An open letter to Superintendent Alex Marrero

Dear Dr. Marrero,

Welcome to Denver and your first day on the job as superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Over the next several months you will have many people currying favor, whispering in your ear, and trying to shape your perceptions about the state of public education in Denver.

I’ve been a DPS observer, volunteer, parent, beat reporter, and funder for the past 26 years. I have developed my own perspective over the years on a variety of educational issues. But I’m not going to burden you with those.

Instead, I’m going to offer a few pieces of unsolicited advice as you start this journey. I base this advice on experiences that have left me with a contradictory combination of feelings about DPS: optimism, hopelessness, excitement, trepidation.

First: You have been public about your desire to immerse yourself deeply in the community, and to learn the wishes, needs, and opinions of the DPS customer base — students and parents. This is wise. It will be all too easy to get sucked into an endless series of back-to-back-to-back meetings that keep you trapped inside DPS headquarters. Shake off those chains. Leave many hours each week open on your calendar to connect with people — in schools, in their homes.

Second: Listen, really listen, to what people are telling you. What you will hear from community groups is very different from what school board members — your bosses — are telling you and even more different from what you will hear from pressure groups like the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

Third: Do not accept the bizarre premise pushed by some board members that it is destructive for schools to market themselves and even compete for students. I don’t see how it’s possible to put parents and students front and center while also decrying competition and the sharing of information.

Parents should know as much as possible about the options available to them. That requires schools to be proactive about selling themselves. That’s true of charter schools, innovation schools, and district boundary schools.

Fourth: Do not believe the lies — that’s not too strong a word — pushed by groups like “Flip DPS Right Side Up” about charter schools. They are not for-profit, at least not in Colorado. Charter leaders aren’t enriching themselves. Charters do not represent ‘privatization’ of public education. They are public schools serving public school students. A blanket condemnation of them is a slap in the face to every parent and student who has chosen to enroll in one. 

Yes, there are low-performing and mediocre charters as well as excellent ones. Bad schools should be given time to improve and then closed if necessary. That applies to charters and district-run schools as well

Fifth: Don’t get dragged into the silly debates about issues Critical Race Theory, etc. Of course students should learn more about the true history of this country, which includes studying how systemic racism has deprived people of color of a fair shot at success. It’s not hard to figure out how to impart those lessons without demonizing entire groups or races of people. It’s just common sense.

Sixth: Beware of those forces that want to do away with all standardized testing and accountability. Examine their true motives. Ask yourself how DPS can improve if there is no standardized measurement at all.

Seventh: Pay close attention to how the massive amounts of federal funding coming to the district are spent over the next couple of years. Glaring examples of waste would be a black mark on your record, no matter how detached you are from wasteful decisions. When in doubt, prioritize funding to community groups that provide crucial supports to DPS. They’re more likely to use the funds frugally and wisely, and directly touch families.

Finally: Do whatever it takes to keep perspective. You’ve made it clear that you are a man who puts his family ahead of every other concern. You will work long hours, but make sure you get home to hug your kids. Find time to get high up into the mountains with them and slough off the cares that the city and its politics will rain down upon your shoulders.

Best wishes, and don’t hesitate to reach out.

Alan Gottlieb

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.