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