sixth sense

Can either of these candidates help swing the State Board of Education to the Democrats?

(Denver Post file)

Of the Colorado State Board of Education races this fall, the fight for the 6th Congressional District will likely draw the most attention.

The district spans a diverse mix of suburban areas to the south, east and north of Denver — from Highlands Ranch to Aurora, Northglenn and Thornton — making it more a swing district and not under the thumb of any party.

The balance of power on the seven-member board — now tilting 4-3 toward Republicans — hangs in the balance.

Two Democratic candidates want a shot at Republican incumbent Deb Scheffel of Parker, a reliable conservative vote who frequently voices concerns about data privacy being breached.

Mail-in ballots for the Democratic primary are due Tuesday.

Rebecca McClellan is former mayor pro tem of Centennial, and served on the City Council there from 2006 to 2014. She served as liaison to local public schools, advocated for bringing safe bicycle routes to schools and has been a small business owner. McClellan has the support of establishment Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and more than a dozen state legislators.

Ilana Spiegel is an author, activist and formerly was a counselor for abused and neglected children as well as a classroom teacher. She has served on a variety of school committees and was appointed to the state’s testing task force in 2014.

Both McClellan and Spiegel are parents of public school students.

Here are the candidates’ responses to questions from Chalkbeat about the issues facing the board and Colorado:


Rebecca McClellan
Rebecca McClellan

What is the greatest issue facing Colorado schools today and how are you going to address it?

Underfunding is our greatest challenge. Early childhood education, teacher recruitment and retention, access to mental health services, services for English language learners, health and nutrition, and resources for persistently low performing schools, are all impacted by funding concerns. I would advocate for education funding, and also for a reduction in the time and financial resources required for standardized testing. Students deserve a comprehensive, well-rounded education, including subjects and programs not emphasized in high stakes tests, such as the arts and sports. We must also improve access to mental health services in our schools. Funding concerns impact all of these needs.

What role should a State Board of Education Member serve in shaping state education law and policy?

The State Board’s role should be to act as an effective and unified governing body that champions policies and laws to serve and support all Colorado public school students. Both in their direct decisions and in their advocacy with legislators, State Board Members should be seen as highly knowledgeable and credible resources on the impact of laws and statewide policies on local districts, schools and communities. That begins with frequent and accurate communications by each Board Member with all constituencies the Board Member represents. State Board of Education Members should not micro-manage teachers.

What sort of relationship should the Colorado Department of Education have with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups such as the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives?

One of the Department’s primary objectives is to serve and support local districts. Seeking frequent input from local school districts and statewide advocacy groups is essential in identifying the impact of policy decisions. Open communication with the full range of stakeholders allows the Board to learn of opportunities for improvement, as well as faster discovery of unintended consequences that require attention.

Colorado needs a new Education Commissioner. What qualifications would you want in the ideal candidate?

The ideal candidate should not bring their own agenda, but should take direction from the Board, respecting that their elections reflects the priorities of voters. The candidate should have experience running a large, complex organization, and a track record for successfully supporting public schools in times of lean budgets. Experience balancing the needs of a socioeconomically diverse district or state and experience working with a divided board would be desirable. The ideal candidate should be willing to work with department legal staff to ensure that all proper procedures are followed with respect to transparency in accordance with Colorado law.

New federal law is supposed to grant states flexibility over issues like school accountability and teacher quality. What do you hope to see changed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act?

I would like to see a reduction in standardized testing to reduce the time lost to testing, as well as the financial cost. I would like to see Colorado take a less punitive approach, in favor of identifying the need for resources to help schools most in need. I would like to see a reduction in the amount of bureaucratic assessment paper work required of teachers and administrators. We should remove the pressure to teach to the test by taking a less punitive approach.

Some school districts hope Colorado explores new alternatives to testing for accountability purposes. Should Colorado change its testing system, if so, how?

The State Board of Education should take seriously the input of stakeholders including students, teachers, parents, school district boards and administrators. I do not have a rigid agenda regarding a specific test or vendor, but would like to see us settle on a reasonable assessment system we can keep. Momentum is lost and expenses are incurred each time we have to re-gear to a new system. Listening carefully to the concerns and priorities of stakeholders is essential to good decision making for an elected official, and I take that duty very seriously.

Some 30 schools and eight school districts are expected to reach the end of the state’s accountability timeline for chronic low performance. The State Board must act. What role do you see the board playing? Would you move to close low performing schools or turn them over to charters?

Parent, teacher, student and community input is essential to understanding the unique challenges faced by our lowest performing schools. There is not a “one size fits all” answer. For example, Aurora Central High School serves many refugees who may be traumatized and facing the challenge of acclimating to a new country. In some cases, students may not have been able to attend school regularly in the country they left. Finding the right solution with the resources available involves working with those most familiar with each school’s unique challenges. Parents and community members must have empowerment in the process.

