The Denver School Board’s recent letter to families asking them to prioritize the school district’s interests above the interests of their children is a remarkable sign that the DPS School Board has completely changed direction after a 20-year march to better meet family needs.
“Stay enrolled in your school! This keeps the connection with the educators who know your student, and it helps ensure our schools have the desperately needed resources to meet the needs of our students and community,” reads the August 13 letter from the Denver Public School Board.
The board implies that families should just trust the school board even though they admit that they cannot promise families that the online teacher provided by the district is affiliated with the child’s school. Additionally, the board suggests families shouldn’t worry about how their kids are being served. These positions are remarkable for their arrogance and for the lack of understanding of what families are struggling with, including juggling work commitments and supporting their children.
The board’s letter was accurate in framing the district’s existing massive inequities at every level for Black, Latinx and low-income families but interestingly did not suggest that the board has any responsibility in contributing to the inequities through a myriad of policies and practices which include discriminatory school boundaries (that still exist) and not providing quality programming for most low-income students (quality arts programming is still largely non-existing for most low-income families).
While having made some strides to address a few structural inequities, DPS is complicit in failing to address systemic racism throughout the district. Denver Public Schools, like nearly every large school district in America, faces enormous opportunity gaps on most education matrices. White and non-white low-income students are two or three times less likely to achieve grade-level proficiency, receive a seat in a quality school, or follow a viable path to college or a quality career.
For nearly 20 years, the leadership of DPS under five superintendents has struggled to address these inequities by providing more resources to schools serving low-income schools, increasing accountability to serve all students, and developing innovative schools.
The district’s equity work is far from done and has been fraught with many missteps and setbacks (mostly having to do with not working closely with families). Nevertheless, Denver has made more progress for students of color and low-income students than any large school district in Colorado. DPS went from the worst large Colorado school district to middle of the pack compared to other school districts with every group of students by income and ethnicity making double-digit improvements on achievement, high school graduation and college-going.
While these results are still unacceptable with more than half of low-income students not reading at grade level, DPS is much better off than it was fifteen years ago when many schools had 9 out of 10 low-income students failing to meet grade-level expectations.
The Denver School Board still has time to reverse course. They could listen to families and commit to meet them where they are rather than telling them what to do. Many of the nation’s and state’s most progressive school districts are leaning into this crisis and doing what they can to better serve families. School districts like San Antonio, Indianapolis and Colorado’s Adams 12 Five Star are in conversations with families regarding their concerns and acting to establish quality online learning and safe, organized, in-person pods with an emphasis first on the students that most need these supports. These districts are not sitting back and doubling down on the existing system that is designed to grow inequitable student learning outcomes.
Telling families what they need with no response to their legitimate concerns is a recipe for disaster. Not only will it be terrible for some families that might choose to just trust DPS but it will be disastrous for the school district when more families choose to leave DPS for other options, as I am guessing many will over the coming months.
Van Schoales is the CEO of A Plus Colorado.