarily in classrooms led by a teacher who has been in the profession for more than three years. Attracting more people to the teaching profession is something we should continue, but we must be careful that we do not turn the teaching profession into something measured only by cost and create a revolving door of teachers who leave before they have spent enough time in the profession to become the most effective teachers, only to be replaced by the next wave of inexperience.

As we implement the accountability requirements implemented under SB-191, we must not allow teachers to be made scapegoats and the DPS administration must also be held accountable publicly for providing teachers the resources they need -- in the classroom and for their professional growth and development. As a city, Denver must do our part to attract and retain the brightest and most committed teachers to make Denver their home. Our neighborhood organizations, the nonprofit and business communities and parents, must become more engaged with our public education system and embrace the critical responsibility of showing appreciation of those who commit themselves to working with our children, shining a light on those who excel, supporting those who need extra resources and being actively involved in the discussion when and where change is needed.

When a school demonstrates improved results, we should shine a spotlight on that school and look to replicate its successes with no regard to who or which "side" advocated for them. When a teacher or school leader is seen to be effective, we should not just publicly recognize those successes, we should take note of what differentiates their approach and how it can be implemented in other classrooms or schools. Conversely, when any school that has been given the resources and leadership it needs fails to improve student achievement year after year or excludes some students from its programs, we should take decisive action to reform it, close it or revoke its charter. And when a teacher has been given the professional guidance and mentorship needed, the appropriate resources and feedback to improve, but continues year after year to show no gains in student improvement, we should remove them from the classrooms of Denver Public Schools.

People for whom I have tremendous respect have talked at length about the efforts extended to engage the community in the Far Northeast (Montbello) turnaround. That substantial change to improve public education was needed at Montbello is something that I and many people on all sides of the reform debate agree. The efforts to better the failing school were not bringing about significant enough progress quickly enough -- change needed to come about quickly and decisively so the children of Far Northeast did not fall further behind. There is no question that the community outreach was a major improvement over Manual High just a few years ago and was the most comprehensive undertaken to date by DPS. But as I've gone door-to-door talking with voters in the affected neighborhoods, the overwhelming response I got was that people did not know about the plan or opportunity to have their voices heard until the decision had been made and the only question that remained was where their children would attend school next year. I also heard, from many families, concerns about whether we were making sure that, before approving the plan, the schools being put in place in Far Northeast are only those that have been tested and proven to be effective -- regionally, nationally and importantly, here in Denver and whether proven leaders were in place at each school before they were approved as part of the turnaround plan. I am pleased that the restructuring at Montbello does include quality, proven schools like the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS). My critique of the process should not be confused with opposition to reform in general or as criticism of any one school or proposed leader nor as opposition to any one school now going into place at Montbello. My concerns are rooted in the process which I believe has significant room for improvement in its outreach efforts, the tone of the dialog involved and the time it takes to bring about the needed changes. In many cases, the process needs to be faster and in all cases, the community must be better engaged. Although the greatest burden of engagement falls on DPS, I believe that the City, community leaders, the non-profit community and the business community all must take an even greater role in improving, reforming and supporting our public schools.

I believe that reforms and restructuring of our under-performing schools are needed, and in fact it is our obligation to move forward with significant reforms. But I believe DPS can do better to engage our communities and to set an even higher standard for the schools and leaders who will be responsible for preparing our children to enter college or the workforce of the 21st century.

Today we stand at a crossroads for public education in Denver, and though the mayor does not control Denver Public Schools, the next Mayor should and will play a pivotal role in the future of our education system. Denverites will find in some candidates a strict allegiance to the "Education Reform" community and an unquestioning commitment to replacing neighborhood schools with charter schools and, in other candidates, an unwavering opposition to reform, a categorical opposition to teacher and principal accountability or a rejection of the mayor's role in DPS altogether. If elected mayor, I believe my role is not to blindly support a movement or a union, nor is it to stand unconditionally with any person, organization or agenda, unwilling to point out where they have fallen short or can do better. Quite the contrary, my role is to demand that they all tone down the rhetoric, wipe away the lines in the sand that have been drawn, and once again sit down at the table together to put our children first and build a world-class education system.

To become a truly great city, Denver must have a world-class education system. Our public schools must prepare students to enter college or pursue other career paths, no matter the path they choose or what neighborhood their family calls home. In order to attract new businesses and employers to Denver we must have high quality schools that provide a highly educated workforce and a school system that instills confidence in families with children who will grow up attending our public schools.

If you believe, as I do, that there are worthy ideas on all sides of the education debate, that everybody who is committed to improving Denver Public Schools and who are willing to engage in a civil if robust debate about our schools' future, should have a seat at the table, that the improvements needed at DPS need to be accelerated, and that we must put our children, not any organization's agenda first, then I hope to earn your support and to work together to build a world-class education system. I'm proud to have the support of people on all sides of this vital discussion and would be honored to have your support and your vote, and to serve as your next mayor.

To learn more about my campaign for Mayor of Denver, please visit www.MejiaForMayor.com where you can read about my plan for Building a World-Class Education System. Also on the website you can find my vision for Moving Denver Forward through Economic Development , building Denver's Sustainable Future, my vision for Denver's Next Frontier, ,my commitment to Supporting & Celebrating Denver's Arts and my vision for returning our great city to be a City Within a Park.

I always welcome your ideas -- please feel free to post comments here or use the Contact form on the campaign website where you can also sign-up to Get Involved and find out about Upcoming Events.