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He Says He Wants A Revolution

Michael Bennet wants to save democracy—and he's going to start with the Denver Public Schools system.

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The air feels thick with anger and distrust as a full room of students, parents, and community members meets with Denver Public Schools board members in the battle for Manual High School. It is March 16, 2006, one month after the school board voted to shutter the low-performing, underenrolled school for one year. The board tells the audience that an appeal to keep the school open has been denied. The room erupts. Words like “prejudice,” “dictatorship,” and “abusive” cut through the uproar. Rev. James Peters, a member of the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, stands up and declares the decision wrong, arrogant, and racist. The group breaks into a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”

Manual has had a rich, 112-year history, and not so long ago a bright academic program. However, the end of mandatory busing in 1997 meant the end of an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population. Manual’s 2005 student body broke down as mainly poor and principally minority. That change in population sent Manual’s enrollment and academic achievement numbers crashing. For three consecutive years, not a single Manual student in any category scored “advanced” on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). For the same three years, fewer than 3 percent of the students were proficient in math, fewer than 9 percent were proficient in writing, and fewer than 20 percent were proficient in reading. It had been described as less of a school, more of an orphanage.

The closing of Manual High made the 5 o’clock news for months after the February decision. Angry parents and local council people threatened legal action, students walked out of class, and news cameras captured outspoken community members in mid-diatribe. People were outraged.

For those not directly affected by the Manual fiasco, however, it was all too easy to change the channel and write it off as a “that’s too bad” in a less-than-well-off neighborhood. Sure, it was disheartening to know kids at Manual weren’t excelling, but it wasn’t exactly surprising either. Click.

But Manual isn’t an isolated case in DPS. Not by a long shot. Denver Public Schools, even the ones in “good” neighborhoods, have been failing on a grand scale for years. The Manual community’s outrage may have been misplaced—why wasn’t it infuriated by the lack of educating going on at its school?—but at least it was a strong emotional reaction to a situation involving DPS. The biggest problem facing Denver Public Schools over the past decade has been the complete and utter indifference of the city of Denver.

Student achievement has been lackluster across the board for years, but success has been exceptionally unattainable for Denver’s students of color. Latino students comprise 57 percent of the district. In 2005, 24 percent of these students were proficient in high school reading and only 5 percent were competent in high school math. African-Americans, which make up 19 percent of DPS, had a 34 percent chance of being proficient in reading, a 23 percent chance of being competent in writing, and a 5 percent chance of having the skills to succeed in math. Even more troubling, only slightly more than 50 percent of DPS’ 73,000 students actually graduate high school, which means Denver allows more than 35,000 kids annually to leave its educational hallways without the most fundamental skills to succeed in a highly technical 21st century.

It’s an epidemic that Denver city officials have recently begun to recognize, but have been unable to stem. School funding, socioeconomics, and labor unions have overwhelmingly dominated public-education rhetoric in recent years. And a pervasive sense of inevitability exists about the failures of public education in Denver. The surrounding community has collectively thrown up its hands, sending its students to other districts or private schools.

Manual was certainly a worst-scenario case. Teachers weren’t teaching and kids weren’t learning. The board had little choice but to shut it down—no matter how many people were upset, no matter that people said Manual was an orphanage, no matter how unpopular the decision. Manual was a lost cause.

In truth, DPS hovers at the point of no return as well. It, too, needs to be drastically restructured in order to rescue our students from dismal educations. There must be upheaval, innovation, and reform. There must be someone willing to stand up and say that the Denver Public Schools system is broken—and needs to be fixed.

A slate-gray, angular building at 900 Grant St. houses DPS Central Administration. In a corner office on the seventh floor, 41-year-old Michael Bennet sits at a desk struggling under the weight of mountains of papers, folders, binders, and books. A well-worn briefcase, the color disappearing at its edges, rests open on a nearby chair. An easel with giant paper displays nearly illegible scribblings of charts and diagrams, as well as stick figures obviously drawn by a child. Pennants, hats, and bleacher-seat cushions emblazoned with school mascots pile up on the floor and spill into an old bookcase. A large conference table with restaurant-style wooden chairs stands at attention to the left of the room.

Bennet’s gingham shirt is rolled up at the sleeves. He sports jeans and a plain digital watch. His Opie Taylor looks—reddish-brown hair, unruly eyebrows, freckled skin, easy smile—belie an inner intensity. He’s been working at his desk all day. On a Saturday. Again.

