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