We begin this series with reflections from Tom Boasberg, who recently announced he is stepping down from his position as Superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS).
Since being unanimously appointed as Superintendent of DPS in 2009, Boasberg has led the city’s efforts to accelerate the progress of its nearly 92,000 students. Over the past eight years, the district has posted record enrollment increases and increased its four-year graduation rate by more than 25 percentage points.
In his remarks below at the National Charter Schools Conference, Boasberg shares how Denver was able to better serve students and families.
We have a very strong belief that we as a public school district are better by having both charters and district-run schools. We are better together, and we learn from each other. We offer our families opportunities and choices they would not have if we did not have the vibrancy of our charter and district-run sectors.
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We start from premise that “we are one public school district.” It’s very important that we all have the same stake in it, that we all take part in governing it and deciding what the rules of the road should be. What’s often hard is finding the right balance to ensure that our schools—and this is true for charter and district-run schools—have a high-level of autonomy in how they run their academic program, while at the same time ensuring that we have common rules to serve equity: common rules around enrollment, finance, facilities, opening new schools, performance, and transfers.
This is all at the heart of our philosophy, which is: We are one public school community, and we all have a responsibility in making that community a success.
Of course, there are lots of challenges, and the political challenges are growing and are in some ways more significant than the operational and policy ones.
Ultimately, we are better as a district by having charters and traditional schools alongside one another.
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Ensuring Equitable Access for All Students
We’ve made tremendous progress and that comes from understanding that our mission is equity. The reason our charter educators run their schools is the same for district educators, which is to drive change and opportunity for communities that have been so long denied the kinds of educational opportunities they deserve. So, we start by asking, “How do we work together to create better opportunities for kids in our communities who haven’t had those opportunities?”
For example, almost all of our charters are now in district-owned facilities. Almost all serve boundaries called “community enrollment zones” with several schools in each zone, often a combination of district-run and charter schools. All schools have equal obligations to serve students in their boundaries.
One of the things that we have been focused on is service to our students with special needs—mild, moderate, and severe needs. For our students with severe disabilities, we ensure they are well-supported in “designated center programs,” and both charter and district-run schools get the same kind of intensive resources to serve those students and have the same responsibility to serve them well.
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Another issue we tackled this year is for high-mobility, high-poverty populations. Often, the most popular schools would fill up early during our choice window. So for students who arrived in Denver or moved housing after the choice window, these schools were already filled. We’d then see a clustering of these students in schools that are less popular and higher need. This created a negative spiral where the schools that were lower performing were taking more students who transferred or came late.
We did an extensive study over the course of a year and found we needed to change the system to dramatically expand the number of seats reserved for what we call “late arrival students” in our most popular schools (i.e., those with waitlists). This year, we will reserve 2,500 slots at our most popular district-run and charter schools. This required a fundamental shift along with thoughtful systems to balance the equities between families that were on waitlists and families that were late arrival.
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The data was so strong that our late arrival kids on average had significantly higher academic needs that we had to fundamentally change our systems so that our most transient kids have the same kinds of shots at our most in-demand schools as families with more social capital.
We have to really dig into the equity implications of all our policies. And sometimes we’ve had very painful systems changes. We work to come together with district-run and charter stakeholders for hours and hours to diagnose the problem and find alternative approaches.