Sunday, January 3, 2016

AV#93 - An evening with the Governor

.                                                                                                                     January 16, 2013

New Year approached.  The Governor put his son Teddy to bed and walked back into his study. A quiet evening, the frenetic holidays behind him.  He looked at the two reports on his desk, both released in early December.  They deserved a closer look.  He had only had time to glance at them.  He knew that the first one, on the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework for 2012, had classified over 160 schools in the state as subpar in some way.  The second, a report grading the state’s schools, had been dropped off by a long-time business friend—(a note attached- John, please take a look. Best, __).  The governor recalled something about the high number of “F” schools – more than 80? Could that be? 

Neither report was good news.

He had watched other governors take on public education as if they were eager to be the state commissioner or superintendent of schools.  Not me, he whispered.  Sure, K-12 public education is the largest portion of the state budget, but it’s not my thing. 

Other priorities. Economic development. Get our fiscal house in order.  Gun control.  Constitutional reform.  Early childhood education.  Plenty on my plate.

But for a moment, thinking of Teddy, he imagined the parents of the students in these schools.  Our schools, he thought.  Colorado’s schools.  He sat down to read.

He opened CDE’s report to the Colorado State Board of Education.  He studied the power point slide Deputy Commissioner Keith Owen and CDE’s Alyssa Pearson had presented:  

School Plan Type Assignment    # of schools        % of schools
Performance Plan                            1,200                       70.7%
Improvement Plan                             332                        19.6%
Priority Improvement Plan                126                         7.4%
Turnaround Plan                                  40                         2.4%
                                       TOTAL - 1,698 schools    

Although usually a glass-half-full kind of guy, the Governor found his eyes drawn to those bottom two rows.  If he understood it correctly, nearly 10% of the schools in the state – 166 out of 1,698 – could not be called “good" schools. Perhaps many of them had excellent principals, fine teachers, exciting classrooms—but the schools themselves were not offering a quality education for far too many students. Nearly 10% of the schools. How many students would that be?... And there it was: “In Colorado, more than 75,000 students attend schools that are listed as turnaround or priority improvement.”  Again he thought of their parents … well over 100,000 parents ….   

He looked further down. He had read something about Senate Bill 163, the one Ritter had signed. Tougher accountability.  Another law left for me to implement, he thought.  No, not fair, he checked himself. It is CDE’s job.  Still, it will happen during my term.  He knew the state was putting in place something about these low-performing schools.  He read:

Schools that remain at the priority improvement or turnaround levels for five consecutive years are subject to closure, conversion or other significant change. Here are the numbers of schools that are on the five-year clock, starting July 1, 2013:

70 schools are in year one
61 schools are in year two
60 schools are in year three

So a mom and dad, he reflected, would know that for three straight years the state had placed their child’s school in one of the Framework’s bottom two categories—both calling for major improvement.  The Governor thought of his son in elementary school: that could mean 1rst grade, 2nd, 3rd , 4th, 5th grade—and no change.  After five critical years in a school like that, how prepared would a 6th grader be entering middle school?

He recalled volunteering at Cole Middle School in 2004 and his promise to help the 496 students with college scholarships when they graduated from high school…. A member of his staff had told him the number who proved college-eligible eventually would be small. (The 2003 state test showed only 13% of Cole’s 6th graders, 11% of 7th graders, and 15% of 8th graders were proficient readers….)  He felt a twinge of guilt….  He never wanted to be one of those blow-hard politicians for whom promises were a dime a dozen.  A promise matters.  Well, at least he could say 54 of those 496 students were now in college. 

But it reminded him: three straight years was bad enough….  And here we say five years?  And only then, if a school was still doing poorly, would CDE take dramatic steps?  He could not imagine a business faring badly a second, a third, a fourth year, without serious consequences…. 

How many Denver schools were included in this group of 166 on priority improvement or turnaround plans? he wondered.  He counted: 27.  How many on turnaround plans, the lowest category? He added them up: 15.  How many in one of these two lowest categories for the third straight year? Seven.  He checked their names.  As mayor, he had visited them all.

He grabbed his iPhone and typed a note to himself for the next morning: call ED Commissioner, SB 163? How going? Faster?  

Again, it was the parent in him imagining…. No, he did not like to think of it.  He would make sure Teddy did not attend such a school even for one year.  So would Helen.  Any mom or dad would do the same, wouldn’t they?  But he returned to the numbers: Do we say we have 166 schools in our state not offering a quality education? Sixty unable to make real progress year after year?  He shook his head.  


The Governor put down CDE’s report and picked up the 2012 report from  The note from his old friend—on the board of Colorado Succeeds, the group of business leaders behind this new evaluation of the state’s schools—was on a page listing the trustees, the board of directors, and the advisory council (  Impressive, he thought.  He spotted several folks who had been in his office recently discussing the economy, others with whom he had worked as mayor, even a couple of names who took him back to his days running the Wynkoop.   No flakes here.  No wild right-wing nut-cases he could see on the list.   Not a group of leaders likely to stand behind a cheap shot at public education.  He began to read.  For 2012, most Colorado schools were given B’s and C’s. 

