3 steps to success

New superintendent outlines vision for improving Denver education

By Michael Bennet
The Rocky Mountain News
July 2, 2005

We are in reach of former Mayor Federico Pena's dream that Denver become a great city.

Our success is all the more remarkable, I believe, because in the two decades since Mayor Pe?a ran for office, the rise of a truly global economy has set an entirely new standard for greatness. Time and again, over the past 20 years, with the leadership of Mayor Wellington Webb and now Mayor John Hickenlooper, Denver has demonstrated its capacity to think big - from Denver International Airport, to the redevelopment of LoDo and Stapleton, to FasTracks. Unlike many other cities around the country, we know that Denver will be defined more by its future than by its past. Our destiny is in our hands.

Denver's next great project is the transformation of its public school system into the best big city school district in the country. For me, this means excellence in learning, excellence in teaching, excellence in retention rates, and excellence in college preparation.

In the face of our current dropout and achievement rates, some have cautioned against such ambitious goals, fearing that a failure to meet them will create disappointment. But it seems clear that we cannot hope to achieve excellence without aiming for it, and, in the new global environment, excellence is what our children must attain if we want to secure their future.

Over the last several months, I have spoken with scores of people anxious to support the Denver Public Schools but worried that the district faces "intractable" problems. It is not surprising that some people feel this way. Urban school districts across the country have engaged in reform efforts for almost 40 years with little progress to show for it. There have been pockets of wonderful improvement and gains in student achievement, but, too often, the successes are the exceptions that prove the rule. No urban district has been able to scale success to the degree we want here in Denver.

So, what do we need to do? We need to imagine the conditions for success, and then relentlessly build a system of public education that delivers those conditions at scale.

Many factors contribute to academic achievement among students, but three seem most essential.

First, we need to create a safe and orderly environment in every school and every classroom in the city. Here, I have in mind everything from ensuring that cell phones are shut off in the classroom to attacking our truancy and dropout rates. If the children are not in the classroom, we know they surely can't learn. As a community, we need to better identify the causes of truancy and then respond emphatically to those causes. No student, for example, should ever have to decide between taking care of a younger sibling and attending school. Yet, it happens every day in this city.

Second, we must have a highly skilled faculty in every one of our school buildings that have access to robust professional development and real-time diagnostic data that will allow teachers to better evaluate the progress our children are making. Progress has been made across the country in professional development and data collection, and both are supported by teachers and reform-minded administrators alike. We should accept nothing less than the gold standard here in Denver.

Third, each principal should be supported and equipped to be the instructional leader for the faculty in their school. We need a far more extensive training program for teachers and administrators to prepare them for instructional leadership.

If these three conditions existed in every one of our approximately 140 schools, who would bet against success? Our job is to align our budgets, our organization, and our community efforts in service of these outcomes.

Finally, we have an historic opportunity this November to take a huge leap forward to achieving these goals. Teaching is one of the most important jobs anyone can undertake. Our teachers work every day to lay the foundation for our future. If we are to succeed in our collective goal to make DPS the best public schools system in the nation, we must do a better job of paying teachers according to the value they provide our community. We must also reward outstanding teachers who go the extra step for their students so that we can continue to attract and retain the very best teachers to DPS.

This November, it is vital that Denver voters support the ProComp proposal that was developed through the leadership and cooperation of Superintendent Jerry Wartgow, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Board of Education. This innovative program will reward teachers for teaching difficult subjects, working in hard-to-staff schools, continuing their professional development, and raising student achievement. When passed, ProComp will be the most progressive teacher pay plan of any large school district in the country.

In the end, Denver Public Schools cannot meet its challenges alone. Reform, progress and excellence must be the business of the entire Denver community. And, so I say again, Denver, through your support for our school system, put our children on your shoulders so they can see more clearly the future you imagine for them.

Michael Bennet is the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

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