Facing the future: Sustainable, equitable schools for Denver Public Schools

In Strengthening Neighborhoods committee meetings—which were filled with dozens of different people representing different perspectives, histories and relationships with Denver Public Schools (DPS)—every person felt the weight of responsibility that the district has to serve students in this challenging, changing city. I felt it as a former math teacher in both district-run and charter high schools in DPS, and now as the site director of College Track Denver, the ninth site of the national nonprofit organization that empowers students from underserved communities to graduate from college.

I joined the committee’s Design and Sustainability sub-group with the goal of gaining a clear understanding of what is currently working in DPS, identifying what is not working, and naming what is needed to make progress in addressing those concerns. I feel strongly that if broad, systemic changes are needed, we must pursue that type of change compassionately, in ways that empower those we hope to help.

Addressing declines in Denver’s school-age population

While it may seem contradictory given the huge influx of new residents to Denver, current demographic forecasts predict that DPS will lose 3,500 elementary students in the next five years. DPS cannot control the flow of people into Denver, but the committee does believe it should advocate on behalf of students and families, particularly to help prevent housing displacement caused by gentrification.

We also recommend that DPS develop an enrollment support toolkit to help schools highlight their strengths and represent themselves well to families through innovative marketing and social media outreach techniques.

And when school enrollment is consistently very low, we think DPS should facilitate a collaborative, community-based school consolidation process. Combining schools with low enrollment to form a single school that is fully-resourced and able to serve students well is much more fiscally and socially responsible than maintaining several stripped-down schools that have to cut important services—like nurses or afterschool programs—in order to stay afloat.

Building inclusive excellence into new school applications

Our group also considered what a school might offer if it was truly an example of inclusive excellence. We envisioned a school that has diversity within its student body, as well as its teaching staff. The school would use diverse instructional methods and materials, and provide equitable access to rigorous curriculum for all students. At the ideal school, families, students and the community would be welcome just as they are, without pressure or expectation that they will fit a specific mold.

Knowing that DPS runs an annual process to welcome new schools into the district and match approved schools with DPS facilities, we recommend that high standards for inclusive excellence be included in the application review. In this environment of declining enrollment, DPS has a responsibility to set high standards for equity when selecting which school to match with the community it will serve. We believe new schools should be asked to demonstrate how they will deliver a high-quality, inclusive and equitable environment for all students and families. It’s not enough anymore for schools to pay lip service to these issues, to celebrate Black History Month and consider the job done. We’re looking for schools to talk about social justice, leadership, accountability and cultural movements in a deep way with students. We want schools to provide culturally-responsive education, and the district to implement hiring practices that ensure more diverse teachers. We’re asking them to show kids what can be—not just what is.

Setting goals for school planning and improvement

Finally, our recommendations included a push for DPS to hold individual school leaders and educators accountable to—and reward them for—making progress on short-term goals in diversity and inclusive excellence. If there were resources and rewards associated with specific student outcomes in those areas, it could incentivize leaders and teachers to go beyond the status quo.

Improving doesn’t always have to mean reinventing the wheel, either. We recommend that instructional superintendents (who coach and supervise groups of principals at multiple DPS schools) partner with their teams to identify opportunities that already exist to improve diversity and inclusive excellence. DPS could lift up the school leaders who are making great strides in this area and have them create resources, identify best practices, and develop a reward and accountability system. If we build on what’s working, we have the possibility to spread success to more students and families, and to transform our schools for the better.

As DPS moves forward, we recommend that it also create a biennial report on the progress in the district toward diversity and inclusive excellence in schools. The report could offer valuable insight into the achievements of school leaders and teachers in the field by evaluating how they’ve progressed against the baseline data. It could serve as a powerful tool of both accountability and continuous improvement.

Looking to the future

I’m encouraged that the Steering Committee of the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative will be helping DPS turn the recommendations into actions over the coming months and years. We know that institutional racism and discrimination have a long history in our city and in our schools. And we know that inclusivity – not just diversity, but true integration – may be a long way away. No matter how long the road ahead, naming what needs to change feels like the first step to making things right for Denver’s kids.

Lindsay Jones is a resident of Denver. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado, and her master of arts degree in Research Methods and Statistics from the University of Denver. This blog is the fourth and last in a CO School Talk series detailing the Strengthening Neighborhoods committee’s recommendations on how to increase integration and inclusion in DPS schools.


Photo Credit: Courtesy, Denver Public Schools

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