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Smart Cities: Denver's Advocates & Partnerships

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Denver seems to be blessed with more talented advocates per capita than any city I know. To some extent it's imported talent because it's a great place to live. The advocates form partnerships that benefit families and kids. Some long sought gains were reversed by a combination of the Great Recession and anti-tax measures.

Backstory. As a young business executive in Denver, my boss dragged me to Chamber of Commerce events and forced me to "adopt a children's charity." I picked the Colorado Children's Campaign (CCC) because it seemed wonky and antiseptic, but within days of joining the board, Executive Director Barbara O'Brien had me visiting schools with Kids Count data in hand. It didn't take long for her to convince me to spend the rest of my life as an advocate for kids.

Shortly after joining the board, Barbara and I were making the case for charter schools to Governor Romer. In 1993, the Governor signed into law one of the first charter school laws. My boss also enrolled me in Leadership Denver, a community development program that proved to be another life changing experience. A young attorney in my class, Bill Ritter, went on to be governor with Barbara O'Brien as lieutenant governor.

Denver was a bit of an edreform wasteland in the early 90s until Barbara kicked CCC into gear.
CCC, with the added benefit of some national factors, was the mother or inspiration to most of the solid charter networks and reform groups in Denver including DFER, Get Smart, TFA, Colorado Succeeds, A+ Denver, and all the community organizations now active in education.

My father, Dr. Gary Vander Ark, has been the leading advocate for health care for low income families in Colorado for 40 years. Inspired by Barbara and Gary, I wrote Healthy Families, Healthy Business--an argument for health care, child care, and family friendly business policies. It was the work with Denver reformers in the early 90s that shaped my views on education, community development, and politics.

Reformers. Van Schoales and CCC took on high school reform in 2001. Some projects worked better than others. He's still at it as director of A+ Denver.

Van helped Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio kick off the portfolio of new schools in Mapleton--a small district north of Denver with New Tech, two Expeditionary Learning schools. Van also worked with and convinced David Greenberg, an attorney, to help import High Tech High strategies. Since then David has committed most of his time to making Denver School of Science and Technology the best high poverty STEM school in the country. It will soon be a network of five high performing Denver area schools.

There is a history of productive business partnerships in Colorado. The Public Education & Business Coalition supports teacher development. Colorado Succeeds has a more aggressive reform agenda. Barbara and Van along with Moira Cullen, Terrance Carrol, Peter Groff, and Mike Johnston launched DFER Colorado.

Van's team recently recognized some of Denver's 'game-changers':

  • Accountability - Robert Hammond (Colorado Commissioner of education) and Keith Owen (Deputy Commissioner)- for keeping an eye on accountability, despite strong pressure to back down.
  • Arts - Monika Vischer (El Sistema and Colorado Public Radio) and Barth Quenzer (DPS Arts Teacher, Brown), for bringing quality music instruction to low-income students and demonstrating what a quality arts classroom looks like, while helping develop district-wide assessments.
  • Awareness - Andrea Merida (DPS Board) and Jeannie Kaplan (DPS Board), for provoking dialogue (and sometimes division) and forcing everyone to be on their toes and work harder to inform Denver citizens or Denver community.
  • Data-Driven Practice - Alyssa Whitehead-Bust (DPS) for turning around and building the capacity of the new schools and innovation office with a focus on results.
  • Effective Collaborator - Jennifer Walmer (DPS Chief of Staff)- for working effectively with a diverse array of interests in and outside of DPS to move an agenda on behalf of Denver
  • Elementary - David Singer (University Prep) and James Cryan (Rocky Mountain Prep), for creating new elementary school designs with enormous promise that are likely to be early childhood, elementary, and blended learning models.
  • High School - John Fry (High Tech Early College High) and Antonio Vigil (Strive Prep SMART High)- for starting new high schools with some of the longest names in the city (and for showing us how to create engaging high-quality learning environments for all of their kids.)
  • Leadership - Mary Seawell (DPS Board President)- for leading the board in very challenging times and holding the district accountable for results.
  • Policy - Colorado Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino and Colorado Senator Mike Johnston - for proving that you can be education reform legislators, be pro-teacher and rise to leadership positions in the legislature.
  • Quality Choice - Scott Laband (Colorado Succeeds)- for managing the development of Colorado School Grades to help families navigate the growing number of complex school choices they need to make for their kids, and for helping the business community to more seriously engage in public education.
  • Transparency - Nancy Mitchell (former editor of Education News Colorado)- for setting the standard for quality news reporting on education issues in Colorado.
  • Turnaround - Matt Spengler (Blueprint) and Allen Smith (DPS), for creating one of the first effective turnaround district and provider partnerships in Colorado that has begun to bear fruit in far NE Denver.


DPS. Serving more than 80,000 students in 162 schools, Denver Public Schools benefits from what is probably the best and most aggressive elected board in the country. Superintendent Tom Boasberg is extending the portfolio direction set by Senator Michael Bennett.

Supported by NGLC, "West Generation Academy, a new turnaround school launched by Generation Schools Network on the site of Denver's West High, includes many hallmarks of next-generation blended design."

Get Smart Schools supports new school development--14 to date. President Barbara O'Brien and her superstar board plan to support 50 schools by the end of the decade.

