A few short weeks ago I wrote a post about Denver’s George Washington High School, (GW) detailing the travails of a stellar magnet school program currently under attack. Little did I know that post would be just the beginning round of what is shaping up to be a 12 round heavyweight contest.
Wednesday, July 30, after a summer of turmoil, a summer of teachers not knowing what classes they will be teaching in the fall, a summer where teacher vacancies abounded through July, the principal of the school was removed, an interim appointed, and a process to find a permanent leader begun. As of August 1, there is no master schedule, teachers are still unclear as to what classes they will be teaching, and parents and students have been unable to see their class schedules. Some people have actually suggested George Washington not start school until after Labor Day so the chaos can abate and the new school year can get off to a relatively calm beginning.
Following a DPS pattern of administrators relieved of their school duties, this departing principal has not been fired but rather has been reassigned, according to his letter to GW Parents and Community, to a central administration position. Former Principal Micheal Johnson will now be in a “leadership position with the Post-Secondary Readiness team of the Denver Public Schools.” He will keep his six figure salary. The District has undertaken a campaign of sorts to reassure parents that their concerns about Mr. Johnson’s leadership were heard. The District is also leading these same parents to believe that with his exit the future of the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB) will remain as it has been. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is, Mr. Johnson was just a pawn in the game to de-magnetize and change the character of the GW IB program.
Mr. Johnson’s removal from the school, while an important step in rebuilding a positive school culture, does not really affect the trajectory the District has in mind for the school. The Denver Public Schools central administration, headed by Superintendent Tom Boasberg, wants to see the undoing of this historically demanding academic program. The story being proffered by the District is the school is too segregated, the IB program is not diverse enough, the achievement gap is too wide, and the education outside of the IB program is not academically challenging (thank you in large part to”reform”). While these allegations may be accurate, Mr. Boasberg has been either unwilling or unable to address repeated pleas by the GW community to leave the successful IB program be while the District works to strengthen the academics of the Advanced Placement (AP) and traditional programs. Failing to accomplish this, Mr. Boasberg has decided that the IB program will have to shoulder responsibility for the inequities occurring not just at GW but across the District. And the Denver Public School District has chosen to blame this program for the District’s inability to properly prepare elementary and middle school students for such a demanding high school education and for the Districit’s inability to strengthen the other high school academic offerings across the district. And it appears Mr. Boasberg will not stop attacking this school until the parents and community cry “uncle.”
George Washington Community – do not think you are out of the woods. Do not think your IB program will remain in tact. The “One George” process that has started will continue. Principal Johnson has just been a distraction. The steering committee that has been put in place is meeting this Saturday for the first time. The meeting time and place have been difficult to uncover but it appears it will take place from 8 a.m. to noon in the GW Community Room. The carefully selected participants are to date publicly unknown. The District has said “the steering committee meetings are not open to the public to make sure folks have a safe space where they can get a lot of work done without any distractions…” If it is the District’s intent to establish a new school culture and promote transparency, holding secret meetings is probably not the best route to take. The process to change the IB program from a magnet program to an all school program is continuing full steam ahead.
The existence of magnet programs and the tenet of school choice have a difficult time co-existing under “reform” (unless you are a magnet school like Denver School of the Arts which is seemingly immune from “reform”). Magnet schools compete with charter schools for many of the same students. Magnet schools offer niche programs like many charters. Magnet schools must be too threatening to school choice and charter schools. Therefore, in the “reform” district that is DPS, reform always wins, in this case at the expense of this historically successful IB magnet program. Could this competition be a reason for the push to end the GW IB program as currently constructed?
Mr. Johnson’s exit and reassignment raises a second very important and recurring theme within DPS: promoting failed leadership. Mr. Johnson was a school leader who was hired with much community angst. During his two year tenure he faced many leadership struggles. He was then removed from his duties in the middle of the summer but was given a promotion to a central administration position. Mr. Johnson followed another GW principal who was also removed from her role as principal due to similar challenges and she, too, ended up with a central administration position.
Other similar instances abound: An assistant principal of a middle school who after an 88% vote of no confidence by the school’s staff, found a central office funded position as an assistant principal at another middle school. A principal who was removed from one high school for budgetary irregularities, found a job as a principal in a turnaround high school. An elementary principal was placed on an improvement plan. When the school continued to decline, she was removed from the school and placed in the central administration. Another elementary school principal was unable to build a positive culture in her school, was removed, and then hired to run the Denver Teacher Resident program.
Many recently hired principals who have been ineffective leaders in their schools, are not fired but instead transferred to new, higher positions within the central administration. This despite the mantra that all principals are “at-will” employees who in theory can and sometimes should be fired at any moment. Yet for the most part, removals from school buildings result in promotions to the central administration.
Juxtapose these reassignments with employment situations DPS teachers have been facing. Some 3000 teachers have been removed from their positions since May 2010. How many of them have been afforded other opportunities within DPS? How many of them have received promotions? Treatment of principals versus treatment of teachers. Just another “reform” inequity.
The critical issue facing George Washington High School hasn’t really been resolved, and the ultimate result will have ramifications across Denver. Several important public education tenets are at stake here: the integrity of the internationally renowned George Washington International Baccalaureate Programme, the viability of magnet programs and the accountability for failed leadership. George Washington is in the middle of Round 3. Who wins this round depends in large part on who stays in the ring.