Frederico Pena

Imagine great schools.

Imagine schools that markedly advance academic outcomes for all of Denver’s kids, particularly our Black and Latino scholars.

Imagine educators who are given the autonomy and flexibility to create learning environments that meet their students’ evolving academic and social-emotional needs. Imagine students who thrive in the classroom and who develop lifelong loves of learning.

Now, imagine what that could do for Denver.

The unfortunate and troubling reality is that far too few of Denver’s public schools and Denver educators have been given the resources and support they want, need, and deserve to put our kids and our kids’ futures first.

Why? Because the Denver Board of Education has failed to make student academic achievement its number one priority.

Since November, board members have engaged in no meaningful discussion about academic outcomes, despite extremely alarming data that shows Denver’s kids–particularly Black and Latino kids—are in crisis.

We know that students are struggling. Recently Transform Education Now, an education advocacy organization that works in close partnership with parents, submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request to analyze district interim assessment data on student progress. According to TEN’s analysis of the data, of students who took the interim assessments:

• Only 12% of third graders district wide are meeting grade-level benchmarks in reading.

• Only 5% of Black third graders and 5% of Latino third graders are reading on grade level; meanwhile, 30% of white third-graders are meeting the same benchmark– demonstrating startling achievement gaps between white students and students of color.

• 55% of white third-graders in Central Denver are meeting grade-level reading benchmarks, while only 3% of Latino students in Southwest Denver are meeting those same benchmarks.

• In some schools, 0% of third-grade students are reading on grade level and, in one school, only 31% of all fifth graders are meeting grade-level benchmarks that would indicate that they are on track to advance to middle school.

This data is alarming — and still, the board has failed to act.

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The truth is, the Denver Board of Education has no plan to recover learning for our students, who are struggling with the most fundamental components of education.

This is particularly distressing to me as the former mayor of Denver because the district was guided by a thoughtful and ambitious strategic plan for so many years–a plan that put students and their academic achievement first. In 2006, I collaborated with Superintendent Michael Bennet, members of the board of education, educators, families and community members to develop the district’s strategic plan, the Denver Plan; that plan was redeveloped in 2010 and 2014 to reimagine the district’s goals and progress.

That kind of vision is needed today perhaps more than ever before.

Our district desperately needs a new strategic plan that provides more flexibility and autonomy for our educators to help them dramatically advance academic achievement in our schools. We need a strategy which makes clear how our schools will begin to recover from the interrupted learning and trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we need to know how the district will prioritize academic excellence for Black and Latino students.

Instead of prioritizing a strategic plan (after the prior plan expired two years ago), and focusing on our students, the board is distracted by dismantling the work their predecessors did for the benefit of increasing flexibility for educators. And, in the process, the board members are shirking their responsibility as elected leaders to meaningfully engage families, educators, students and community leaders.

Case in point: On March 24, the board heard more than five hours of public comment about an executive limitation policy called the Proposal for Standard Teachers Rights and Protections, a policy that at its core significantly limits an innovation school’s ability to retain the most effective teachers.

Historically, Denver innovation schools have had greater autonomy over their contracts with teachers, and more control over their school budgets, schedules and academics.

Overwhelmingly, educators, families, and community members spoke in opposition to the board’s policy, with more than 1,800 people signing a petition to ask the board to reject it.

Still, the board voted to approve the executive limitation. Several members acknowledged the pain, confusion, and division their actions had caused–and they voted to approve it anyway.

Our schools–our kids—are in crisis and the Denver Board of Education is ignoring the dismal performance of our students and not listening to our community.

It’s time the Denver Board of Education prioritizes academic outcomes for our kids, and authentic community engagement and keeps its promise to deliver great schools in every Denver neighborhood.

Federico Peña is the former Mayor of Denver and served as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the U.S. Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration.

Federico Peña is the former Mayor of Denver and served as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the U.S. Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration.