adios — for now

Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg to take six months unpaid leave

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Denver's McMeen Elementary School in 2014.

The chief architect of Denver’s aggressive school reforms, superintendent Tom Boasberg, announced Monday that he will take six months of unpaid family leave starting in January.

Boasberg, his wife Carin and their three children — Nola, 15; Ella, 13; and Calvin, 11 — will spend that time in Latin America, traveling and learning to speak Spanish well, according to a letter Boasberg sent to DPS staff Monday morning.

Boasberg, who lives with his family in Boulder, said in an interview on Monday that he’s committed to continuing in his role.

“I’d love to lead for several more years,” he said. “And at the same time, this is trying to both serve the district and serve in my role as superintendent and be the kind of dad and husband that I want to be.”

The timing was right — both for his family and for DPS, he said.

“I’ve been superintendent for seven years and we’ve achieved some terrific progress and we’re seen nationally as having achieved more progress than almost every district out there,” Boasberg said.

He added that DPS has “a very strong and aligned and committed board of education” and “a very strong and experienced leadership team,” both of which he said allow him the opportunity to spend time with his family. He wrote in a letter to staff that he’s “fully confident” that DPS will “move forward full steam ahead” during his six-month absence.

A board behind him

Indeed, the timing of his leave is opportune. The recent school board election ensured that all seven board seats will soon be occupied by members who agree with Boasberg’s brand of reform, which includes cultivating a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.

The board will name an acting superintendent on Dec. 1, according to a letter from board president Happy Haynes. Haynes wrote that the board has discussed Boasberg’s status in detail but felt it was right to formally address the matter at the Dec. 1 meeting, after the newly elected school board is sworn in.

Boasberg’s contract is set to renew for another two years starting Jan. 1. The contract sets his annual salary at $236,220 but does not provide for unpaid leave. Boasberg said the board will have to approve it.

The board’s next regular meeting is Thursday, but the sole new member, Lisa Flores, will not be sworn in until after that meeting’s agenda is complete. Flores is replacing Arturo Jimenez, the lone consistent critic of the Boasberg administration, in representing northwest Denver and other close-in neighborhoods that are part of District 5. Jimenez was term-limited.

Jimenez said Monday that he expects that the district will stay the course in the superintendent’s absence. To Jimenez, that’s a bad thing. DPS has become more of an authorizer of nonprofit charter schools than an educator of kids, he said.

He called Boasberg “the hired mercenary to ensure this all happens without full consideration to the community impact.” And he noted that he hadn’t heard about the superintendent’s planned leave until he got an email on Monday.

“Now that he’s put the machine in motion and now that the school board is completely reliant — let’s call them unified — to serve these other interests, Tom Boasberg doesn’t really need to be there,” Jimenez said.

Boasberg said that he expects to return to work in July.

Unusually long tenure

Haynes’s letter notes that Boasberg is one of the longest-serving big-city superintendents in the country and says that his “leadership continuity has been critical for our progress.”

Boasberg has worked for the district since 2007, first as chief operating officer and then as superintendent. He took over the top position from Michael Bennet, who left the district in January 2009 after being chosen by former Gov. Bill Ritter to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The nearly seven years Boasberg has shepherded the district is unusually long for someone in his position. The average tenure of big-city superintendents is a little more than three years, according to a 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City Schools.

Mike Casserly, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, said Monday that Denver’s progress is a tribute to the longevity and momentum Boasberg has provided.

“If you have an agenda that is really focused on improving student achievement and building the school district, and you have a board and senior administration aligned around that set of goals and able to do that work over a prolonged period, the chances of your getting results are far, far better than a school district that changes over its leadership every year or two years and is constantly fighting with itself about what its priorities are,” he said.

Casserly said doesn’t know of any other urban superintendent who has taken a six-month leave, but he applauded Boasberg for doing it.

“It’s a great way for him to step back and reflect on the work and then come back to that work with renewed energy and perspective,” he said. “It’s also a great vote of confidence in both the board and the senior staff around how good they are. And I think those things together make this another example of how Denver has created tools and strategies that other big city school districts across the country pay attention to.”

DPS’s track record under Boasberg is mixed. While enrollment has boomed and student growth has improved, the district still boasts low academic proficiency scores and the achievement gap separating white and minority students has grown. While minority students are showing gains on standardized tests, white students are improving more, widening the gap.

Asked what’s kept him at the helm, Boasberg said: “When I see the level of commitment and dedication and passion that folks have, that’s really what has helped sustain me and drive me, combined with this extraordinary opportunity to change kids lives for the better.”

Here is Boasberg’s letter to DPS staff:

Movers and shakers

Former Denver schools superintendent Tom Boasberg lands a new gig

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg, right, high-fives students, parents, and staff on the first day of school at Escalante-Biggs Academy in August.

Former Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg has been named superintendent of another organization 9,000 miles away: the Singapore American School in Southeast Asia.

Boasberg will start his new position July 1. He stepped down as superintendent of Denver Public Schools last month after nearly 10 years at the helm of the 92,000-student district. The Denver school board is in the process of choosing his successor.

Boasberg has spent significant time in Asia. After graduating from college, he taught English at a Hong Kong public school and played semi-professional basketball there. He later worked as chief of staff to the chairman of what was then Hong Kong’s largest political party.

He and his wife, Carin, met while studying in Taiwan. They now have three teenage children. In 2016, Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live in Argentina with his family. At the time, he said he and his wife always hoped to live overseas with their children.

“This gives us a chance as a family to go back to Asia,” Boasberg said, “and it’s something the kids are looking forward to, as well as my wife Carin and I.”

The Singapore American School is an elite non-profit school that was established in 1956 by a group of parents, according to its website. It now has more than 3,900 students in preschool through 12th grade, more than half of whom are American.

The school boasts low student-to-teacher ratios and lots of Advanced Placement classes, and sends several of its graduates to Ivy League colleges in the United States. Its facilities include a one-acre rainforest.

Boasberg notes that the school is also a leader in personalized learning, meaning that each student learns at their own pace. He called the school “wonderfully diverse” and said its students hail from more than 50 different countries. High school tuition is about $37,000 per year for students who hold a U.S. passport or whose parents do.

Leading the private Singapore American School will no doubt differ in some ways from leading a large, urban public school district. In his time as Denver superintendent, Boasberg was faced with making unpopular decisions, such as replacing low-performing schools, and the challenge of trying to close wide test score gaps between students from low-income families and students from wealthier ones.

“Denver will always be in my heart,” Boasberg said, “and we’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

it's official

Memphis schools chief Dorsey Hopson calls his work ‘a remarkable journey,’ but seeks new career at health care giant

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones/Chalkbeat
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson announces that he's resigning from the district to take a job with Cigna.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools to lead an education initiative at a national health insurance company effective Jan. 8.

Prior to his departure, the school board expects to name an interim before the district breaks for the winter holidays, giving the panel time to seek a permanent replacement, said board chair Shante Avant.

Hopson’s job with Cigna is a new national position in government and education that will be based in Memphis, he said. He called the decision a “difficult” one that he ultimately made because of the demands on his family that are part of his job as superintendent.

“It’s been a remarkable journey,” Hopson said. “I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made together.”

A likely successor the board could tap is Lin Johnson, who was hired in 2015 as chief of finance. Johnson previously was director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. He recently overhauled the district’s budget process to be more responsive to student needs rather than to a strict pupil-teacher ratio — a move Hopson lauded as a potential vehicle to reduce gaps in test scores for students of color living in poverty.

Hopson’s future has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks, especially after he endorsed Republican Bill Lee for governor in a race that the Williamson County businessman eventually won. A position in the governor’s office, or as education commissioner to succeed Candice McQueen, was considered among the possibilities for Hopson. But Hopson said on Tuesday that he would not be heading to Nashville to work for the Lee administration.

Cigna, Hopson’s future employer, is a Connecticut-based company that manages health insurance for about 19,500 district employees and retirees under a $24 million contract. The company is the third-largest health plan provider in Memphis with about 200 local employees, according to the Memphis Business Journal. In his new role, Hopson will help Cigna expand its services to school districts for health benefits and wellness programs.

“Having an individual with Hopson’s expertise in school administration and school district leadership in this role will be a great asset to Cigna’s consultative work serving K-12 schools,” a Cigna spokesperson said in a statement.

An attorney who had worked for school districts in Atlanta and Memphis, Hopson was named the first superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013 following the historic merger of city and county schools.

His hiring came on the cusp of massive change in Memphis’ educational landscape. The district’s student enrollment steadily declined after six suburban towns split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to create their own districts, and the state-run Achievement School District continued to siphon off students by taking over chronically low-performing schools in the city. Hopson and the school board eventually closed nearly two dozen schools to shore up resulting budget deficits.

Since then, under Hopson’s leadership, the district has gone from a $50 million deficit to investing more than $60 million in personnel, teacher and staff pay raises, and school improvement initiatives by lobbying for more county funding, dipping into the district’s reserves, closing underutilized schools, cutting transportation costs, and eliminating open job positions. The district has also sued the state in pursuit of more funding, and that lawsuit is ongoing.

“We have accomplished a great deal together, such as eliminating a $100 million deficit, investing more and students, and developing the Summer Learning Academy to prevent summer learning loss. That, in part, is what makes this decision so difficult,” Hopson said. “I would love to see this work to the finish line, but I feel confident that we have laid a strong foundation for the next leader.”

Now, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state-run district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from when Hopson took over. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban school district leaders.

“For the past six years, we have worked together to guide this great school district through monumental changes,” Hopson said. “Through it all, our educators and supporters have remained committed to aggressively increasing student achievement.”