Harris, Schiller answer questions at DPS forum

Parents get chance to hear from applicants

Parents got a chance Wednesday night to hear how two of the four finalists vying for the Denver superintendent job would deal with some of the toughest questions facing the school district.

At a community forum Wednesday night, more than 100 people packed the Denver school board meeting room to hear from candidates James Harris, superintendent in Buffalo, N.Y., and Robert Schiller, most recently interim chief in Baltimore. Some critical questions

Both addressed critical questions facing Denver Public Schools, including bilingual education, merit pay for teachers, improving parental involvement in schools and improving literacy.

Harris guaranteed that if he gets the job, he will hold weekly forums with parents and every student will have textbooks to take home at night, something that has not always been the case in every school. He also is a big supporter of the fine arts, an area that typically is one of the first to get cut during a financial crisis.

“I believe that every child should see the symphony,” said Harris, 52.

Schiller said he would work hard to continue the positive direction in which the school district is heading by encouraging parents, teachers and community members to take a more active role in the education of the students.

“Schools in a vacuum cannot improve,” the 52-year-old Schiller said. “There are great resources in the community.”

He said he supports efforts to give parents more options in schools by offering more classes and a variety of school choices.

One of the biggest issues facing Denver schools is implementation of the district’s bilingual education program, which will be up and running in most schools this coming school year. Harris said he agrees with the DPS plan to mainstream non-English speakers into regular English classes within three years. Important goal

“I believe (bilingual education) is important but not the end-all,” Harris said. “The goal is for students to learn English.”

Schiller took a more neutral approach, saying that “we are living in a society that places a premium on multilingual workers.” He also said school districts need to recruit teachers who are trained to work with students who need bilingual instruction.

As for improving relations with the Hispanic community – parents whose children make up almost 50 percent of the 69,000-student school district – Schiller said school officials need to “go to where they (Hispanic students) live” to solicit their input and to listen to their concerns.

Harris favors site-based management, in which parents, school and community leaders help guide school budgets and some policies.

Both candidates, however, side-stepped the issue of instituting merit pay for teachers, a major issue facing the district in its current negotiations with the teachers union over a new contract.

While Harris said that “accountability should follow performance,” he stopped short of endorsing the practice. Schiller noted that he helped implement some “performance-based evaluation” systems in prior district he led, but said that sometime down the road many school district would have merit-pay or similar systems.

Before the forum, both candidates met with the media for a 30-minute news conference.

In that briefing, Schiller said he is a fair but tough manager, not afraid to make decisions that may not be popular. While in Baltimore, Schiller approved the hiring of 2,100 new teachers, and he said he trimmed central administrative staff significantly.

Harris talked about some of the successful programs he developed in Buffalo, including preparing students to learn before they enter kindergarten and the importance of reaching out to the community.

Tonight, the two other candidates – Eugene Gutierrez, a financial officer with the Dallas school district last year, and Sidney “Chip” Zullinger, a superintendent in Charleston, S.C. – will get their turn to answer questions and make final impressions on the school board. The forum is at 7 p.m. at 900 Grant St.

The four are competing to replace Irv Moskowitz, who stepped down last month after serving five years in the post.

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