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:

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: