Guest Columns

HUDSON: REFORM FOR ALL OF DPS, NOT JUST FOR THE WELL CONNECTED

Despite lack of support from “reformers,” Arturo Jimenez’s brand of reform rings true

GUEST COLUMNIST

Despite the fact that Colorado’s self-anointed educational reformers moved heaven and earth to toss Arturo Jimenez off the Denver School Board, voters narrowly returned him in a surprising election result. I believe this decision by voters will ultimately prove the right one for the goals these reformers support, but, more significantly, it was in the best interest of Denver students, parents and teachers. We don’t need a single flavor of school reformer on the School Board. Although the truth was obscured during the campaign, Arturo has consistently favored reforms designed to reach every student in the system. What he has been unwilling to do is serve as a rubber stamp for policies aimed at creating narrow pockets of excellence for the children of the well connected. He has demanded evidence that administration proposals will improve results for all our kids.

American educational policy has long been susceptible to reform manias. New Math was introduced with great fanfare, following the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957, as a strategy to make our students more competitive with Russian children in math and science. Simple addition, subtraction and multiplication were replaced with set theory and Boolean algebra. I remember this misadventure well and understood almost nothing of it in the classroom. Fortunately, my brother, who would spend thirty years teaching mathematics, let me copy his answers. Within a decade it became apparent that Jane and Johnny could no longer add or subtract. Then, there was the ‘whole language’ campaign to restructure reading instruction, designed as a replacement for phonics. Another disaster ensued. Good people with good intentions promoted each of these failures.

Anyone who claims there is a single, true path that leads to successful school reform is either a fool or a charlatan. Denver has been shaking up its schools for nearly five years, and, truth be told, the evidence for positive improvement remains scant. This has not been for a lack of trying. Nowhere has this been more evident than in our minority neighborhoods. In fact, much of the demand for school reform originated with Latino and African-American parents who want their children prepared to fill jobs in a 21st century economy. Charter schools will prove part of the solution, but they cannot be the only solution. Neither has transferring control of public schools to the Mayor and City Council proved particularly helpful in cities where it has been attempted.

Four years ago, when he first ran for the Denver School Board, Arturo introduced himself to me and mentioned that during high school he had been a close friend of my daughter. Sure enough, when I checked, they had been buddies. Always his own person, Arturo was one of very few Latinos hanging out in the punk rock scene on Capitol Hill. Like any Dad, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the Goth clothes, severe haircuts and bizarre hair dyes that passed through the house. I suppose I can be thankful that the piercing and tattoo craze remained a few years further down the road. Lara told me she recalled Arturo as someone she could trust, someone she could count on to cover her back. Not a small thing to a teenager. Her endorsement was enough for me.

We rarely learn much about our elected officials in today’s world. Arturo Jimenez embodies the kind of success story against long odds that should inspire us all. Drug use, arrests, bill collectors and prison sentences regularly disrupted his family life. Long before school choice was sanctioned, his parents enrolled him at Ranum High School in Adams County, rather than Denver’s North High School where he lived. As he told me, “I didn’t know anyone there, so I spent all my time studying and doing sports. I recognized this was going to be my chance for a different life.” Somewhere inside himself he found the fortitude and perseverance that would take him to the University of Colorado and later to law school.

As a board member Arturo Jimenez seeks that same opportunity for kids confronting the challenges he faced. It’s why he has consistently demanded a community voice in the redesign and reform of Denver schools — insisting that neighborhoods deserve a seat at the table. He believes real reform requires collaboration between parents, teachers, students, alumni and the community. The successful redesign of West High School reflects his approach. Teachers, union teachers, agreed to longer workdays, a longer school year and teaching larger classes in the afternoon in order to have smaller teacher-to-student ratios in the morning. Arturo compliments Denver teachers for their readiness to embrace reforms. It was the union, he points out, that initially proposed the ProComp salary plan, a merit pay system for teachers approved by Denver voters.

“Teaching is a very tough job today. Reform isn’t easy. We do know that a growth model that rewards improvements in student performance ahead of snapshots that only let us know what students can answer correctly on a test will actually work,” Jimenez observes. “It has been worth all of the effort as we have provided a nationally recognized model. And the fact that our teachers are agreeing to this even though we keep freezing their pay and cutting their budgets makes them just about the most progressive, pro-reform union in the country! School reform can’t work when a ‘one size fits all’ plan is imposed from the top; it has to be designed from the bottom up. And, even then, we can’t forget that we need to educate the whole child — that music, the arts, sports and foreign languages are just as important as computers and science classes.”

Arturo finds it amusing that he was painted as a traditionalist, resistant to change, during his recent campaign. He hopes to restructure more campuses in his Northwest district during the four years ahead. Those conversations have already begun. He would like to encourage more of his colleagues to undertake the same heavy lifting with parents across the city. Arturo also serves on the Education Policy Task Force with the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. “They think I’m a radical,” he laughs. “I wasn’t supposed to win either of my elections. Four years ago the Northside Democratic machine opposed me because I was a reformer. This time, every elected official in the district endorsed me, while I was opposed by the so-called reform coalition. I haven’t changed, but they have.” He never stops talking with the students and teachers in the neighborhoods where he grew up. He shows up when they meet. He returns their calls. And, he works very hard to create the improved schools his constituents want for their kids — good schools. Just a fraction more than 50 percent of voters noticed.

Although he was outspent nearly five to one by his opponent, Arturo ran a grassroots campaign involving hundreds of volunteers willing to go door to door on his behalf. They worked tirelessly. Jimenez supporters believe in Arturo, at least in part, because he often sounds like the only adult in the room. Thirty years ago, when I was serving in the Colorado Legislature, I co-sponsored the first statewide educational accountability act with Senator Paul Sandoval. Our kids were being bused at the time, and I testified that while I wasn’t bothered by their bus trip, I was concerned about what was transpiring at the end of the ride. It never occurred to me that it would require three decades to produce the accountability we wanted as parents.

When I related this history to Arturo, he grinned, and said, “We’re going to get this fixed. What’s happening in the classroom is what I’ve always cared about.”

Miller Hudson is a columnist for The Colorado Statesman. He has a long history in Denver politics and as you can tell, the perspective to view things clearly.