On Dec. 12, 2006, voters in School District 11 booted Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes off the board of education. Another board member, Craig Cox, resigned soon thereafter.
The recall effort was coined "End the Chaos," and, at the very least, it was meant to squelch the bickering and name-calling that had become the norm on a board driven by strong personalities and political agendas. With Shakes, Christen and Cox gone, many expected the board to take the focus off itself and start zoning in on the kids.
So ... has it?
Well, pretty much everyone agrees that board meetings are less heated. Even the recently ousted Willie Breazell, who was elected with Shakes, Christen and Cox in 2003 on a platform of reform (which critics called a scheme to privatize D-11), says the board was calmer after the recall.
Breazell sees that calm as a negative. Everyone's getting along, but little is getting done, he says. He thinks it's time the board goes after the teachers union and starts paying teachers based on performance.
Bob Null, who was just elected to the board after years of following its actions, says he thinks the board is on the right track. He recently listened to board president Tami Hasling list the year's accomplishments, and nodded his head they were needed changes. But Null thinks the board is still just beginning to institute real change.
"I think they've been looking at it strategically, and now it's time to come up with a tactics plan," he says.
Hasling, John Gudvangen and Sandra Mann other board members who in 2005 defeated a slate of candidates who appeared somewhat ideologically aligned with Breazell, Christen and Co. are, not surprisingly, quite positive.
D-11's problems range from crumbling buildings to underperforming kids. The latter item tops everyone's priority list.
Hasling says one huge step toward bettering student achievement came in rearranging the budget to put more money into classrooms for instance, that helped fund a program called "Response to Intervention," which lets schools track student progress throughout the year. The system acts as a safety net; if a kid falls behind, teachers and staff jump in right away.
Mann is quick to point out the district was well ahead of the curve in adding free full-day kindergarten this school year. Gov. Bill Ritter recently said he wants the state to pay for many Colorado kids to have full-day kindergarten.
"It was important to us to be able to fund that," Mann says, "and that's brought kids into our district."
That brings up another D-11 goal: increasing enrollment. It didn't happen this year, Gudvangen says, but the seemingly annual decrease didn't happen, either.
"More people stayed in this district than we expected to; more people enrolled in this district than we expected to," he says. "That's a good sign, and it has to continue."
The district showed improvement this year, especially at the middle school level, on school accountability reports, the annual state report card that rates schools based on CSAP scores and factors like disciplinary actions. The board hopes a new program for underperforming ninth-graders will catch kids as they enter high school and give them a boost that will last through graduation.
"It's been proven in other states, so we took a chance and we're trying it," Hasling says.
The district also has a grant for a math-science magnet, a possible new beginning for the recently shuttered East Middle School. Board members say if a math-science magnet works, we could see more schools like it.
Mann, Hasling and Gudvangen say while the board's interaction is calmer, there's still plenty of healthy (and, yes, even heated) debate. They've prioritized engaging the community, too. The board is planning a meeting with the teachers union unusual in that it will be open to the public to discuss issues, particularly teacher pay. Mann says that wouldn't have happened before the recall.
Another plus: No one is trying to fire Superintendent Terry Bishop, as happened to his predecessor, Sharon Thomas. Instead of fearing for his paycheck, Bishop meets regularly with principals looking for ways to improve student achievement. Even Breazell says Bishop is doing a good job.
Finally, the board also has begun transforming itself by working toward implementing policy governance, a new method being used by Academy School District 20 and other Colorado districts. Hasling and Gudvangen say policy governance is about taking the reins back from the administration. Basically, the board plans meetings with the community minority groups, businesses, City Council to determine area values and the skills kids need.
The board then approves new value-based policies, and sets goals for schools based on those policies. Every month, it checks to make sure schools are taking proper steps to meet those goals. Day-to-day enforcement is left to administrators.
"We are [currently] reactive to what the administration is doing," Hasling says. "They tell us what we're going to do, and we approve it. Policy governance turns that around and says, "This is what we expect from you. This is what we want. You will go do it.'"
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