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Profile: Tom Boasberg

Denver's superintendent focuses on talent and brings a balanced approach to one of the most innovative urban school districts.

Appointed a little more than three years ago, Tom Boasberg is one of the many district superintendents who have been brought in from outside education to head a big-city school system. He came to the Denver schools after a career in business and government. But he didn't just parachute into the top job. He served as district COO under his predecessor, Michael Bennet, who was appointed to an open U.S. Senate seat and subsequently reelected for a full term.

Unlike many other nontraditional school leaders-think Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein-Boasberg hasn't taken a high-profile, confrontational approach. He's known for being mild-mannered, deliberative, technocratic, even. Another difference is that Boasberg works with an independently elected school board. None of this means he has moved slowly. During his tenure, the district has retained its innovative teacher pay plan and pressured charters to take on their fair share of transient high-need students. And each year it closes a half-dozen schools and creates 10 to 15 new ones, all while raising the "on-time" graduation rate from 60 to 70 percent.

Q Does Denver have it any easier than other big-city districts around the country, in terms of size, student demographics, or politics?
[Laughs.] All districts have their challenges and advantages. We're lucky to be in Colorado, which is very much a purple state. That forces people to the middle. If you look at what we've done, we've had a very balanced approach that might be harder in a more politically polarized environment.

Q During last year's board elections, there was contentious debate on issues like the role of charter schools, teacher tenure, and education spending. What lessons do you see coming out of that experience?
Being a purple state doesn't mean you don't have vigorous debates about the kinds of changes we need if we're going to change outcomes for kids. Vigorous debate is welcome and necessary.

Q What's your response to those who say that mayoral control is the only way to make substantial changes in how school systems work?
We're focused on doing what's right for our kids with the system we have.  

Q Are the city's charter schools viewed as much of a threat by unions or the community?
There's plenty of conflict in Denver about charters at the political level. At the district and school level, I think we've been able to work collaboratively with our charters and emphasize our three equities of opportunity, access, and responsibility, as well as accountability for all schools.

Q One thing that's made charter-district cooperation a little easier is that Denver hasn't been overrun by charters; only 12 percent of Denver students attend charter schools. How else are the city's charters different from those in other districts?
We have charter schools with center programs for severely disabled kids and charters with neighborhood boundaries, and all of our charters take kids midyear. We share best practices between district and charter schools. [Some of them are among the district's top-performing schools.]

Q Are NCLB waivers a big deal for DPS, or is the media making too much of this?
Denver has one of the country's strongest and most comprehensive school performance frameworks. There are literally 60 or 70 different measures we look at. The waiver will enable us to have a much stronger and more balanced performance and accountability system than [with] NCLB.

Q What have you learned about rescuing low-performing schools?
The first lesson is to have a comprehensive and fair framework that separates the schools that are doing well and [those that are] struggling, based on year-on-year student growth. The second is the importance of really engaging with the community in a discussion about how to improve performance. Third is providing extra resources to struggling schools, and giving them freedom from things like forced placement of teachers. Fourth is a willingness to replace struggling schools with higher-performing schools using the same building and serving the same kids. Last, but not least, is to develop a strong pipeline of new schools, both district and charter.

Q How did you find a way to end forced placement?
We worked with the state to help get the state law changed. And we're working to limit it district-wide.

Q Is community engagement as tricky and messy in Denver as it seems to be in other districts?
It's challenging with low-performing schools. We try to provide enough time-six, eight, or even 10 months-so that we get beyond the initial anger, to really discuss what the community wants versus what the community is against.

Q What do you know now about leading a big-city system that you wish you'd known at the beginning?
That's a long list. I think so much of running a good organization is about the who, not about the what. Can you attract good people, and motivate and keep them, and teach them to work well as a team?

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