Big changes could be on tap for the Denver school board as city voters gear up to go to the polls Nov. 2.
As many as three new faces could join the seven-member school board this fall.
Two positions are filled with incumbents who are fighting to hold onto their seats. The third will see a new person, since board member Laura Lefkowits has decided to step down after serving just one term. In a fourth race, school board President Sue Edwards is running unopposed for the District 1 seat.
Whoever comes out on top will have the challenge of leading a school district in flux.
The 70,000-student district is under new management: Chip Zullinger was appointed recently to take over from retired Superintendent Irv Moskowitz. A new merit-pay plan for teachers was introduced this year, and a controversial new bilingual education program is now up and running in the classroom.
A coalition of Hispanic organizations is trying to get more Hispanic representation on the school board; five of the 12 candidates running are Hispanic and two are black.
But no bigger issue has faced the district than student literacy. Recent state tests in reading and writing indicate that DPS students have a long way to go to meet state standards – despite the district putting millions of dollars into those programs over the past three years.
‘All the issues are definitely there,’ said political analyst Eric Sondermann. ‘But at the same time, I don’t detect that this election has engaged the public. Those who pay careful attention and are inside the system would agree that there’s a lot at stake.’
The most contentious race is in northwest Denver’s District 5, where incumbent board member Rita Montero faces Lucia Guzman, a minister and former executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches.
Guzman and Montero have taken shots at each other in the weeks leading up to the election.
Montero says Guzman lacks education experience.
‘She’s unqualified to be on the board,’ Montero said. ‘She’s not a parent. She has no experience. She doesn’t know the issues.’
Guzman counters that Montero is out of touch with her constituents.
‘She has seemed to turn her back on the voice of the concerned parent,’ Guzman said. ‘Rita has lost the desire to be a part of the community and has turned against the wishes of the community.’
A key issue in the race has been the fate of a new elementary school proposed for District 5. A vocal group of community members wants the school to be a Spanish-English Montessori school. Guzman has supported that, while Montero prefers a more traditional school.
The hands-on Montessori approach has had success in Denver and other areas, Guzman said. And if residents want that type of school they should get it, she said.
‘A good board member should represent what the community wants,’ Guzman said.
But Montero said that a dual-language Montessori school doesn’t make much sense.
The primary reason for opening the school, Montero said, is to alleviate overcrowding in elementary schools in northwest Denver. And a Montessori school requires participation in that program almost from preschool.
Instead of teaching kids English as the primary focus, a dual-language school would stall English growth, she said.
‘It may serve the needs of Spanish-speaking kids in maintaining their language, but I don’t believe it will help them keeping them in an all Spanish-speaking environment,’ Montero said.
Guzman said she believes that the biggest issue facing the district is improving the academic achievement of the students. The best way to do that, she said, is to ‘narrow the focus.’
‘We have to get a strategy, a hard-core strategy, and find out what are the specific reasons why year after year we see low achievement rates and what we can do about it,’ Guzman said.
If elected, Guzman said she would push to provide more options for students in northwest Denver.
Also a priority, Guzman said, is to get parents more involved in the educational system. That means listening to them when they bring an issue to the school board.
Guzman says she plans to ask the governor and state Legislature to adopt a bill that would make preschool a requirement if she is elected to the school board.
‘We’ve got to get our kids prepared at an earlier age,’ Guzman said.
Montero, whose son attends Hamilton Middle School in Denver, is seeking her second term on the school board.
One of her biggest accomplishments during her four years on the board, Montero said, was the implementation of the district’s new bilingual education program. The program aims to get Spanish-speaking kids into English-only classes within three years.
But her support for the program became controversial for Montero, as some Hispanics questioned her commitment to them.
‘In the old model, kids were given little instruction in English, and the curriculum was sort of dummied down,’ Montero said.
Montero also helped in the creation of several night schools in DPS and got leftover money from a 1990 bond package for schools in northwest Denver, such as Cheltenham Elementary School, she said.
The most pressing issue facing DPS, Montero said, is the achievement gap between white and minority students.
To close that gap, Montero said schools that offer three and four reading packages need to narrow those down, and focus more on just one program. The same goes for textbooks, she said.
More consistency is key, Montero said.
‘We have so many reading programs it’s understandable why we’re not doing well,’ Montero said.
At-large, 4-year term
The race for the four-year, at-large seat has been less combative. It pits James Mejia, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, against Jennie Rucker, a DPS substitute teacher, and Antoinette Alire, a parent of a DPS high schooler.
The theme of Alire’s campaign has been technology – the importance of it in school curriculum and the need to update technology districtwide.
Alire, who served for two years on the Collaborative Decision Making Team at West High School, points to the ‘archaic’ library at West as an example of the how the district has neglected technology and facilities.
‘Some schools have technology, and some schools don’t,’ she said.
