Surprising even those closest to the school district, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Irv Moskowitz announced Friday he will resign effective June 30.

He has headed DPS, with an enrollment of 69,000 students, for almost five years.

Moskowitz will head the new Center for Urban Education, which will focus on preparing teachers to work in urban school districts. The center, which has its headquarters in Denver, will be sponsored by the University of Northern Colorado, the state’s largest teachers college.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Moskowitz said from his seventh-floor office Friday morning. “I feel lucky to be superintendent here. Some people look at this job as one of the roughest ones. I didn’t see it that way.”

School board members said they would launch a national search for his replacement.

Moskowitz, 62, said he felt comfortable enough with the progress of the school district to leave his $ 130,000 job to pursue this “special opportunity, one that I just cannot pass up.”

Those who know Moskowitz best say he will be difficult to replace.

“He is very innovative and very conscious of the needs of urban districts concerning teacher preparation,” said state Rep. Dorothy Gotlieb, R-Denver, a former DPS board president. “He wasn’t afraid to take risks. Some people have vision, but he also had direction, and I believe he followed that. He will never be satisfied, and I think that’s one of his best traits.”

His critics say Moskowitz’s biggest flaw was his “detachment” from the Hispanic community – in a district that is 49 percent Hispanic.

“He didn’t want to deal with detractors over bilingual education. He just did what he wanted,” Hispanic activist Pierre Jimenez said.

Moskowitz will be remembered for numerous contributions to the district, including raising reading and writing scores and improving the graduation and dropout rates. The number of dropouts declined from 9.9 percent his first year to 6.2 percent last year.

He was instrumental in the transition from court-ordered desegregation to neighborhood schools, and negotiated the approval of a new DPS bilingual education program last week after two years of negotiations.

And voters passed the first bond package in about a decade during Moskowitz’s tenure.

“He’s leaving at the absolute peak of his career,” DPS board member Elaine Berman said. “In five short years, he’s definitely turned this school district around. There’s no question Irv is leaving the district in much, much better shape than when he got it.”

But others say he failed to gain the trust of the minority community, which makes up about 75 percent of students in DPS. While test scores and dropout rates did rise districtwide, academic gains for Hispanics and blacks weren’t as significant as those of white students.

“Irv’s a great visionary who brought a great sense of focus and direction to this school district,” school board president Sue Edwards said. “But his creativity and vision were constrained by the realities of our complex urban school district. The political and financial realities kept him from being able to fully implement all the vision that he had.”

Moskowitz acknowledged that while the “groundwork is laid for much better test results” for minority students, more needs to be done.

Said the Rev. Gill Ford of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

“He did make inroads, you can’t take that away. But did we achieve the level of success I’d like to have seen? No. There’s no doubt he failed to reach his goals” to improve minority test scores.

Moskowitz took over a school district that was in near chaos in August 1994. There were management controversies and the teachers, unable to settle a long-standing contract dispute, went on strike two days after he arrived. After that was settled, Moskowitz vowed to improve student literacy. He focused resources on that goal, especially in the early elementary school grades.

Test scores inched up soon after. Last year, DPS second-graders jumped from the bottom third in the country on a national standardized reading test to the 51st percentile – or roughly the middle of the pack.

“There is a sense of focus and understanding about what the mission is for this school district,” Moskowitz said. “The results demonstrate that.”

Although Moskowitz is leaving DPS, he will still have an influence on Denver Public Schools. Running the Center for Urban Education means that he will be preparing college students to teach in Denver schools.

Educational reformers have cited teacher preparation as a key to better student performance.

“There are ways to educate teachers we need to explore,” Moskowitz said. “We need to make sure teacher preparation is more personalized.”

“It’s a loss to Denver Public Schools, but we’ve definitely been needing something like that program,” said Pam Weber, president of the Denver Council Parent Teacher Student Organization. “No one knows more about urban teachers and what they need to succeed than him.” Irv Moskowitz

Age: 62

Appointed superintendent of Denver Public Schools in March 1994

Previous employment: 1989-1994: Superintendent of Pomona Unified School District, California 1986-88: Superintendent, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District 1985-1986: Assistant to Colorado commissioner of education in charge of public education reform project 1974-1985: Denver Public Schools administrator, including stints as assistant superintendent in charge of middle and high school education, then in charge of educational program for elementary through adult students

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