Bennet works long hours; he rarely sees his wife, Susan, or his three little girls, all under the age of 8. But the girls, who know “Daddy has an important job,” aren’t used to seeing him anyway. And 60- to 70-hour workweeks are necessary—Denver Public Schools hovers in a state of crisis. Student achievement has been stagnant for years. The achievement gap between white students and students of color, and between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, is astronomical. And DPS suffers from heavy financial woes, some of which are explained by low per-pupil funding, the mass exodus of students to other districts and private schools, and the reality that employee compensation increases exceed revenue increases.

A little less than 17 months ago, Michael Bennet—an attorney-turned-investments-guy-turned-city-chief-of-staff with no public-education background—inherited these issues when he became the fifth superintendent of Denver Public Schools in the last 10 years. In a job where the tenure nationwide averages only 30 months, it would be par for the course if Bennet threw up the white flag before the 2007-2008 school year began. But Bennet doesn’t appear to be the kind of person who surrenders easily. In fact, he has a plan of attack and a growing army of supporters ready to take their marching orders. Winning the war, however, may take more firepower (and willpower) than anyone has in his cache.

After all, who in his right mind would sign up for a job where there’s no glory and little hope of success? Most people wouldn’t choose this job if they didn’t have to. Bennet is young, smart, likable, and highly employable. And he’s a millionaire.

Michael Bennet certainly doesn’t need this job.

Dressed smartly in a pinstriped, navy blue suit and crisp white shirt, Michael Bennet leans casually against a wooden podium. Although 144 faces focus on him, he speaks with an informal tone, as if he knows everyone in the room. He may not know them personally, but Bennet has met with every principal from every school in the Denver Public Schools district more than once. He knows their faces, he knows their struggles.

I’ve had this job for almost a year. I’ve helped put together a strategic plan for the district. I’ve had to begin to learn the work of an entirely new field to me, K through 12 education. I’ve temporarily closed a high school, was simultaneously criticized for that closing and for not closing enough schools. I took a call about a school bus landing in someone’s dining room. I almost had to break up a fight between two parents over the virtues and failings of Everyday Math. I failed to reach a deal with our teachers’ union. And, what I know is this: The only people more tired than I on this June morning are the people in this room.

You have arrived at your buildings earlier than everyone else, and left them later; you have searched for the balance between instructional leadership and the needs of everyone around you—kids, parents, teachers, and community. You have pretty gracefully put up with a new superintendent who was fairly ignorant about the substance of your work, embraced the standards of a new chief academic officer’s relentless commitment to our kids, and you have challenged each other to think differently about our collective work.

So I have some sense of how tired you are, and for that reason I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your willingness to take on one more obligation—this summer institute, for the benefit of the children of Denver….

Days after these principals have waved good-bye to their kids and teachers and have finally started to relax, Michael Bennet and his chief academic officer, Jaime Aquino, have asked them to spend two valuable summer weeks inside Colorado Convention Center rooms for the first-ever Principals’ Institute. This two-week-long seminar will focus on implementing aspects of Bennet’s Denver Plan, a 92-page manifesto that outlines how in the next five years the district will increase student achievement by elevating the practice of teaching.

The Denver Plan, the first draft of which was released in mid-November 2005, makes Tolstoy’s War and Peace look taciturn. It’s dense, difficult to understand, and sometimes vague. Yet, this marks the first time in Denver Public Schools history that the mission of the district has been laid down on paper. “The plan is really important because I think one of the things that was getting in the way of the district was that there wasn’t really a shared understanding,” says Bennet, who wrote the document with input from teachers, parents, principals, educational experts, and others in the community. “If you’re asking people to mobilize themselves to help support something, you better be pretty clear about what it is you’re asking them to do.”

And Bennet is asking them for nothing short of a revolution.

Bennet and his crew plan to execute this transformation by instating one research-backed mantra: Quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in student achievement. And in a district that sees 67 percent of its children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, 23 percent qualifying as English-language learners, and a huge gap in achievement between white kids and kids of color, that statement alone demonstrates Bennet’s intolerance for excuses. Urban districts across the United States are underachieving, but Bennet stresses this has nothing to do with the intellectual capacity of the kids. “Kids in our city, just as the kids in the suburbs, have the intellectual capacity to do the work,” he says. “So then the question becomes, ‘What’s happening in between?’ Socioeconomic conditions and racial differences cannot be an excuse for our not driving their achievement.”