After six years, Colorado is set to begin reviewing its education standards. What do you hope the outcome is? Would you support whatever the panel recommended even if it went against your personal opinion of the Common Core Standards?

Colorado must have strong standards that benefit students and prepare them to make sound life choices after graduation. I do not have a rigid agenda regarding a specific set of standards. Standards that allow for consistency from state to state would help families who relocate to know that a child exiting one grade will be prepared to start the next grade in their new state. Feedback from educators, students and parents should be taken seriously during the upcoming review process as the Board strives to refine our standards to reflect the high expectations that will benefit all of our students.


Ilana in classroom-204-3
Ilana Spiegel

What are the greatest issues facing Colorado schools today and how do you hope to address it as a member of the state board?

The greatest issues facing Colorado schools today are:

  • Safety, health and wellness of our students
  • Inadequate funding
  • Recruiting and retaining teachers
  • An over-the-top approach to assessment and accountability

I will address these issues by advocating and supporting policies that:

  • Balance the desire and need for research and data to understand strengths and struggles of our students and schools with protection of individual information of students and families, including full transparency of access vendors or the state have to individual student or family information.
  • Ensure the maximum amount of resources dedicated to an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn, mentor and support new teachers, encourage “learning centered schools,”and facilitate collaboration between the state, district leadership and higher education.
  • Move away from a “testing and punishing” format and build a collaborative effort toward assessing and informing where teaching and learning are the main goals.

What role should the State Board of Education serve in shaping state education law and policy?

The State Board of Education’s role in shaping state education law and policy must focus on what actually improves teaching and learning. These decisions need to stay at the “policy level” and the “state level”. The State Board must stop directing local school boards and superintendents to carry out Board and CDE created services and programs. The State Board of Education can avoid one size fits all, unfunded mandates, and adopt more reasonable and holistic policies for assessment and accountability.

What sort of relationship should the Colorado Department of Education have with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups such as the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives?

The Colorado Department of Education should have a collaborative relationship with local school districts and other education association and advocacy groups that have democratically elected leaders who represent their members. That said, the CDE must be a critical friend when any organization is not acting in the best interest of students or what is needed to improve teaching and learning.

Colorado needs a new education commissioner. What qualifications would you want in the ideal candidate?

A new education commissioner must have experience as an educator, teaching and leading diverse K-12 public school students and schools. The new commissioner must be skilled in working collaboratively and is driven to do what is best for students, and improving teaching and learning.

New federal law is supposed to grant states flexibility over issues like school accountability and teacher quality. What do you hope to see changed under the new Every Student Succeeds Act?

  • Testing will not be the only measure for accountability nor the sole basis for high stakes decisions of any kind.
  • State assessments will be used as part of a larger body of evidence to determine school and district effectiveness, achievement, growth, and to monitor achievement and growth gaps.
  • Focus on opportunity gaps.
  • Frameworks that promote equity and access for all students.
  • Assessments will be used to support students and schools, not to punish them.
  • Student test scores will be decoupled from teacher evaluations.
  • Local districts will hold teachers accountable to high standards of professional practice.

Some school districts hope Colorado explores new alternatives to testing for accountability purposes. Should Colorado change its testing system, if so, how?

I believe we are doing way too much testing. There is too much emphasis on testing and too much money being spent. Furthermore, a decade and a half of testing has not improved teaching or learning, and we have seen a widening of the achievement gap, as many students have been denied opportunities based on test scores. I support assessment as long as it is teacher driven, to improve professional practice and student learning and not associated with high stakes.
The State Assessment Proposal that I helped create while on the Colorado Standards and Assessment Task Force is one example of how Colorado could change its testing system.

Some 30 schools and eight school districts are expected to reach the end of the state’s accountability timeline for chronic low performance. The State Board must act. What role do you see the board playing? Would you move to close low performing schools or turn them over to charters?

It is important now, more than ever, to have a State Board member who has first hand experience working in struggling schools and has a track record of engaging in communities that seek to understand root causes of low performance, one who will listen to feedback from those impacted by any decision. The State Board’s role must be one that creates stability, not instability, for children and communities. Closing schools or turning them over to charters neither addresses the cause of low performance nor engages those who work and live with the children or communities.

After six years, Colorado is set to begin reviewing its education standards. What do you hope the outcome is? Would you support whatever the panel recommended even if it went against your personal opinion of the Common Core State Standards?

I hope the outcome of a review of standards is to acknowledge that standards do not teach children. Standards are scaffolding or guardrails, not a bar that needs to be cleared. No set of standards negates the necessity for teachers to be treated like professionals who have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, how to teach, how children learn, and to develop curriculum. I would support panel recommendations if the panel is comprised of those who work and live with children every day, and that the standards are not synonymous with data tags.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

Share your thoughts on Boasberg’s exit here: