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