There are 190 charter schools in Colorado, almost two thirds are in metro Denver. The Charter League of Charter Schools has a complete list.

Strive Preparatory Schools , originating as West Denver Prep, is a high performing network of 6 middle schools and a high school (soon to be 2). Founder and CEO Chris Gibbons is former director of Denver Summerbridge.

CRPE scores Denver pretty high on the 7 dimensions of portfolio strategy, but Denver only scores a C+ on Brookings Education Choice and Competition Index (putting it in the Chicago and Newark category). Colorado ranks 14th out of 50 states on the Parent Power Index from CER.

Districts. The Adams 50 district was featured in our recently released paper The Shift From Cohorts to Competency.

Douglas County is an affluent high performing white district south of Denver. The choice friendly district has 12 charter schools. It was one of the first public districts to create a private school scholarships, but the program is on hold following a court injunction.

Colorado Springs School District 11 is a tech savvy district with an " innovation agenda deployed in manageable chunks ." After an extensive review they selected ST Math, a visual game-based approach from MIND Research Institute for system wide deployment with impressive results.

Little St. Vrain Valley Schools was a big winner in the RTTD competition.

Privates. I attended Denver Christian and it still has a solid academic and sports program. Rival Catholic schools left Denver for the suburbs twenty years ago depriving Denver kids of a great faith-based option until Arrupe Jesuit High School, a member of the Cristo Rey network opened a decade ago. Cristo Rey students work a day a week to support offset a portion of their tuition--and it provides great on-the-job training and an unmatched sense of student efficacy evident when you visit the school.

Funders. When I visited Denver in 2000 interested in high school improvement and development, I found a receptive local philanthropic community. Sam Gary was actively involved in plans to redevelop Stapleton (the old airport) and was an advocate for a portfolio of schools. Sheila Bugdanowitz, Rose Community Foundation, was eager to join (and not just because I installed her lawn sprinklers when I was in high school). The Gates Family Foundation also joined the cause.

In 2005, Kevin Hall left the Broad Foundation to launch the Charter School Growth Fund in an emerging tech corridor between Denver and Boulder. Alex Hernandez (@ThinkSchools) joined a few years later and has become a leading expert on tech-infused school models.

Punching above its weight, the Donnell-Kay Foundation has emerged as a national leader in next gen school models. After a stint with the state, as Assistant Commissioner of Education, Amy Berk Anderson is returning. While working for the commissioner, Amy launched a number of projects funded by Colorado Legacy led by Yee-Ann Cho.

Carrie Morgridge leads her family foundation which benefits Colorado and Florida kids with forward leaning programs like ShareFair, edtech grants to schools, and a big boost the school of education at the University of Denver (DU).

The Daniels Charitable Fund adopted and transformed DU's business school infusing a mission of ethical business practices.

EdTech. Denver has an undersized edtech presence with few big players or startups.
Pearson acquired a couple Denver businesses including eCollege. The division supports 9 million mostly higher ed students with the LearningStudio platform. Pearson also purchased Knowledge Technologies. The PKT division develops and supports automated scoring solutions including WriteToLearn (featured here and here on GettingSmart).

TeleTech is a big CRM shop that supports corporate training.

ScholarCentric surveys measure engagement and promote resilience in Denver, Clark County, Broward, Chicago and a growing number of districts nationwide.

Boulder, 30 miles northwest of Denver, is a hub for startups and they held a startup weekend last fall but there's still not many edupreneurs.

Higher Ed. Dan Ritchie's leadership at DU changed the skyline of south Denver with lots of new buildings. In 1994, Ritchie donated a sprawling ranch to fund matching grants to the university, to date it has brought in more than $50 million.

Mining magnate Bruce Benson is president of the University of Colorado which is basically a private school given the lack of state funding. I just can't get used to CU being a Pac12 school.

Chris Romer (another former CCC board member) founded American Honors, a new Denver-based low cost 2+2 pathway to brand named degrees.

Policy. Colorado submitted a solid proposal and should have won a Race to the Top grant. It did pick up a small consolation prize for early learning.

Keeping Pace says there are about 15,000 students in full time online programs. There are five online statewide charters include Calvert, Colorado Virtual Academy, GOAL Academy, Hope Online, and Provost and 22 multi-district programs and a dozen single district programs.
Digital Learning Now scored Colorado in the middle of the pack.

Super senator Mike Johnston is leading efforts to fix Colorado's outdated and failing education finance system. (Marguerite Roza and I spoke to Colorado Succeeds about this and are writing a March white paper for Digital Learning Now on weighted, portable, and performance-based funding)

Conclusion. Denver benefits from passionate advocates and productive partnerships, but there is little edtech innovation and few innovative blended school models.

The Chamber doesn't look as involved in education as they used to be. They should recognize that economic development is all about education in the long run. In the near term, edtech could be a growth category that would help spur innovations in learning.

If Boasberg can retain enough board support to stay the course, educational options for Denver families will continue to improve. A critical DPS board race in November could accelerate or kill reform in Denver for the next four years or more.

A state and city innovation agenda that would boost access to internet devices and broadband and support new school models would benefit kids and the community. The good news for Denver is that advocates like Van Schoales, Barbara O'Brien, and Amy Anderson are on the case.


Disclosures: Pearson, MIND Research and Digital Learning Now! are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners

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