DENVER (CBS4)– Denver Public Schools recently celebrated an enrollment achievement. For the first time in four decades, the district is projected to be the largest school district in Colorado.
More than 88,000 students are registered in Denver schools — that’s a 20 percent increase in the last 6 year.
As enrollment grows, so does the district. On Oct. 24, school officials and neighborhood leaders broke ground on a new school in the Stapleton neighborhood. Conservatory Green will eventually serve about 950 students.
“We are thrilled that the Denver Public Schools is now by far the fastest growing school district of any city in this country,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Since 2009, the district had added 3,162 middle school students — a 21.8-percent increase. This after the middle school population declined by 8 percent between 2002 and 2007.
The school administration has also expanded facilities to add 1,400 preschools. Officials cut the ribbon on the district’s second early childhood education center within the last month.
“When you talk to parents about why they are moving into DPS what are they telling you?” CBS4’s Jim Benemann asked Boasberg.
“I think families have a very clear message. They want a high quality, rigorous education that’s going to help prepare them for college,” Boasberg replied.
Boasberg has executed reforms in the last four years to address declining enrollment and low performing schools. Some of those changes include championing charter schools and developing the district’s first comprehensive teacher evaluation system. Boasberg has also opened the door to parents, hosting a parent forum every other month where he answers questions and hears concerns.
“We understand and we expect the concerns about changes. Some of the questions and criticisms that are raised are very valid,” Boasberg told CBS4.
Parents and students are taking a more active role in picking the school that’s right for them. The district has moved toward the portfolio schools movement, offering a variety of charter schools and charter-like schools as well as district-run schools.
Under Boasberg, the number of charter schools has grown to 42 in the 185 school district. Critics worry the trend is towards privatization of public schools. Henry Roman of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association worries some students are being left behind.
“We’ve seen consistently, in terms of data, that there’s a lower percentage of special education students in charter schools,” Roman said.
“The overwhelming focus and time and investment goes into our district-run schools. At the same time, where there are high quality new schools and those could be district-run schools, those could be charter schools, we welcome that opportunity to have high quality schools in Denver,” Boasberg said.
The changes DPS has made have drawn national attention. Recently, mayors from Sacramento, California and Providence, Rhode Island toured one of the district’s newest school campuses. The trip was part of the national Mayors for Educational Excellence Tour.
DPS critics continue to express frustration with achievement gaps for minority students, and say the district has focused on growth rather than overall achievement. Boasberg is the first to admit there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Clearly the focus has got to be ‘How do you attract, retain, and develop the best teachers for every kid? The best school leaders?’ Because that’s ultimately what’s going to make us and keep us successful and drive our progress,” Boasberg explained.
Roman agrees that teachers are part of the equation, but he also wants to make sure that the district is evaluating the whole teaching process and not just focusing on the outcomes. He says that part of attracting, retaining and developing good teachers is supporting them.
“I think it’s a work in progress. That’s why we’re working on the teacher effectiveness initiative with the intent of providing that level of support. But we still have a lot of work to do,” Roman said.
Boasberg is celebrating the progress the district has made so far, but he’s also facing a school board election that could be considered a referendum on his reform efforts. Four seats are up for grabs on Nov. 5, and candidates for each of those seat are campaigning against changes they say go too far.
– Written for cbsdenver.com by Special Projects Producer Libby Smith