But over 260—more than 14%--were given D’s (for Unsatisfactory), or F’s. 

Grade and percentile range
Count of Schools
Percent (of all Colorado schools)
D+    is 13 to 14.99 of points possible
D      is 7 to 12.99
D-     is 5 to 6.99
F       is 5 and below
D’s and F’s

Good grief!  he mumbled.  Is this possible?  My state.  Our state.  Our kids. 

How is my city doing? he wondered. For DPS, he read:
D+ --  4
D   --15
D-  --2
F    --13
The report noted that some of the F schools were now closed, and the two high schools (Montbello and West) were being phased out and redesigned.

The governor shook his head. So this report considered 34 schools in DPS to be “Unsatisfactory”—or worse.   Did I not know how bad it was when I was mayor?  Did I not hear what my friend Michael was telling me about the challenges facing DPS? Could I have done more…?   He read on.


His eyes were tired.  Lots of numbers and data—two reports telling him that somewhere between 10% or 14% of the schools were unsatisfactory ….  Not much to lift his spirits.  He shrugged.  Don’t get sidetracked, he told himself.  You know your priorities.  Can’t do it all.  But as he reached to turn off the light, there at the base of the desk lamp was a piece of paper.  I don’t recall this, he muttered.  He brought it closer.  At the top it read:  Hickenlooper on Education.  He was puzzled.  Where did this come from? Once be began to read, he could not stop.

1.            Dec. 8, 2003 – “Denver's New Mayor Committed to Quality Education Throughout City”

“Newly elected Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has taken a strong stand on improving the quality of education for his city's youth. From the beginning of his term, the mayor has been visiting schools every week and stated he will visit each public school in Denver to see, hear and experience how the city can better support the schools.  In a recent editorial he wrote, ". . .  The quality of our schools is the foundation of our city's future."              U.S. Mayor Newspaper, The United States Conference of Mayors

2.            July 28, 2008 - To the students at Cole Middle School:

“… our city is the only one that will pay for you to graduate from does not matter if your parents cannot afford it or not because it’s free ... all you have to do is work a little harder, read a little more, play game boy a little less.”
U.S. Mayor Newspaper, The United States Conference of Mayors, “Denver Mayor Hickenlooper Plants Seeds of College Education in Young Latino, Refugee Children in Schools,” by Danielle Lesure

3.            Aug. 30, 2010

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper spoke about education at Arapahoe Community College, with running mate Joe Garcia…. the pair presented a seven-page education policy brief that ranges from testing to teacher improvement to better coordination of the higher education system.  In several places the brief promises to continue and complete education initiatives started by Gov. Bill Ritter and the legislature in the last three years.… The language of the brief seems to set up Hickenlooper as the governor who actually will implement what others have started.

“Education is going to be at the core of everything we do,” Hickenlooper said, noting that education consumes more than half the state’s general fund budget. “I want to be a leader in making sure we provide the best education system for students.”                        Todd Engdahl, Education News Colorado

4.            From the 2010 policy brief, “Hickenlooper for Governor”:

"Our son is enrolled in the public school system because Helen and I believe that quality public education plays a key role in creating our next generation of leaders in Colorado." -John Hickenlooper

Background:  One of the first commitments John Hickenlooper made as mayor was to visit all 151 schools in the Denver Public School System. He made good on that promise because he believes in education and he will bring the same drive and commitment to improving Colorado's schools.

“Every Colorado family should have a variety of high quality public education options to choose from in order to meet the unique and varied needs of Colorado learners.

“Create Great Schools: We should create the best public schools possible in Colorado .… We should stimulate the creation of new, highly accountable public schools that may also be positioned to simultaneously turn-around and/or replace the State's lowest performing schools. Equitable choice policies and mechanisms should allow all parents to select excellent public schools for their children ….”

5.            Oct. 17, 2010 – The Denver Post

“There is no more pressing priority for Colorado than providing our children with the best education possible.” (“Election 2010 – the candidates’ views on education”).

6.            Jan. 12, 2011 - Statement from the Governor  -  The Denver Post  

“Our state’s future is only as strong as our students and their ability to gain a world-class education.”

7.            State of the State Address – Jan 13, 2011--

“Ask any business leader thinking of moving or relocating a business to another state, and she’ll likely tell you that tax incentives and public subsidies matter less than a state’s quality of life and the excellence of its schools.


He put the paper down—on top of the two reports.   Perhaps it was his tired eyes, but several phrases seemed written in bold.  He heard them echo through the room: the best public schools possible, the best education possible, excellence, world-class, quality, quality, quality ….

He stood up, ready to retire for the night, but thinking … of the next day. And the New Year.  And how it might be different.

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