The “in between” looks something like this: At the flat rate of improvement over the past three years, it will take another 10 years before half of DPS’ elementary students are proficient or better in math, 21 years before half are proficient in reading, and 43 years before half are proficient in writing, according to a 2005 report released by the Piton Foundation, an organization that implements programs to improve public education, expand economic opportunities for families, and strengthen low-income neighborhoods in Denver.

The 2005 CSAP test scores don’t offer much more hope. The numbers reveal that 73 percent of white eighth graders are proficient in reading, while only 34 percent of African-Americans and 24 percent of Hispanic students are proficient. The stats also show that only 23 percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics scored proficient in 10th grade writing, while white students scored 63 percent proficient. Nearly 31 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch score “unsatisfactory” in reading, while only 14.5 percent of those who do not qualify score “unsatisfactory.”

Bennet believes his plan can change all that. Three fundamental concepts—professional development for teachers, better and more frequent use of data to assess and drive student achievement, strong leadership by principals—set the stage for Bennet’s assault on underachievement. In quick succession of phrase, the ideas appear straightforward and uncomplicated; however, the education system notoriously resists change. Bennet wants professional development to mean teachers collaborate on teaching techniques, but teachers generally feel that when the classroom door closes it’s their world. Bennet plans to increase assessments, quickly using the information to ascertain which students need extra attention along the way. But this concept faces the usual anti-standardized-testing, don’t-teach-to-the-test criticisms. And most important, the superintendent wants his principals to be leaders. It’s why all 144 principals are sitting at the convention center in early June. Bennet needs these people to understand his vision, believe in it, and be his forces on the ground. He wants them to bring the Denver Plan to life. He wants them to do this, of course, while still maintaining a building, dealing with parents, filling out paperwork, and managing a staff of employees.

But listening to Bennet explain these objectives and others in the plan makes everything seem wholly obtainable, simple even. He actually smiles as he talks about the way he’s going to accomplish the impossible. Bennet doesn’t fail, doesn’t know how to. He’s always been an all-out success—in school, in business, in life. Every gamble he’s taken has panned out. Then again, he’s never taken a risk like this.

It was 1996 and the only thing 31-year-old Bennet had to worry about was what to do on a Friday night. After all, what else does a Yalie with a beautiful fiancée and a good job in Washington, D.C., have to worry about? Making a living certainly wasn’t a problem—$65,000 at the Justice Department adequately paid the bills. And D.C. was a bastion of upward mobility for hot young lawyers.

Bennet, unfortunately, quickly found that he didn’t love the law. Hated it, actually, and couldn’t wait to do something, anything else. So, when his fiancée, Susan, landed a job in Denver, Bennet decided it was time to leave both D.C. and the law behind. Fortune smiled; Bennet’s resumé caught the eye of one of Denver’s most influential businessmen.

Being a bit of a rainmaker himself, Philip Anschutz was able to read between the less-than-qualified lines of the young lawyer’s resumé. Bennet had no business background. He couldn’t read a balance sheet. He hadn’t taken a single math class since his junior year in high school. But Anschutz saw something he liked: wicked intelligence and a blue-blood background.

Michael’s father, Douglas Bennet, was a man of impeccable education and flawless connections. He kept friends like Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and one-time U.S. ambassador to India. He worked with bigwigs like Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff. He was also the first staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, assistant secretary for congressional relations in the Department of State, head of the Agency for International Development, and U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, a post he was appointed to by President Bill Clinton to streamline and improve relations with the United Nations. Doug Bennet also spent a decade as chief executive officer and president of National Public Radio.

A normal conversation with the Bennets feels like a brief foray into Who’s Who in America. For the Bennet children—Michael, James, and Holly—the broader world was never a far-off place. “Conversation in our household would be on public issues,” says James Bennet, Michael’s younger brother, currently the editor of The Atlantic. “We talked more about the Panama Canal than sports or the next family vacation.”

Not that many aspects of Bennet’s childhood weren’t completely typical. They were. His mother, Suzanne, was even the kids’ school librarian. But the “givens” in Bennet’s life were what separated him from most Americans. It was taken for granted that education was important, that one graduated high school and went on to higher education. It was assumed that a man works hard for a living. It was ingrained in him that individuals are connected to history and are in turn responsible for it. And it was assumed that if you are successful, you give back.

