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A legacy of dedication: Elect the leaders our kids deserve

Editor’s note: This article was written by Debbi Blair-Minter and Pia Dennis Smith. They are both graduates of DPS who worked as teachers and school leaders in the system. Debbi is the daughter of former Board of Education President Dr. Omar D. Blair and Pia is the daughter of former Superintendent Dr. Evie Dennis.

The stakes in the Denver Public School board elections have never been higher.

Once a model district nationally, DPS is falling behind other school districts and, most importantly, falling behind in its profound obligations to the school system’s 90,000 students.

The board must move from internal conflict and self-directed focus to a dedicated focus on the students. This is the DPS legacy that is at risk, a legacy rooted not just in recent years but throughout its history.

A pioneer in education, Rachel Noel helped integrate the DPS system and provide equal opportunities to all Denver students. Rachel’s words resonate as much today as when she spoke them:  “I have a deep faith that if you’re right, you don’t give up. And that’s what I felt — that I was right, and somebody had to stand up.” 

Denver was the only city outside of the American South to require integration by court-ordered busing. While Rachel did not introduce or promote busing for integration, she said, “If it took a bus to do it, then so be it.”

Dr. Omar D. Blair was a Tuskegee Airman and the first African American president of the Denver Board of Education. Court-ordered integration of DPS occurred during Blair’s tenure on the board.

“The kids are what it’s all about,” was Omar’s constant refrain. His supervisor at Lowry Air Force Base said, “We’ve got your back and we believe that the work you do there will benefit the families and the children of our Air Force, the people who are here on the base.”

Evie Dennis was assigned to bring together a team that would prepare students, parents and teachers for court-ordered busing. She became the first female and first African American superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Dennis guided the school system through a complicated and divisive period to create positive alliances between the school district, parents, students, teachers, patrons, and community leaders.

Serving on the school board requires relentless focus on and dedication to student achievement and well-being. Unfortunately, the current board, despite the best of intentions, has not maintained this focus. 

Board in-fighting has combined with inexplicable departures from strategies that were successful in the past to put the district in its current state, underperforming on key measures not just compared to DPS previously but also compared to other school districts in Colorado.

Unified enrollment/choice in DPS took the burden off parents having to maneuver applications across multiple school models; it was another advancement in the cause to do what was best for kids. Some board members and candidates’ consideration of retreating from unified enrollment is ill-advised.  

As longtime educators, we are disappointed with the direction that DPS is headed.  It has become, to us, too political, abandoning the wonderful legacy of board members whose actions demonstrate a genuine interest in doing what’s best for young people in Denver. 

The board’s focus and diversions over the last year have not been in the best interest of DPS students.

The dysfunction of the past year will have a longstanding impact, particularly for youth of color, who are still the majority in DPS. What the board should be doing is bolstering and promoting and empowering teachers to do better by youth.  End the political infighting.

This board micromanaged the previous superintendent, one of the most accomplished educational leaders in the nation. As a result, she left the district and now the students of another school district, in Dallas, are benefiting from her widely recognized leadership skills. Her new school board members have the good judgment to support and recognize her extraordinary effectiveness. 

We remember the great leaders in DPS such as Omar Blair, Rachel Noel, Evie Dennis, and Marie Greenwood who made a tremendous difference through the years. Each was unique and distinctive but what they had in common was that they were risk takers. They weren’t afraid to say yes or no to the powers that be. That’s what we’re lacking right now. We need leaders who are not self-serving.

We urge you to vote and recognize the importance of these DPS board elections. Our future depends on our educated youth.