DPS “therapy” forges progress

DPS board members Theresa Pena and Andrea Merida at Thursday's retreat

COLORADO SPRINGS – A daylong meeting of Denver Public Schools’ board members and a therapist appeared to forge closer ties on a board divided by a recent election and a tumultuous Monday meeting.

“It was a valuable day,” board member Arturo Jimenez said afterward. “It did really ease a lot of tension and set me much more at ease.”

The session at the Broadmoor Hotel here, where the Colorado Association of School Boards is hosting its annual conference, included coaching board members and Superintendent Tom Boasberg through some difficult conversations about their role vs. his – and his job security.

Denver therapist Susan Heitler said she focused on “how to make decisions in a group consensus-building way” and on teaching “radically stronger listening skills” after meeting with individual board members and reading media accounts of Monday’s meeting.

That’s when newly elected board member Andrea Merida chose to take her seat earlier than expected, forcing the tearful exit of veteran board member Michelle Moss, so that Merida could vote on a controversial reform proposal.

Heitler suggested – and board members agreed upon – setting new ground rules for board conversations that focus on the positive, not the negative, and on issues, rather than personalities.

“As long as we have ground rules and everyone buys in, I am a Spartan about adhering to the rules,” said Merida, who at one point near the meeting’s end offered, only half-jokingly, to hug Boasberg.

Board members worked with Heitler while TV cameras and other media watched. The meeting was originally advertised as closed to the public but was opened after a legal challenge by The Denver Post.

Playing by new ground rules

Though Heitler is a therapist who specializes in marriage counseling, the $2,400 session for seven board members and three district leaders involved coaching rather than couch-lying.

“I am a therapist but that doesn’t mean what we’re doing here is quote, therapy,” Heitler said as some board members fumed over media descriptions of the day. “This is skill-building …

“Now as soon as I say that, I realize, wait, the way I do therapy is primarily skill-building,” she added. “So the fact is there is a lot of overlap.”

Heitler used exercises and examples to help board members use questions to get at each other’s underlying concerns and to illustrate the power of collaboration.

Trust – or the lack thereof – quickly emerged as a key issue.

“It’s good to start with thinking we can all trust each other and we can all build these relationships,” said board member Jeanne Kaplan. “But personally, how do I believe that can happen given history?”

Because in the past, Heitler told her, the board didn’t have ground rules.

“If everybody is committed to playing the game by the rules, which so far we’ve heard,” she said. “Then we can all relax, that’s how we play.”

And if a board member or two strays off track, she told them, it’s their responsibility to bring them back.

The ground rules include the assumptions that every board member is acting in the best interests of students and that every board member’s concerns are valid.

“This is not rocket science, this is not out of anybody’s reach,” Heitler said, citing an example with her young grandchildren. “If a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old can learn to say, what are you underlying concerns, you all can certainly learn to say that to each other and to yourselves …

“And as you hear the underlying concerns, you take them seriously,” she said. “If you don’t understand them, you ask how and what questions. And then you create a … multifaceted solution that’s responsive to all of those concerns.”

What board members must give up, however, is remaining attached to any one particular solution, she said.

“Everybody has to get crystal clear that power is the ability to get a response to your concerns, power is not the ability to make the particular solution be the one you had in mind,” Heitler said. “The outcome will be responsive to your concerns, it may not be the shape that you thought.”

Board members received some real-life practice when Merida, presumably targeted because of the media spotlight from Monday’s meeting, received an email with a racist slur as they sat around the table.

“The point is, there are different ways of responding,” Heitler told them.

“I enlisted in the Army so that guy would have a right to say this,” Merida said, shaking her head.

Applying new skills to tricky issues

Skills learned in the morning were put to the test in the afternoon when board members and Boasberg talked about their roles.

Boasberg prefers board members initially contact him or his three top aides with concerns. But some board members said they wanted to deal directly with the Office of School Reform and Innovation or OSRI, which handles hot-button issues such as school-sharing.

When Merida suggested the office be placed under the supervision of the district’s chief academic officer, Boasberg seemed to bristle.

“This is a good example of where I think you’re crossing the line,” he said. “You can certainly give me your thoughts but the structure of how I organize the district has got to be something that is a management decision.”

Then Jimenez began asking questions about OSRI’s interaction with the chief academic officer and Boasberg. As they talked back and forth, with Heitler’s help, they got to the root of Jimenez’s concern.

“You’re awesome at what you do but if your training is not teaching and learning, why would you do the ultimate decision-making on that?” Jimenez asked.

Boasberg’s response: “I hear the concern that I may lack experience in academic matters so why am I making decisions? As the leader of the school system, those are the decisions I have to make very day.

“If you think my decisions are not good ones … then as a board, you should find a new leader who can do that. I don’t mean that in a passive-aggressive or negative sense, it is a clear accountability question. You need to hold me accountable for the quality of my decisions.”

That prompted dismay from both Merida and Jimenez.

“I hear sometimes from you … either you fire me or keep me or you crossed the line,” Jimenez said. “Those two things kind of say, we’re done talking.”

With Heitler’s help and input from other board members, they talked it through.

“I interpret that as an unwillingness to be flexible,” Merida said. “And I can see what I need to do different is, to reaffirm my support for your position as the superintendent.”

Boasberg thanked them both for the feedback.

“What I hear you saying is that I need to respond in ways to try and address your specific concerns,” he said, “instead of putting up a response that you may feel is a wall and a shutdown of further conversation.”

Merida smiled. “I want to hug you,” she told Boasberg.

Added Jimenez: “This is a Kumbaya moment.”

Click here to learn more about Susan Heitler’s work.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”