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Will the New DPS Leader Make DPS a Leader?

By Marya DeGrow

As the helm of Colorado’s second-largest school district shifts into new hands, the time for significant and lasting change has come.

The Denver Public Schools Board of Education last week named Michael Bennet as the district’s new Superintendent. He will replace Dr. Jerry Wartgow. The board hired Bennet because of his connection to the Denver community and, as board member Michelle Moss told the Rocky Mountain News, because she and her colleagues believe he will help “tweak” and implement the board’s existing education reform plans.

The Rocky Mountain News reported that the DPS board’s process to select its leader began by establishing the district’s priorities. Board member Theresa Pena said the priorities included improving student achievement, creating a strategic plan, and implementing reform initiatives. The candidates were evaluated according to their strengths in each of these areas.

Bennet has made some proposals to address the concern at the top of every priority list: student achievement. A primary focus of his strategy is to enhance current professional development plans for teachers and school-based administrators. Bennet wants principals to become instructional leaders of the faculty.

The concept of instructional leaders suggests the new Superintendent may take steps toward reforms proposed by the Denver Commission on Secondary School Reform. The Commission is a panel created by the DPS board. The Commission recommends that high-quality schools be led by principals who have more authority and flexibility to create a clear vision, to implement change, and to assume responsibility for growth in student achievement.

The Commission urges that “over time and with training and support, principals should assume control of the budget, hiring, firing, scheduling, professional development and educational design at their schools.” According to the Commission’s study, DPS high school principals currently have discretionary control over only eight to 12 percent of the funds they receive.

DPS has taken steps to give some of its schools more control at the site level through charter and contract schools. The latter are operated by organizations other than the board of education but maintain contracts with the district to provide educational services to DPS students. Contract schools may be run by nonpublic schools, community groups, management organizations or a variety of other qualified groups.

The most unique Denver contract school is Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios, a nonpublic school that began contracting with DPS in 2004 to provide a complete educational program to at-risk students in grades seven to 12. The school is considered an independent contractor that provides services to DPS students (some of whom had formerly paid tuition to attend the school).

Contract school operators in DPS have the flexibility to hire and fire staff, choose the educational program, and control their budget in part because district has sought and the State Board of Education has granted them waivers (also commonly granted to charter schools) from state laws that typically govern these areas. Good sense dictates that the effects of staffing, curricular, and financial decisions felt most acutely at the school, should be made by those in the building.

In 2004-2005, DPS offered students choices in 17 charter schools and four contract schools. When the district sought proposals for the redesign of Maria Mitchell Elementary, their request came with the provision that a group could operate the school as a contract, charter, or district neighborhood school.

The district has shown its willingness to release its control over schools to give more flexibility at the site level. Maintaining the status quo certainly will not help students in DPS achieve acceptable standards. DPS, led by Superintendent Bennet, could become a truly groundbreaking leader by converting all its schools into charter or contract schools.

Under a blend of charters and contracts, every school in the district would be a school of choice, and families would have the obligation to find the one that best meets the needs of each student. The new role of the board of education would be to maintain a portfolio of successful schools and to close any schools that did not meet performance expectations or terms laid out in their contracts with the district.

Lacking a background in K-12 education, the new Superintendent has said that he will have a lot to learn and will assemble a panel to help lead the district. No doubt, Bennet will expand his plans to provide more detail and focus. Making meaningful improvement in student achievement will depend in part on radical wholesale changes in school governance.

Forging ahead along this path, Bennet has the chance to be a successful pioneer.