Bush backs principal training effort in Denver visit

The Colorado Statesman

Former President George W. Bush praised a local nonprofit dedicated to training non-traditional school principals during a brief visit to Denver on Thursday and said he has been inspired by Mayor Michael Hancock’s life story.

“I’m here to honor a program called Get Smart. It’s a program that says every child can learn. In other words, (Get Smart Schools director) Amy (Slothower) believes every child can learn and is willing to train leaders who believe that as well,” Bush said following an hour-long, closed-door discussion with 20 business, education and civic leaders at Get Smart’s headquarters on the outskirts of downtown.

Bush was in town to cement an agreement signed earlier this year that adds the Get Smart organization to an alliance of some 16 groups nationwide dedicated to cultivating a new breed of principals. An arm of the Texas-based George W. Bush Institute, the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership aims to bring the like-minded organizations together three times a year to compare approaches.

Former President George W. Bush says he is happy that his education reform-oriented institute has cemented an alliance with Denver-based Get Smart Schools organization to set up a “collaborative effort with educational entrepreneurs” after engaging in a roundtable discussion at the nonprofit’s headquarters on Oct. 20. Bill Soards, president of AT&T Colorado, seated next to Bush, looks on.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Get Smart runs a year-long training and mentoring program for potential charter-school principals — four of its current and past fellows were among those meeting with Bush — and was recently authorized by the state to license principals.

Speaking about AREL’s mission, Bush said the focus was on preparing innovative principals to take charge. “We believe that an excellent school must first of all have an excellent leader,” he said. “And this program here in Denver recognizes that, and it’s got a really good track record.”

Bush also took a moment to laud Hancock, whose rise from poverty and dedication to reform efforts under way in the Denver Public Schools were central themes of his campaign for mayor earlier this year.

“I appreciate the example you set,” Bush said to Hancock. “One of the things I tell people is, you’re often going to get dealt a hand you’re not going to want to play in life — it’s going to happen to us all, some way or another. Mayor, you got dealt a tough hand, but you played it with class and now you have a chance to lead, and you are.”

Kerri Briggs, director of the education reform arm of the George W. Bush Institute, talks to reporters after the former president met with Colorado education and business leaders.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Bush spoke for only a few minutes with reporters after the discussion. He didn’t take any questions and declined to answer when a reporter asked what he thought about the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which was confirmed by news organizations just as the Get Smart roundtable started. “I think we’re going to have great schools in Denver,” Bush said with a grin.

He stressed that he has left the world of politics behind so he can devote his energy to some of his passions, including education.

“Post-presidency is an interesting period for (former First Lady) Laura (Bush) and me,” he said. “I’m out of politics, but I love being in the arena. I’m now an observer, but I still have great passion, as does Laura, about educational excellence. So one of the things we’re doing at the Bush Center (at Southern Methodist University) is to work with groups such as Get Smart and set up a collaborative effort with educational entrepreneurs to develop best practices for training leaders in the classroom.”

Bush’s visit to Denver comes as federal lawmakers are debating whether to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law — his administration’s decade-old, signature education initiative — and as Denver voters are casting ballots in a school board race portrayed as a referendum on the so-called reform approach to education. But against that backdrop, participants said, the discussion avoided anything overtly political.

“He did not talk about Washington, he did not talk about Congress, he did not talk about the president, he didn’t talk about Moammar Gadhafi,’” Hancock said after the discussion. “He talked about education and caring enough to send the very best to our schools.” Hancock said Bush discussed the goals behind the No Child Left Behind legislation and the importance of accountability but didn’t discuss any particular legislation, including Senate Bill 191, the controversial Colorado law passed last year.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg talks about education reform following a roundtable discussion led by former President George W. Bush in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“One of the guiding values of any approach to quality schools is to make sure there’s accountability in the school — you’ve got to be able to measure what you’re accomplishing,” Hancock said after the meeting with Bush.

What it comes down to, Hancock said, is simply establishing common-sense goals and then determining whether they’re being met.

“It’s about measuring whether our third- and fourth-graders can read,” Hancock said. “There’s no sexiness about that, other than, ‘Can they read?’”

A few hours later, Hanock convened the first meeting of the executive committee behind the Denver Education Compact, an initiative involving civic, business and education leaders — including several who attended the session with Bush — to improve education in the city.

Although Bush and the other participants steadfastly maintained that his visit wasn’t about politics, at least one DPS board candidate was having none of it.

Emily Sirota, a candidate for an open seat in southeast Denver, issued a stern statement taking Hancock to task for “standing with George W. Bush during an election-timed visit” and for “promoting the failed No Child Left Behind policy that has so harmed our schools.”

Sirota — whose opponent, Anne Rowe, won an endorsement from Hancock earlier this month — didn’t hold back in her criticism of the mayor: “No Child Left Behind is one of the most destructive education policies enacted in the last 10 years. Our mayor’s behavior today only draws unnecessary lines in the sand, while needlessly undermining the important work of Senator (Michael) Bennet, who is working to finally reform No Child Left Behind.”

She added that skeptical comments uttered by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg — who took over after his predecessor, Bennet, was appointed to a Senate vacancy — regarding the current federal law amounted to the only “good news” resulting from Bush’s visits. Only Boasberg, Sirota said, “had the guts to speak out against No Child Left Behind.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com