Bennet’s choice to go into the private sector with Anschutz was a departure from his father’s guiding-light career. But Bennet liked the job—it was fast-paced, exciting, and he was gaining shrewd business skills. Not to mention that the experience at Anschutz, which lasted more than six years, made Bennet a rich man at 38. But the job had little intrinsic value to him. “Michael is a compulsive worker,” says his brother James, “but it’s gotta be for something a lot more meaningful than money.”

When the opportunity arose to work in a job where he could make a contribution to the common good, Bennet proved his brother right. Leaving millions of dollars in stock on the table at Anschutz, Bennet quit his job to become Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff. It was an easy decision. The money Bennet had earned at Anschutz meant he could buy a nice house, easily send his daughters to college, and work how and where he wanted for the rest of his life. “What I concluded was you don’t know when these opportunities will arise,” says Bennet. “If you miss them when they come they might not be there later.”

For two years Bennet addressed Denver’s $70 million budget crisis, helped negotiate the fallout from a rash of police shootings, and dealt with the DIA gate wars between Frontier and United airlines. “Michael is very even-tempered; no matter how chaotic, he’s always in control,” says Hickenlooper. “He also has good judgment in that he can anticipate, three or four years down the road, the consequences of doing something now. And most important, he’s able to correct something that people are doing without criticizing them—they realize there’s a better way to do something without feeling diminished.”

The chief of staff job was a good fit for Bennet—it appealed to his sense of civic duty and was challenging enough to keep his mind engaged. The substance of the job was ever-changing and wide-ranging, the mayor and his staff worked hard and believed in what they were doing, and goals were being met. “If you go back to what the mayor said he was going to do if he was elected and to what we did over that two-year period, there was an awful lot of consistency there,” says Bennet. “Which I think is important—that part of the mission is to restore people’s faith in their public institutions.”

But other Denver public institutions weren’t so successful. The ailing public school system was floundering, and when DPS Superintendent Jerry Wartgow announced he would be stepping down, a new public-service option opened up for Bennet. This opportunity was different, however. It would test Bennet unlike his two previous jobs. A highly educated, highly privileged white male without any educational background was going to educate teachers, empower principals, and save a generation of inner-city students. It was either going to be a daring rescue or career suicide.

To anyone who didn’t know Michael Bennet, accepting the job of superintendent seemed like a lose-lose situation, if not outright insanity. After all, the public education system is universally thought to be intractable. Jerry Wartgow, Bennet’s predecessor, likens the education system to the human immune system: “When anything new comes in, everything runs to kill it.”

Hickenlooper, however, scoffs at any naysayers. “I think people who say it’s a lose-lose situation are delirious,” he says. “Michael is so talented—it’s not whether he’ll succeed but the level of success. And that success will always open windows.”

In fact, according to Hickenlooper, he suggested that Bennet, with his private- and public-sector experience, would make a fine superintendent. Bennet says he received the suggestion from more than one person, but that his initial response to everyone was an emphatic “no.” “My first reaction was I’ve only been with the city for two years and we’ve got a lot to do,” says Bennet. “And when you look at the landscape of urban school reform over the last few years in this country, there’s not an awful lot to give you confidence—that even if you knew what you were doing, which I didn’t, that you’d succeed.”

But the grim odds of success only served to kick Bennet’s internal civic-duty monitor into overdrive. “For a long time I’ve worried what it’s going to mean if we don’t educate our citizens in our cities,” he says. “And I think what it’s going to mean is we’re going to be a very different country than we’ve been, our kids are going to have much more limited opportunities than we had, and our democracy is going to be in really woeful shape.”

Bennet convinced himself that there was no other more compelling mission. He dove into the research on urban school districts in America. He read voraciously. He called other superintendents around the country, picking their brains. Bennet ultimately came to the conclusion that successful reform was not only possible, but also that it was a reasonable expectation. He felt students in the United States’ public-education system deserved to learn—and that the United States couldn’t afford for them not to. As the school board searched for Wartgow’s replacement, Bennet threw his hat into the ring.

“The board wanted someone with K-12 experience, but Michael brought a couple of things to the table,” says Theresa Peña, president of the DPS board. “He has a laserlike focus on academic achievement, and he’s a real student by nature. He’d done a lot of preparation.”

