Denver schools suspend students too often, superintendent finalist Libia Socorro Gil said Monday.
‘I’m a little startled by the large number of suspensions’ – 10,711 – that the district reported last year, Gil said at a public forum toward the end of a day of school visits and interviews.
‘I have very strong feelings about keeping children in school,’ said Gil, 54, superintendent of elementary schools in Chula Vista, Calif., and the first of three finalists to undergo a day-long evaluation in Denver. ‘That should be an extremely desperate measure, to exclude children from school.’
Gil also said that while she believes in collaboration, she’s not afraid to stand up to a school district’s staff or board.
‘Disequilibrium, discomfort are part of my track record. It means people are not always happy with you,’ she said.
After touring three schools – McMeen Elementary, Denver School of the Arts and Lincoln High – Gil said Chula Vista and Denver have much in common. In addition to teaching a majority of Hispanic students, both districts struggle with high-stakes tests and how best to teach English learners, she said.
But there was a surprise: Gil said she was shocked by how small some Denver schools are. Elementary schools of 1,000 are common in Chula Vista. And her daughter’s high school has 4,000 students – nearly four times the size of Denver’s Manual High, which is being broken in three next year because its staff considers it too big.
At the arts school, Gil got a copy of the orchestra’s CD and visited a sculpture studio and a costume shop while string quartets played in the hallways.
‘I really like your hair,’ Gil said to one boy crowned in fluorescent yellow-green locks. Her own daughter, she said, begged to be allowed to streak her hair purple. Gil and her husband, a principal, relented – but made her cut the purple out a week later.
When Gil asked the yearbook staff about their school, 12th-grader Zara Snapp said she wished people knew the school isn’t just about arts: Its students are among the city’s top academic performers.
Students at Lincoln aren’t, on average; that led 11th-grader Alma Garcia to ask if Gil can assure equal chances for Hispanic pupils.
Gil said that would be a top priority for her, and Garcia said she was ‘very satisfied’ with the answer: ‘She looks like she has interest in what students have to say.’
Social studies teacher Antonio Esquibel asked if Gil had any experience with bilingual education.
‘I’m an English learner, I’m an example of that,’ Gil said.
Earlier she wowed students in an English as a Second Language class by chatting in Cantonese and Mandarin. She also speaks Spanish.
She said California’s 1998 anti-bilingual education law didn’t bar schools from teaching students in their native tongues. It it just forced them to ask parents to opt into, rather than out of, such classes, she said.
The law focused attention on examples of poor implementation – including some in Chula Vista – that left students ‘functionally illiterate in any language.’
The ballot initiative’s sponsor, California software entrepreneur Ron Unz, has said he plans a similar initiative in Colorado.
‘I do agree and certainly share the frustration of parents’ that any U.S. school system that can’t produce kids literate in English isn’t doing its job, Gil said.
Another social studies teacher, Kathy McKittrick, asked if Gil could help Denver students score well on state tests without giving up ‘breadth of curriculum.’
‘You need to know that I feel very strongly that a single measure of a child – or an adult for that matter – is not acceptable,’ Gil replied.
The three finalists for superintendent of Denver Public Schools are touring schools and meeting with educators and members of the public this week.
The schedule is:
Monday: Libia Socorro Gil, superintendent of the Chula Vista, Calif., Elementary School District.
Today: Denver businessman Jim Polsfut.
Wednesday: Jerry Wartgow, the former president of Colorado’s community college system.
Public meetings were scheduled with the candidates from 6:30-8 p.m. each night at the DPS administration building, 900 Grant St.