New opportunities for Denver Public Schools

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is facing two opportunities today.  

The first is to continue strengthening the transition of students back to the classroom. Even though we’re about a month into the new school year, students are coming off more than an entire year without being in the traditional classroom. The transition is difficult and requires enormous discipline and accountability, especially as we continue to navigate the ongoing pandemic. 

The other opportunity is to move beyond in-fighting and focus on key priorities such as improving student outcomes, advancing equity, and continuing the DPS board’s commendable commitment to expanding access to mental healthcare.  

DPS has the opportunity to emerge stronger and better. But it will require, in my view at least, four important changes by board leadership: An increased focus on academics; ending the dysfunction and infighting that is impeding the ability of the district to plan and support educators in the classroom; listening to teachers; and strengthening a balanced commitment to both student mental health and academic progress and skills acquisition.  

We need a student-centered system in which our students can truly demonstrate growth.  The latest data on student achievement is worrisome, showing low participation rates in state assessments and only 22% of DPS students meeting or exceeding expectations in math and 36% in literacy. 

Moreover, family confidence in Denver schools may be a concern as district-wide enrollment has declined since 2019, most significantly in preschool and kindergarten.  

One approach that shows promise is a portfolio-based assessment, where the student’s work is assessed throughout the school year.  These are the kinds of things we need to be researching, testing and piloting with the ultimate measure being what’s going to benefit our students

Our students require us to pay attention, to reset boundaries and restructure expectations.  We may not see the hoped-for learning gains this year because of time that needs to be spent relearning and retraining and connecting with peers. 

STRIVE Prep has completed much of that careful and proactive preparation for the student’s return to the classroom.  We already had a plan in place. So our transition was smoother thanks to our leadership.  

The conversation we should be having right now across the district is what can we do in the current circumstances to support our kids’ growth in academic areas? The arrival of new Superintendent Alex Marrero provides the opportunity to renew our focus as a district.

I commend the board for its dedication to giving voice to diverse members of the community. That is an important step, but not the only one on the journey to a successful district. We need a board that’s also going to stay focused on our kids’ support. They were out of school for more than a year, and while they did do remote schooling, the fact remains that it was very difficult, particularly for our at-risk students who struggle to keep up and make gains in a remote environment.   

If last year taught us anything, it’s that the focus on social and emotional health is key for overall student success. If students don’t feel safe, they won’t be able to learn as much. But we also again need the balance with a focus on learning after a year and a half of being outside the classroom.  

The question we should be asking is how we ensure that our students are achieving at the level that they’re capable of. STRIVE Prep leadership has shifted investments across its campuses to remove obstacles to student success. Leaders have done an excellent job of making sure that we are working to achieve that social, emotional and academic balance. 

We are now measuring progress three different times a year and then we, as teachers, get to see the data and we get to use that to plan lessons for individual students. So we’ll be able to identify and work with those gaps for each student.  

Those are the types of important mechanisms and tools needed if you’re going to help your students academically. This enables us to plan for the individual needs of each student, with sufficient time and support. That’s really what every teacher needs. They need a board that comes to them and says, “What can we do to support you to support your individual students?”

STRIVE Prep’s leadership also allows teachers to have a voice. And it’s not discounted. They listen and follow through. 

Whether in a charter school or traditional school, educators need a school district that understands our students face a very unique set of challenges; a district that provides our students with the tools they need to meet and overcome those challenges. Only then can we fulfill the promise of a truly student-centered educational system. 

Julie Keys
Julie Keys is an eighth-grade English Language Arts Teacher, Gifted and Talented Coordinator, and Speech and Debate Club Leader at STRIVE Prep-Montbello, a charter public school in the heart of the Montbello community in Denver.