Bennet returns to ‘hood for schooling

By Jason Kosena

The students in the Denver Public School district have not forgotten Colorado’s newest senator, Michael Bennet.

As he finished interviews with reporters at Bruce Randolph Middle School on Tuesday and raced through the school’s cafeteria on his way to meet with teachers, a group of young students yelled across the room.

“Hey Bennet!” one of the boys screamed. “You rock!”

The former DPS superintendent smiled.

“What’s up?” he yelled back. “I miss you guys!”

Sen. Michael Bennet, right, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak to 400 DPS students at Bruce Randolph Middle School Tuesday.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Bruce Randolph Middle School was comfortable territory for Bennet, who left DPS in January after being appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter to fill out the remaining senatorial term of Ken Salazar, the nation’s new secretary of the Interior.

Joined by the U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the two officials spoke with 400 students and teachers about education reform while praising the district for the innovative steps it has taken in recent years to improve student achievement.

Duncan, a former superintendent from Chicago, credited DPS for allowing schools to apply for almost complete autonomy, which allows them to waive union contracts so teachers can stay after school for tutoring and work with students on Saturdays. He also pointed to the district’s pay-for-performance teacher contracts, which pay teachers based on how well students are learning rather than according to prearranged salary quotas. The pay-for-performance was implemented in DPS during Bennet’s 2005-’09 tenure as superintendent.

“The nation’s schools will benefit by innovative ideas (such as) the ones that have been implemented here,” Duncan said.

Sen. Michael Bennet, left, speaks during a public event on Monday as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan listens.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Bennet, whose leadership helped shape much of the innovation at DPS in recent years, said the district could be a model for many struggling schools in the country.

“It’s an amazing thing to have the secretary here in Denver in the first three months of being on the job,” Bennet said. “The (schools) and teachers here have said that we want to set (new) rules and do some things differently for the benefit of the kids, and I think that really is a big part of the future of public education in Denver, but also around the country.”

Duncan has taken many stands on educational policy that drift from the Democratic line, supporting the use of school vouchers in Washington, D.C., and talking up education choice in Denver.

“I’m a big believer that students and parents should have a choice in what school they want to go to,” Duncan said.

Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to school children during his visit to Bruce Randolph Middle School in Denver.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Duncan also told students that, if he had his way, schools would stay in session six days a week and offer only one month of vacation a year. Because American students are now competing for jobs in the worldwide economy, Duncan said, the nation’s shortened school year would make it increasingly difficult to compete with countries such as China and India, which require more schooling than the U.S.

“Go ahead and boo me,” Duncan said. “I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short, and our school year is too short.”

The visit to Bruce Randolph comes amid an urgent push by Colorado lawmakers to fast-track two school reform bills through the Legislature before session’s end in May. Senate Bill 256 passed out of the Senate in four days last week with heavy bipartisan support and is now being considered in the House.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, left, Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, center, and Senate President Peter Groff listen to Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak at Bruce Randolph Middle School in Denver on Monday.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

The bill, if passed, will set the stage for Colorado to compete for the highly competitive “Race to the Top” funds included in President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. If the state wins the funds, it could net $1 billion in new education funding.

Included in the new statewide legislation are some components of the DPS system, including the teacher pay-for-performance salary contracts. Also in the bill is a section that would overhaul the state’s education system by rewarding student and teacher performance and a provision that would require money for at-risk students to follow the students from school to school rather than being given directly to the districts and charter schools to spend as they see fit.

When asked if he thought Duncan’s visit to Denver to tour schools was a good sign for Colorado’s chances of winning the “Race to the Top” funding, Bennet was not willing to go that far. He would, however, say he believed the state is in a “terrific” position to compete for the funds and believed the pending legislation was a positive push in the right direction.

Bennet’s visit to Bruce Randolph followed community meetings in Fort Collins and Denver earlier in the week.