Bernadette Romero Seick will retire at the end of June, ending 31 years with Denver Public Schools.
She debuted as a Spanish teacher at Manual High School and rose through the administrative ranks, becoming interim superintendent last year upon the sudden departure of Sidney ‘Chip’ Zullinger.
She declined to say why she didn’t ask the board to consider keeping her on.
As the school board prepares to bring in a new superintendent, Seick discussed what has changed in DPS during her career – and what hasn’t.
Q. How has DPS changed during your years here, and how would you like to see it change in the future?
A. Educators are more inclined to take advantage of growth opportunities. They want the assistance from curriculum experts, from reading experts, from staff development experts. This is very positive, when people say, ‘I want to learn more; I may have been with the district for 20 years, but I don’t know all there is to know and I want to learn more so I can be more effective in the classroom.’
I see people far more open to that than they were back in the days when I was teaching. I can remember, sadly, that to a great extent we used to teach in isolation. You’d go into your classroom, close the door, shut yourself in there with students for 45 minutes, then accept the next group.
Very little was said professionally among your colleagues about your teaching craft, about how to do it better. There was very little discussion about, ‘How did that lesson go for you, can you help me, it didn’t go well for me.’ That kind of a conversation between colleagues is so important. We call that a learning community, and we really didn’t have a learning community several years ago.
Now I think we are getting there.
Q. People speak of a culture war going on, and DPS would certainly be an example of the political fight over traditional bilingual education, immersion and DPS’ attempt to compromise between the two sides with its three-year exit program.
Thinking back on your own childhood in a bilingual home in New Mexico and on your years at DPS, what approach do you favor?
A. I am very comfortable with and very supportive of the English Language Acquisition program as it exists today in the Denver Public Schools. I do not advocate a program that allows students to linger for years in native language classes without learning English. I don’t think we do those students a service when we don’t teach them English so by the time they get out of high school they can go on to college or careers.
Now we provide the native language instruction with the goal of getting the student proficient in English as quickly as possible, hopefully in three years; if not then we give the additional time in the native language.
I really feel very comfortable and very supportive of the current structure.
Q. I remember your smile when the board asked you to become acting superintendent. That role later solidified into interim superintendent. Are you still glad you took the job?
A. Absolutely, without any hesitation. One of the things that has been so marvelous about my career in the Denver Public Schools is the variety of things I have gotten to do.
I talked to someone today as I was visiting a school who’s been in that school for 35 years, and I admire this educator and I think she’s wonderful. I’m not sure I could have stayed in one place for 35 years. I have enjoyed the variety.
When I was at Kennedy I had a very narrow focus – Kennedy – and I was so proud of that school and I wanted to make it the very best for the students who were there. And then when I came down to be the secondary-ed assistant superintendent, it broadened my focus so that it included all secondary schools. And what an eye-opener that was.
And now, this year, it’s broadened so much more because of looking at the elementary piece, which I’d not been involved with previously. I really have enjoyed going into those elementary schools and learning about what’s going on there.
Q. After Chip Zullinger’s departure, Zullinger never spoke to the press, and board members never revealed specifically what their disagreement had been about. People familiar with superintendent searches expressed fear that our board would be perceived nationally as hard to work with. Is it? A. I’d rather not discuss that.
Q. Denver residents are waiting to see whether Senate Bill 186, Gov. Bill Owens’ school accountability law, ultimately helps or hurts schoolchildren. What’s your prediction?
A. I am very supportive of educators and students and parents being held more accountable. I think that educators being held more accountable has already started to shape instruction differently. Educators use data much more effectively now than they once did to plan what they think is best for the school, for the students. I think that educators take more time now to analyze progress, or lack of, and to modify what is being done.
I still don’t like the labeling of schools. Regardless of whether it’s a letter grade or a name, I think it boils down to the same thing, and I don’t like the labels. I have seen firsthand the damage of labeling, and I’m just not comfortable with that.
We all know that there have been some difficulties with the CSAP test and hopefully as time goes on those wrinkles will be worked out. Some of them already have been, and I think we’ll get better at that. So I’m very hopeful that the testing situation will get better and better.
Q. The public seems to have a suspicion that central administrations are bloated and inefficient while classroom teachers are overworked, underpaid and undersupported. Is there any truth to this?
A. It’s very popular to say that those who are closest to the student in the classroom are the most important people, and indeed they are. But that is not to say that they’re the only important people.
One of the things I’ve seen happen in the 30-plus years I’ve been here is that we used to have a very strong central curriculum department that provided very good districtwide support. As budget times got worse, that support declined to an almost nonexistent level. I think that was very significant in terms of student achievement, and I see us now trying to rebuild some of that. I think that’s absolutely essential.
So although we recognize the classroom teacher as the most important person in the learning life of that student, there are many, many other people who, although they’re not in the classroom, perform very important functions.
Q. You spent countless hours working on a 2001-02 budget and on a school improvement plan to help the district survive SB 186, but your efforts were treated harshly in the press. What’s your opinion of the press coverage you’ve received?
A. There have been times when there have been reports that were not based in fact and seemed very inaccurate. Our student achievement plan received some harsh editorial coverage. It’s bothersome to me that in cases like that, that writers speak as though they really know and understand and have all the information when in fact that’s not the case, and yet it’s reported in a very factual, there’s-no-doubt-about-it manner. But we’ve had some good coverage, too, so I guess it balances out.
On the budget, I think the thing that kept getting reported was, Why don’t you know what the shortfall is? Is it $25 million, $20 million, $18 million? What is it, why don’t you know, and why does that number keep changing? The fact is that when you start Nov. 1 planning your budget for the next year, there are many assumptions that you have to make regarding what kind of money will be coming in. So you make your best guesses at what that’s going to look like, and as time goes on, those things shift.
Q. Probably there are students out there who would say you influenced their lives. Does it work the other way?
A. Absolutely. The other day, a young man walked into my office unexpectedly. I recognized him immediately. He had been a student at Kennedy when I was principal there. Kennedy in those years was a bilingual school. He was a young man who had come here from Mexico, and he was just learning English, and a wonderful young man. I saw him, and I just broke down and bawled. It was that kind of a feeling, seeing him and knowing that he had gone on after graduating from high school and was about to graduate from Metro and is doing a fabulous job in college, and I’m sure he’ll be a real success.
I’m very proud of students like that who overcame obstacles and became very successful at what they were doing. And there were so many students who did that. That was one of the beauties of being a high school principal – seeing students as ninth graders and watching to see what happened over the period of four years. It was very gratifying.