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DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg Is Out

His Departure Follows a Year Of Scandals And Discontent, Mixed With Praise For Accomplishments

On July 17, just weeks before the beginning of a new school year, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg resigned after almost a decade in the job. He will stay on for three months while the board of education searches for a replacement.

In a press release, Boasberg cited personal reasons for leaving: “I am grateful for the progress Denver’s children have made and keenly aware of the work still ahead of us. After much reflection, I have decided it is time for me to step down to fulfill my commitment to my family and pass the torch of leadership.”

In early 2009, Boasberg was DPS’ chief operating officer when he was appointed by the board to be superintendent, after then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Michael Bennet to the U.S. Senate.

The press release announcing Boasberg’s departure included praise from Denver’s political elite, including Bennet, Mayor Michael B. Hancock and current Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In a letter to DPS staff and community, Boasberg gave a nod to his second in command, Susana Cordova: “DPS has an experienced and committed Board of Education and leadership team, including our talented deputy superintendent Susana Cordova, and I am confident that the transition to new leadership will be successful and DPS will continue to move forward.”

Cordova, who was acting superintendent when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical in 2016, will likely be considered for the superintendent’s position.

Boasberg’s letter also touted many of his accomplishments, including a graduation rate that has risen almost 30 percent and doubling the number of African-American and Latino students enrolling in college. However, over the past year many community leaders and activists have grown increasingly vocal in criticisms over dismal test scores and inequities for students of color in DPS.

A Particularly Difficult Year

Boasberg’s announcement also comes at the end of a particularly difficult year when scandals in three schools collided with mounting pressure from pro-reform advocates and more activists mobilized across the city to push back on DPS policies.

The last school year began with a scandal as videos of East High School’s cheer team’s “forced splits” went viral and made national news. The cheer coach was fired and East’s principal announced his retirement as part of the fallout. Litigation regarding DPS’ response to parental complaints about the cheer team’s coach is still ongoing.

Manual High School also made the headlines in September 2017 when students accused the fans of the visiting football team from Weld Central High School in Northern Colorado of displaying a Confederate flag during the game. Manual’s principal, Nick Dawkins, backed his students but was then rebuked when officials from both DPS and Weld County issued a letter stating the flag had not been displayed.

For the school that has struggled for more than a decade, this was the first incident in a particularly difficult year at Manual. Dawkins resigned in early March amid allegations of a hostile work environment. What exactly happened at Manual to push its principal to leave remains unclear.

In late April, Colorado Public Radio aired the first of two reports on Denver’s renowned School of the Arts in Park Hill. The news organization detailed internal investigations into both the dance and voice programs at the school. Two dance teachers resigned amid allegations of abuse that had been happening for years. Two teachers from the vocal department were temporarily placed on administrative leave. The principal, William Kohut, remains at the school.

On July 5, a second CPR report explored how DPS had responded to incidences in all three schools and noted the inconsistencies: “Whether an investigation is conducted by school staff, a district investigator or an outside law firm is a case-by-case determination — again there is no set policy.”

Board member Barbara O’Brien was quoted on the DSA events: “There never should be only an internal investigation. People are not good at investigating themselves, so I don’t know how this was allowed to happen.”

Pressure from the “reformers”

In an October video produced by the national nonprofit education news site 74 Million, the Colorado Director of Democrats for Education Reform Jen Walmer noted, “We have schools that have 11 percent proficiency in reading and that’s a crisis. And so a deep concern that we’re not doing enough fast enough.”

On Feb. 9, Theresa Peña, who was on the DPS Board of Education from 2003 to 2011, penned a critical commentary in The Denver Post, stating that, “As a city and a school district we are still collectively failing our neediest students.”

Peña praised DPS’ “sterling national reputation,” but was critical of both Boasberg and the board. She pointed to high teacher and principal turnover, widening achievement gaps between Anglo and minority students, and the 2017 school performance framework that was “mired in controversy because several researchers and advocacy groups have said DPS inflated results by giving additional weight to early literacy tests.”

“Until and unless Boasberg and the board of education take concrete steps to fundamentally change the district to serve its students and schools, real progress will remain elusive,” Peña wrote. “Over time, I have come to doubt whether this is even possible.”

In April, Tony Lewis from the Donnell-Kay Foundation, wrote in 74 Million, “Many of Denver’s students, especially students of color and those from low-income homes, are being left behind, and there is no viable plan to end this unacceptable situation. In its current form, Denver Public Schools is incapable of making substantive improvement for students.”

He further stated, “If neither the board nor Superintendent Tom Boasberg is demonstrating the leadership to improve these outcomes, if they cannot find the energy, enthusiasm, conviction, political courage, and fresh ideas, they should step aside in favor of new leadership.”

Pressure from community activists

In May, the Greater Park Hill News reported on rising community activism in Denver that culminated in the creation of the group Our Voice Our Schools, a Black Parent Summit and calls for Boasberg’s resignation.

Brandon Pryor, a member of Our Voice Our Schools, posted on Facebook about Boasberg’s resignation – a full day before DPS issued a press release announcing his departure.

Hours following the official announcement of Boasberg stepping down, activists from Our Voice Our Schools assembled a panel and issued its own statements on Facebook live. Jeff Fard, editor of the Five Points News and founder of Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, asked, “What should be the community’s first steps for hiring Boasberg’s successor?

Our Voice Our Schools claims at least partial responsibility for Boasberg’s departure through mounting awareness of education conditions in Northeast and Far Northeast Denver. The group also wants a voice in the selection of the next superintendent and is vocally opposed to Cordova being selected. Many view her as working for a pro-reform agenda that has not served students of color.

The group has called out disparities and has not relented in bringing equity issues to the table – including choice – which they say has mainly served Denver’s white communities.

PHNEE has also been talking

Another group that began mobilizing a year ago is Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education, which has largely focused on disparities at Stedman, Hallett, Smith and Park Hill elementaries.

The group’s stated mission is to “Raise the level of awareness around the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all school communities in the neighborhood in order to generate the will to create possible solutions to increase socioeconomic integration in Park Hill’s four neighborhood elementary schools.”

PHNEE’s activities have been detailed in extensive newspaper articles last August and in February (check out greaterparkhill.org if you missed them).

Hope for transparency … this time

On July 19, two days after the announcement of Boasberg’s resignation, DPS announced a search is underway for a new superintendent.

None of the seven members currently on the board was in office when Boasberg was selected in 2009. Former member Jeannie Kaplan, who was on the board from 2005 to 2013, noted that Boasberg’s predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Bennet, directed the board’s first round of discussions in a closed-door session.

“I hope the process for [Boasberg’s] replacement will be more transparent and community-driven than his own selection process was,” Kaplan said.

She continued, opining that under the auspices of education “reform,” DPS “has failed to provide educational equity and equality for most of Denver’s students and families.

“Let us also not forget, most families still wish to be able to walk their students to an excellent neighborhood school. It is time for fresh eyes and ideas to fulfill these goals,” she said.

A public meeting was scheduled on July 30 to discuss the process (that date occurred after this newspaper went to print). In its July 19 press release, the district promised that “the selection process will include robust community engagement.”

A website has been set up, at supersearch.dpsk12.org where updates on the superintendent search will be posted, along with an area where people can register questions, concerns or recommendations.

Lynn Kalinauskas is education chair of GPHC, Inc. Cara DeGette contributed to this report.

 

PHNEE’s activities have been detailed in extensive newspaper articles last August and in February.


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