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DPS board retreat attempts to foster unity

Friday, January 20, 2012

Originally posted on EdNewsColorado, Jan. 20, 2012. Copyright © EdNewsColorado.org
Read here. Written by Charlie Brenna.

Less than 12 hours after a meeting which saw Denver school board members splitting their votes into familiar 4-3 factions, its members came back together Friday for a retreat at which they focused on learning to better work together.

In the quiet grace of the Grant Street Mansion, an 1892 Capitol Hill architectural showcase replete with wrought-iron chandeliers, paneled oak and Oriental carpeting, the seven board members spent much of the day discussing ways to move forward in unity.

The Nov. 1 board election saw two members leave and two new representatives take their place. But as demonstrated by a hotly contested 4-3 vote Thursday night on a turnaround plan for Trevista at Horace Mann ECE-8, unanimity and the revamped board enjoy only a casual acquaintance.

Ground rules for Friday’s retreat included no rambling “shaggy dog” stories without a point, “one person at a time,” “do not dominate air time” and “listen for understanding, rather than disagreement” – guidelines not always observed at the board’s regular meetings.

Facilitator Lisa Carlson, from the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs-Buechner Institute for Governance, challenged each member to jot down elements they envisioned as being part of a successful Denver Public Schools, several years down the road.

Board members were asked to limit themselves to one idea per small sticky note. They were to state each as a positive, not a negative.

One by one, their lime-green note slips were stuck on display boards, under general “values” headings that eventually included: English language learners, school culture, student-centered learning, equity in reform, governance and leadership, communications, diversity and, finally, financial security.

Despite the mostly policy-themed discussion that followed, there were moments of levity.

When board president Mary Seawell started to jot down a thought, then crumpled the note saying she wasn’t happy with it, several of her colleagues called – without success – for her to reveal it anyway. Board member Arturo Jimenez, whose correspondence was recently the focus of a Colorado Open Records Act request filed by Education News Colorado, joked that a reporter in the room was likely to “CORA” Seawell’s discarded note.

A short time later, board member Andrea Merida, in sharing one of her notes, admitted, “I had to re-frame this in a positive way.”

“Did it hurt?” teased her colleague Jeannie Kaplan, a frequent ally of Merida on board votes.

The positively-framed note which Merida then shared, before it was posted up along with the rest, stated “We are unafraid to share successes and failures with the public.”

Before the morning was half-over, several dozen aspirational visions concerning a successful DPS were posted for the group’s consideration. Among them were:

“Reform is redefined, so everyone can get behind it,” from Kaplan.

“Marked increase in employee job satisfaction,” from Merida.

“Affluent families are just as likely to choose a DPS school as lower-income families are,” from Nate Easley.

“Every school has a business or community partner to support their work – somebody who loves them,” from Happy Haynes.

“Effective education strategies for English language learners,” from Anne Rowe.
Once there were enough notes arrayed on display that they started to overlap one another, Carlson asked the group, “Do you see a lot of agreement?”

There were a few muffled “um-hum’s.” It was far short of a chorus of Kumbaya.

Haynes, elected Nov. 1 as an at-large member, observed, “I’m encouraged that we’re saying a lot of the same things.”

Merida, however, pointed out, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. We’re working on too many assumptions about how we achieve particular outcomes.”

She added, “The way that things get carried out has just as much importance as the outcome.”

About half their time was spent in executive session – closed to the public – discussing what was described on the board agenda as “clarify and agree on the school board role and performance of the superintendent given the vision.”

During the public portion, the facilitator’s approach included drawing a large pyramid she labeled “the triangle of durable agreements.” The three legs of the figure were labeled “Procedural,” “Psychological” and “Substance.” She said it represented a theory of decision-making that required participants being “on board with all three sides” in order “for everyone to feel good about the outcome.”

When Carlson finished, she asked the group, “Was that a shaggy dog?”

“It was a good shaggy dog,” said Rowe.