There wasn't nearly enough time to do everything I wanted to do while I was in Denver but I did get to see and do some interesting things that might be of interest from a Chicago perspective. They've got an elected board there, with a 4-3 "pro-reform" majority going into next month's elections. They've tried many of the same things that CPS has, with just about the same sorts of mixed success.
The feature event was a chance to talk about school turnarounds at an event hosted by a bunch of organizations including A+ Denver, Get Smart Schools, Donnell-Kay Foundation, and the Colorado Education Association. Here's a blog post and podcast from EdNews Colorado about the talk (The “brutal work” of turnarounds). They know turnarounds here. The attempt to rescue Manual High School was one of the most-watched [New Yorker, 5280] turnaround efforts of the last decade, the Central Falls of 2007-2008. It didn't work out very well, and it's only now several years later that they're trying again.
During the talk I focused on what makes the Locke rescue effort unusual (teacher ratification, charter unionization, neighborhood responsibilities) and what Green Dot did that worked and didn't. I continue to believe that schools can be substantially improved, though not in any immediate or miraculous way. I am saddened the Obama initiative to fix the nation's worst schools seems still to be struggling with implementation and capacity issues. The Duncan folks complain about the race to the bottom that NCLB caused -- incorrectly, I believe -- ignoring their own role in doing the same around turnarounds. As I said during my talk, I don't think you can spend your way to fixing broken schools. It's work that's too hard to do well for mere money. There has to be a leader, a group of teachers, or a community organization ready to do the work.
Afterwards it was fun to meet and/or hang out a bit with Denver's close-knit school reform mafia (Van Schoales, Mariah Dickson, Rob Stein, Alicia Economos, Tony Lewis, Kristina Tabor, Rob Kellogg, among others). The next day I got a tour of one of the 3 DSST charter schools, combined middle-high schools that feature a big focus on building community culture and a relatively high degree of student diversity for a charter school. I also got to see the Lake Middle School turnaround, part of the local district-charter compact that features a district-run IB school sharing a building and doing coordinated recruitment with a charter school (West Denver Prep) that gives priority for neighborhood kids and allows midyear transfers. And it was great to catch up with Alan Gottlieb and Kristina Tabor to talk about what makes for good education blogging and to hear about all the interesting things going on at EdNews Colorado, which features in-depth journalism that few other education sites offer. Anyway, it seems like there's lots going on in Denver. There's a board election that could alter the current 4-3 alliance that supports the current superintendent. Former President Bush and his Bush Institute team were in town to talk education. I should be paying more attention, and perhaps so should you.