To pay for the improvements, Alire suggests hiring an outside firm to audit the district and ‘cut the fat,’ starting with trimming administrative salaries, until students begin showing improvement in reading and writing.
But she suggests offering bonuses to teachers who live in the district so that teachers will take more pride in their schools, and weeding out those who aren’t up to the task.
‘Our superintendent needs to look real seriously and decide that some (teachers and administrators) there are not working in the best interests of the students,’ Alire said.
Mejia said the biggest issue facing DPS is the gap in achievement between white and minority students.
He backs efforts by the district to provide extra resources in kindergarten, first and second grades to improve reading and writing. More money needs to go those early grades, Mejia said, so that there are more adults in the classroom tutoring the youngsters.
‘We’ve got to do even more, more individualized attention and more emphasis on literacy,’ Mejia said. ‘We are not at optimal class sizes in some parts of the city. They aren’t small enough in northeast and northwest Denver.’
Mejia said he can be a conduit between the city and the school district, which haven’t seen eye to eye on many things in recent years.
‘When I’m talking to the voters in Denver, they’re telling me all government entities need to be involved in the education of our children,’ he said.
Rucker believes that the way to improve literacy is for the district to be more consistent from school to school with curriculum. She noted that all Colorado students are being judged on how well they do on one test – the Colorado Student Assessment Program.
‘I would like to see a curriculum design so that a sixth-grader at Brown Elementary and a sixth-grade student at University Park Elementary are on the same page,’ Rucker said. ‘We need a structured curriculum if we have a structured exam.’
To get better and more teachers in the classroom, DPS should offer full benefits to ‘paraprofessionals,’ or part-time instructors, she said. And if DPS is serious about improving literacy, classroom tutors should be full-time.
Rucker does not support the new pay-for-performance plan. She said it would be unfair to evaluate teachers solely on their students’ performance because not all students are at the same academic level.
If elected, Rucker said she would push for stronger discipline in schools because ‘some kids are absolutely out of control.’
At-large, 2-year term
The battle for the two-year, at-large seat features six candidates, led by incumbent Les Woodward, who was appointed to the board earlier this year after Lee White stepped down. Challenging Woodward are Rosario C. de Baca, Leo Smith, John Luoma, Kasey Miller-Leyda and Alice Langley.
C. de Baca has been a big supporter of the gifted and talented program, having served on the DPS Gifted and Talented Advisory Council, and was a representative to the state Board of Education for gifted and talented.
‘I don’t think that kids are being challenged enough,’ C. de Baca said.
Some students, especially minorities, are underrepresented in these classes because their primary language is Spanish, she said.
C. de Baca also said more attention needs to be placed on middle school instruction, because if students get to high school and can’t read and write, it’s too late.
Langley is a retired DPS teacher, having taught at Cole and Lake middle schools and Manual High School.
The way to improve student achievement, Langley said, is to recruit caring and better teachers ‘who understand the cultural background of kids.’
‘Too many teachers have low expectations of their students, especially minority students,’ she said.
Lowering class sizes is paramount to raising the performance level, Langley said. Getting parents more involved in their children’s academic lives is vital, she said.
Luoma may not have political experience, but he has opinions.
He supports school vouchers because ‘a student should be able to choose whether he wants to go to a private or public school.’
Luoma also said he believes that DPS is too top-heavy.
‘DPS has too many chiefs and not enough Indians,’ he said.
The current bilingual education plan doesn’t do enough to promote the Spanish language, he said, and if elected he would like to see teachers evaluated by their students. He proposes giving full benefits to part-time employees as a way of attracting more qualified workers.
Miller-Leyda described herself as a ‘mom who’s a little disgusted about how the school does things.’ Translation: the board needs to be more receptive to the desires of the people it represents.
Currently the Parent-Teacher-Student Association president at Rosedale Elementary School, Miller-Leyda said the district needs to put the same level of resources into its neighborhood schools as it does in magnet schools that provide special programs.
‘I am not an educator by trade but I come well-equipped with common sense,’ said Miller-Leyda, who owns a small business.
‘I believe I can provide the point of view of the community member. There are already plenty of educators,’ she said.
Smith said his motivation in running for the school board is improving student achievement.
While reducing class size would be nice, it’s not feasible given the resources in DPS, Smith said. A better idea is to provide ‘selective training’ so that DPS teachers are among the best prepared for the challenges of teaching in an urban school district.
‘What we’re getting now from the research is that teacher effectiveness is the key, more important than class size and some socio-economic factors,’ he said.
Smith supports the new pay for performance plan but only if teachers and the public have a say in its development.
Woodward said that opening the lines of communication between the community and the school board is a priority, adding that aligning district curriculum to state standards would be tops on his agenda.
‘We were slow at least if not absolutely reluctant to recognize this would be an important part of what truly is a national reform toward standards,’ Woodward said.
Carlos Illescas’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.