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