Integrity, equity, and synergy are values that guide me personally and professionally. These are also values that can inform an organization, like our DPS Board of Education, in how to successfully work for its constituents. Simply put: integrity means I do what I say I will do and I take responsibility for my actions; equity means that every person gets what they need when they need it; synergy means that we gain more value together than we can alone. While these values may be difficult to identify in the work of our board right now, through my leadership, you will see them in my leadership and in the presence of our organization.
With decades of experience creating opportunity from challenges in Denver area schools, I do know this: there is hope. There are four priorities that we need to engage with urgency to begin to serve our children well. These priorities are; safety, mental health, transparency in a strong organization, and a complete and absolute focus on teaching and learning.
As a principal, I have felt the weight of responsibility for the safety of students and staff members every day we have school. I have also seen the work our district has not yet done to help to ensure safety in our schools. Here are two immediate actions that I would require as a board member, both of which should have been taken prior to the beginning of this school year:
1. DPS needs to create a solid agreement with our safety partners. It has been ten years since a “Memo of Understanding” has been agreed upon by DPS and the Denver Police Department. There was a commitment by our district to have an MOU in place prior to the beginning of this school year, but our current board failed to make certain that happened. Our district must, immediately, lead the development of a plan directing how the following agencies will partner in the prevention of and response to crises that may occur in our schools: DPS, DPD, the Denver Fire Department, Denver Health, and WellPower (mental health).
2. DPS needs to redesign the district’s “discipline matrix.” The discipline matrix should be a tool that supports, and, through the consultation of district partners, guides school personnel in the effective creation of positive school culture and the decisions that school personnel will take when responding to behavioral events demonstrated by students. An effective discipline matrix needs to: be aligned with law, statute and policy; empower school leaders to make decisions, engage consequences, and provide resources that are likely to support students to success; secure the safety of all students in the school setting.
The basic structure supporting the DPS mental health resources for students has not changed in decades. Since an escalation of teenage suicide prior to the pandemic, an increase in needs driven by the pandemic, and the more recent increase of violent episodes in our schools, principals are required to carve a significant amount of money from their budgets, taking from the classroom and other services, to add to the meager resources that are allocated to the schools for mental health supports. There are immediate actions that can be taken - two of them are noted here:
1. Double the district mental health resources provided to school sites and triple the number of Denver Health School-based Health Clinics in our schools. Doubling the amount of mental health staff and making Denver Health Clinics more available to families in our schools, close to their homes and accessible beyond the school day, will allow us to begin to provide the preventive, interventive, and responsive mental health care our students need at their schools.
2. Create a partnership with Wellpower, Denver’s primary mental health provider, and local foundations to create a study of the current mental health needs of our children in Denver and design new systems of support for our children. School-based STAR programming, where mental health workers respond to issues with or instead of deans and police, and service centers similar to Cherry Creek’s “Traverse Academy,” a multi-layered approach that includes incidental and outpatient services, may be concepts that align with a new design.
Transparency in the Organization
Right now, it is impossible to see into the work of the school district. Even school board members do not have a strong understanding of our policies and how they should be applied, or the current status of the district’s $1.3 billion budget. Here are two immediate actions that would create a higher level of transparency for our community:
1. Open the financial books in a way that the community can understand. Right now, it is impossible to see the financial status of the school district. Community members have a right to understand how our budget is funding our priorities and how these investments are paying off over time. Major decisions like closing or opening schools cannot be made without a level of transparency that allows a clear view into the current status and future projections of our finances.
2. Create an online dashboard which will allow the public a view into the current priorities of the school district and provide the opportunity for community members to monitor the progress of the district’s implementation of these priorities. Data related to attendance, safety, academic priorities, and financial management may be a part of this system.
Teaching and Learning
Through all the recent crises and distractions, we need to rediscover our primary responsibility: teaching and learning. Every effort of our school district should be aligned to ensure that every child has the learning experience they deserve with every teacher that serves them. Here are two immediate actions that I would prioritize as a board member:
1. Make DPS the #1 school district in which to work in the Denver metro area. We need happy, motivated school staff members who feel trusted by their district leadership and are proud to serve the children of Denver. We need to deeply listen to our employees and create the culture, the compensation, and the support systems that are valued by our employees and create a devotion to our effort, especially for teachers and administrators of color.
2. Review and redevelop the evaluation and professional learning systems in DPS. If you have not heard of “LEAP,” it is the evaluation process for teachers. It is awkward and overly intense. The good in LEAP is the high value placed on teacher leadership. The problem with LEAP is the outdated approach. We need to work with teachers to tear it apart and rebuild a system in which teachers feel valued and supported.