As we approach this Independence Day weekend, thoughts drift back to our nation’s Founding Fathers lead by George Washington. (This is of course in addition to thoughts of delicious barbeque, cherry pie, fireworks galore, and Team USA.) But say George Washington to people involved in education Denver and the image that comes up is that of a high school divided and under attack. George Washington High School – GW, George or GDub as it is affectionately known – is one of the Denver’s so-called Presidential high schools. For the last 30 years it has been home to a magnet program known as the International Baccalaureate Programme. The GW IB program is nationally and internationally known for its excellence, rigor, and student success. The International Baccalaureate Programme offers just the kind education Founding Father Washington envisioned when he said,
“A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
So what is the fuss about?
The GW IB program was designed as a school within a school practicing the “reform” mantra of co-locations long before “reform” was even around. The GW IB program was designed as a magnet program, which means applications would be necessary to participate. “Reformers” do not like magnet programs because they take students who might otherwise choice into a charter school. (Choice participants tend to have informed and engaged parents and students. Charters benefit from this custom, as do magnets.)
George Washington Principal Micheal Johnson, the DPS administration and a few carefully chosen community members want to change the heart of this magnet program. They believe it to be elitist and non-diverse. They have come up with four school-wide goals to combat this:
1. Raise the bar to provide all students at GW a challenging, rigorous education that will prepare them for college and career;
2. Strengthen GW as a strong neighborhood school that will appeal to and attract all students in our boundary, as well as students from other parts of Denver;
3. Continue our top notch IB program; and
4. Unify GW as one school with great opportunities and multiple, high quality offerings for all students.
These are lofty goals. Frankly, all DPS schools should aspire to 1, 2, and 4. But not at the expense of number 3, which will most likely prove to harm the magnet school. There will be no designated IB prep for 9th and 10th graders. Rather GW will become a “school-wide honors program with honors courses that are as rigorous as the current pre-IB courses.” That is all well and good, but how will that be possible when IB is a specialized program for kids who want to work really hard and are ready to enter the 9th grade with all cylinders ago. Email after email from parents across the district, many of them minorities, arrive in the superintendent’s mailbox begging the district to fix what is broken without destroying what is working. To date, Mr. Boasberg has chosen to ignore the community.
The real intent of this program change appears to be to add diversity to the IB program. Now, no one can really complain about increasing diversity, especially in a district where increasing resegregation is occurring, thanks in large part to “reform.” But why focus on one school? Why not have a districtwide plan to address this disparity? And if Boasberg is attacking magnets what about Denver School of the Arts (DSA)? Here are the 2013-14 comparisons:
|FRL (Free & Reduced Lunch)||14.7%||54.1%|
|ELL (English Language Learners)||1.1%||9.4%|
|SpEd (Special Education)||2.5%||9.9%|
Does DSA’s lack of diversity as a whole give it a pass when it comes to integration, equity, and diversity? It seems to me, if you are truly concerned about equity, integration and diversity, what is good for one school ought to be good for all schools. If the GW plan will correct the unevenness of equity, integration and diversity, why should it not be implemented across the district where similar disparities abound?
The culture at George Washington High School is broken. Teachers, students, parents feel disrespected, unsupported and even disliked. In all too typical DPS fashion, divisions among and between students and faculty and parents have been created and nurtured. Divide and conquer. It seems the current Denver Public Schools administration, lead by Superintendent Tom Boasberg, is intent on demolishing this successful academic magnet. And he will pit community against community in doing so.
Meeting after meeting has occurred both at the school, in homes, to discuss these proposed changes. All with the same request: answer our questions, please. No meaningful answers have been provided. Community meetings have been held where answers are promised, In an April 28, 2014 email from Principal Micheal Johnson to GW Families and Supporters alerting them of a May 10 meeting he said, “…I will provide updates on our progress toward implementing our strategic plan and will address any questions or concerns that may arise about our future direction. It is crucial that we have the engagement and feedback of the community as we implement these changes.” Yet when that meeting convened in the GW Library to a standing room only crowd, one of the first statements out of the District’s mouth notified attendees that this would NOT be a meeting to answer questions. The spokesperson said the group was too large for that. Everyone in the room was astounded since that was the reason for being there. Many got restless. Superintendent Boasberg was not present.
The District has made commitments that no changes will occur for the upcoming school year, yet IB certified teachers have left in droves, remaining teachers have not received their class assignments, and according to the DPS job listings there are currently 15 teaching job openings for GW. All of this when highly qualified and trained IB teachers are an integral part of GW’s IB success. And it is the beginning of July! Changes have already occurred.
Long time DPS parent activist Kristen Tourangeau has written an excellent narrative of the current DPS administration’s actions and inactions regarding GW. Kristen has been instrumental in turning both a neighborhood elementary school and a middle school around before “turnarounds” were in. Both of her daughters graduated from GW IB, the last one just this year. She raises a very important point when she says,
“All over Denver our communities have argued for strong neighborhood public schools. They have not clamored for charter schools to replace those schools. Our superintendent’s actions, however, follow the national trend of declaring urban public schools to be “failing” schools and then to replace them with charter schools.
“Perhaps that is the ultimate plan for George Washington High School – to make it a “failing” school by destroying its best academic program and initiate a downward spiral for the school. That is a strategy that just might work for our superintendent and our federal government.”
Finally, it has been reported that a graduating GW IB student approached Mr. Boasberg at the graduation ceremony and asked him what it felt like to dismantle the IB program. According to several sources, Mr. Boasberg was heard to have said “It feels great (or good)!” We must ask why? We must hope that George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado will not soon be just a faded memory.