Bennet’s proposal looked like this: On three horizontal pieces of torn-out, lined notebook paper, he scribbled his pitch to the school board, laying out a theory that public education has stalled because there’s a perception that a “thicket of stuff”—labor relationships, bureaucracy, budgets, socioeconomic conditions, and high mobility rates—gets in the way of improving education. The district would need to refocus its sights, look past the obstacles, and decide to wage war on declining achievement. Bennet suggested that the only pertinent question should be, “Does this help the kids?”

Bennet went on to describe his proposed redesign. DPS needed to look at other urban districts around the country that were driving achievement, and model those programs. The district needed more time during the school day for literacy, an emphasis on making principals instructional leaders of their buildings, and more professional development.

As the superintendent campaign wore on, Bennet’s private-sector experience became more of an obvious advantage. He displayed a fresh perspective, one that didn’t come out of the educational bureaucracy. He was less willing to let history dictate the future. And he had a goal-setting instinct and a desire to achieve those goals. Bennet’s father, presently serving as the president of Wesleyan University, understood that Bennet’s eye for business was an asset. “It doesn’t sound like rocket science, but if that instinct isn’t in the educational culture the organization suffers.” Of course, Bennet’s business background, confidence, and propensity for change didn’t resonate with everyone. The word that hung sourly on people’s tongues was “arrogant.”

Bennet was undeterred. When the board named him superintendent over two arguably more qualified candidates (both had educational backgrounds), Bennet declared, “Denver will be the best big-city school district in America.”

The building at 3955 Steele St. challenges the typical image of a bad school. Opened in 2002, the red-brick building has a soaring atrium, large windows, clean tile floors, and wide, friendly halls. Graffiti smears no walls, bathrooms do not belch clouds of cigarette smoke, and no chains cling to outer doors.

Only three miles east of the shuttered doors of Manual High School is Bruce Randolph, a middle school that appears to be thriving. That was not, however, always the case. Bruce Randolph also faced closure—the school ranked “unsatisfactory” in overall performance for two years in a row. But principal Kristin Waters, who was hired to rejuvenate the school in 2005, thinks Bruce Randolph will keep its doors open—and it will accomplish its mission to be a demonstration school where others can come to see high-quality education.

Waters, a fortysomething, bubbly blonde with a booming voice, acts more like your hip cheerleading coach than the stodgy principal you remember. But it’s a no-nonsense attitude that makes her a good leader. When Waters was hired she brought in her own plan, which she dubbed Challenge 2010. The 17-page plan, which preceded Bennet’s Denver Plan by nine months, is eerily similar. Until Waters took over the building, grades were in the basement, disciplinary problems ran rampant, and teachers had all but given up. Implementing Challenge 2010, which focuses on staff development, data-driven instruction, and building-wide consistency, is changing that culture. Today, Bennet points to Bruce Randolph as the Denver Plan in action.

It isn’t difficult to see why Waters and Bruce Randolph caught Bennet’s eye. The three main components of his Denver Plan are already up and running at her school: Waters has made professional development a high priority. That means faculty meetings are spent focusing on student work rather than a list of announcements about the gymnasium being closed for repairs. It also means that teachers are working with coaches and with each other during off periods to design lessons and implement better teaching techniques. Like Bennet, Waters has also latched onto the idea that schools need a better way to determine if kids are “getting it.” She believes that CSAPs are a postmortem exam—the scores often tell the story of a child who should have been helped or pushed harder much earlier in the year. By putting into place frequent benchmark assessments, the staff can intervene when a student first begins to falter. And with Waters at the helm, leadership, the most integral part of the Denver Plan, appears well in hand. Not only is she excited about her job, she’s also nearly overjoyed talking about her staff and her students. And just as the Denver Plan suggests, Waters feels empowered to change the future of the kids in her building. She’s leading professional-development sessions, working with the new curricula, organizing the building to fit the finer aspects of the Denver Plan, and helping her staff understand the problems that need solving in DPS.

Beyond Challenge 2010 or the Denver Plan, Waters has implemented a building-wide code—”be prompt, be prepared, be polite, be productive, and be positive”—that she strictly and consistently enforces. If a kid breaks the rules, he receives lunch detention. “We tugged all the loopholes tight around little white lies and excuses, and pretty soon the kids just cried ‘uncle,'” says Taylor Betz, a math teacher and coach at Bruce Randolph. “Around November or December of [Waters’] first year they collectively threw up their hands.”

Only months into Waters’ tenure, disciplinary problems decreased and student achievement increased. Significantly. Using pre- and post-assessment tests, the staff monitored student growth. In one year’s time, math scores increased slightly, while reading and writing scores increased dramatically. Of course, for better or worse, the CSAPs are the standard by which Colorado schools live and die. Bruce Randolph eagerly awaited the 2006 results, and when they arrived in early August the numbers showed improvement, especially in reading and writing.

Bennet can take little credit for the successes of Bruce Randolph; however, he uses them as an example that his Denver Plan can work districtwide. “Kristin is doing the kind of stuff we’re talking about,” says Bennet. “That’s what professional development looks like. That’s what leadership is about.”

Waters and her staff are careful to say they don’t know everything, but that they are excited about what they’ve seen. And they want to share. “Bennet keeps asking us, ‘How do we get you out of there to tell people it can be done?” says Waters. “We’re happy to do that because we’re doing it here. It can happen.”

Bennet will need supporters like Waters and the mayor to help with diplomacy. He has been careful to sidestep change for change’s sake, but the reforms he has presented are staggering in scope, especially when they have to work within a slow-moving, status-quo-oriented system like public education.

He still needs to address a myriad of potential pitfalls, such as an age-old culture of distrust among teachers and principals and DPS Central Administration, the necessary closings of other failing schools, the growing fear by elective-class teachers that social studies and art will suffer at the hands of extended literacy and math programs, an ever-tightening budget in a state that ranks 47th for school funding, and a potentially embarrassing public-relations issue resulting from the firing of a U.S. Reservist. (5280 investigated this story in “Nobody’s Hero,” October ’06.)

It is too early to give Bennet a passing grade, but in his first year and a half he has certainly avoided a failing one. He has given praise where it is due, had the difficult conversations when they were needed, and brought an unbiased eye to the system. And he’s put himself out there, even riding yellow buses to school with former Manual students on the first day of school in August. “Bennet gets it,” says Waters. “He’s smart, thoughtful, and he doesn’t dance around issues because of history or politics, and we need that.”

Douglas Reeves, founder of the Center for Performance Assessment, an organization dedicated to improving student achievement and educational equity, thinks Bennet gets it, too. “There are many large urban districts where administrators never interact with staff, where the distance between teachers, principals, and the administration is a chasm,” says Reeves. “Any human-service organization depends on relationships—it’s what keeps people going. I think Michael Bennet and Jaime Aquino have done a good job of getting out of the office.”

But Bennet will have to produce more than face-time to overcome doubts about his ability to implement the brainy ideas he’s brought to the plate. “Bennet has surrounded himself with a lot of big-theory people with good ideas,” says Celeste Archer, a teacher at East High School. “But making those ideas go from ideas to reality takes more than cerebral people. Many of these ‘experts’ have never had a taste of the reality they need to put those theories into place.”

CSAP scores are another reality Bennet has to reckon with. But the 2006 scores certainly give Bennet’s camp a large supply of ammunition. DPS students’ growth exceeded the state’s in reading, writing, and math in overall test scores for the first time since the CSAP was fully implemented. The district saw a historic 4 percent gain in students’ reading performance, had increased math achievement, and improved significantly in secondary-level reading and writing performance. Of course, Bennet can’t take all the credit for these scores, as the majority of his plan has yet to be implemented. Still, the numbers don’t hurt his cause. “I don’t know how much of this is what we did,” says Bennet. “I think the last administration also deserves some credit. But I do think it’s a shot in the arm for us. It gives us confidence that we’re heading in the right direction.”

After a year of breakneck work, Bennet probably needed a confidence boost. Even quiet nights at Bennet’s Congress Park home are interrupted by his work. His daughters tucked in their rooms and his wife asleep by his side, Bennet’s rest is fitful—he often wakes Susan talking about DPS in his sleep. Beyond restless nights, CSAP scores, and angry Manual students, he also deals with inquiries about where he’ll send his daughters to school (the older two are currently enrolled at DPS’ highly rated Cory Elementary) and the constant rumor mill about his future career ambitions. It seems the five-year commitment he offered to the board hasn’t stopped tongues from wagging that he might run for senator. Given his family history and strong public-service compass, it’s not unlikely that Bennet may aspire to do other things for the greater good. But James Bennet thinks he’ll stick around DPS for a while. “Michael has been searching for something for a long time, and the mix of abilities is what makes this job good for him,” he says. “He has always been a restless person career-wise. He’s happy now, and that’s not normal for Michael.”

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