Eric Sondermann

Eric Sondermann

The start of a new school year is most often a time for hope and enthusiasm.

The sad exception to that rule is if someone in your family has the misfortune of attending Denver Public Schools under its current governance and leadership.

In this age of more than ample cynicism and even disgust, public expectations for elected officials and their top appointees are limited. The bar is a low one. Savior and miracle workers would be nice, but we settle for minimal competence, an inkling of dedication and a few driblets of goodwill.

In the case of the seven-member governing board of DPS, even a baseline level of performance seems beyond their capacity. As a group, the DPS board missed the most fundamental lesson of damage control. Namely: that when in a hole, quit digging.

Let’s start by setting some context. Taken in total, the achievement metrics for Denver’s public schools have never been stellar. After two school years, and a fraction of a third, heavily impacted by the pandemic, learning loss has been all too real.

Per data released last April, just five percent of black and Latino third-graders in DPS were reading at grade level. Ponder that. We’re talking about one in 20 such students just meeting the norm, not necessarily excelling.

For white third-graders, that number reading at grade level was a whopping 30 percent. That is still less than one in three. And hardly meriting a parade.

The math assessments were almost equally dismal with just 18 percent of fourth-graders demonstrating proficiency.

As if further evidence was required, statewide CMAS results released this week show a five-point dip from already weak pre-pandemic levels in DPS students meeting literacy standards. That is accompanied by a drop of more than ten points when it comes to math standards, with barely one in five Denver youngsters hitting that target.

If all that does not scream “crisis,” exactly what would? If that does not spur an all-hands-on-deck districtwide emphasis on basic skills, what is required for such a commitment?

And if that does not compel the elected school board to put aside all sorts of tangential agendas in favor of a laser focus on learning, then maybe, just perhaps, those occupying those elected seats have proven themselves unworthy.

Far beyond the confines of district headquarters, if those dire numbers indicating pervasive nonachievement and foretelling a bleak future for a vast number of Denver kids fail to incite collective public outrage, then we are flunking the basic obligations of citizenship.

Yet, amidst the pleasures of summer and what for many is a depleted bucket of outrage, the reaction to the failings of Denver schools has been muted.

Shame on those running the district. But shame as well on those who empower them and then turn away.

By all rights, this should be a cohesive, collegial board. With one recent appointee to a vacancy, the other six members were all elected on similar platforms and with the support of the always benevolent, always kids-centered teachers union.

Instead, the board has become a spectacle in dysfunctionality. Still worse, the breakdown is not about substantive issues or disagreements. It more resembles the low drama of high school emotionality, cliques and resentments.

Xochi Gaytan is trying to be student council president despite having little aptitude for the role. Tay Anderson and Scott Esserman are the mean boys stirring up a ruckus in the halls. Scott Balderman drives the nicest car in the parking lot and dates the cute cheerleader. Michelle Quattlebaum belongs to lots of clubs and desperately tries to be part of the in-crowd.

Carrie Olson is a serious student who rolls her eyes at the silly antics all around her. Newcomer Charmaine Lindsay goes home each day lamenting that she signed up for this place.

During what little time the board spends on anything but personal attacks and grudges, they try to figure out some power-sharing approach called “policy governance.” However, any governance is a shambles and policy-making, such as it is, is mostly for ill — such as the pointless decision last spring to handcuff innovation schools, one part of the district actually working well.

It might be that the best service this board can render would be to visit high school civic classes as a cautionary tale of how not to behave. “Don’t be like us” has a certain ring to it.

It is no surprise that a board focused on all manner of things other than education selected a superintendent about whom the jury is still out, but who gives every sign of similarly having a fragmented and indulgent agenda.

A year into his gig, Superintendent Alex Marrero recently rolled out his new strategic plan for DPS. It reads more like a social justice treatise than any kind of comprehensive roadmap to measurably, tangibly improve learning.

To be clear, I have nothing against social justice. But all-encompassing paeans to equity ring hollow when academic performance is underwater and sinking further. That is the case across the board and especially for kids of color. Where is the justice in inferior education?

Marrero’s plan, headlined, “Every Learner Thrives” (hankie, please) comes with three shaky pillars – “improving the student experience;” “improving the adult experience;” and getting rid of “ineffective, destructive systems” while having the district “recognized locally, regionally and nationally as a leader in practices for equity and sustainability.”

Stephen Covey, among others, preaches: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” There is wisdom in that redundancy. For a struggling school district, the main thing, arguably the only thing, is educational attainment. Everything else, including a heavy dose of progressive wokeness, is so much distraction.

My kids, both graduates of DPS high schools, long ago flew the coop. I do not envy those students currently enrolled or their families. This is a district crying out for adult supervision and an unrelenting concentration on the main thing.

Until that is the case, the only commensurate response is outrage. Let’s have more of it.

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at; follow him at @EricSondermann

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