Meet DPS school board At-Large hopefuls Michael Kiley, Barbara O'Brien, Joan Poston
- Age: 63
- President of Get Smart Schools; former Colorado lieutenant governor
- Two grown children who graduated from East High School
- Website: barbaraobrien.com
Of all the candidates, O'Brien has the most professional experience. For sixteen years, she was president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, an advocacy group that was instrumental in establishing a statewide preschool program for at-risk children. Starting in 2007, she served a four-year term as lieutenant governor, during which time she helped create the ASCENT Program, which allows high-school students to take college courses. And this past December, she landed at Get Smart Schools, which trains aspiring school leaders to start new charter or innovation schools or turn around low-performing schools.
So why is she interested in a volunteer seat on the DPS board? "My heart is in Denver," she says. "I'm at this lucky position where I can pick what I want to do, and I just wanted to help make my town and my school system as good as they could be."
(As for whether her job with Get Smart would present any conflicts of interest, O'Brien says she consulted with DPS's attorney, who told her she'd have to recuse herself from votes related to the handful of schools headed by Get Smart alumni.)
O'Brien thinks DPS is headed in the right direction but says it's not moving fast enough to close the achievement gap. "I don't think that it's actually focused enough on the places along the way where it could make the biggest difference fastest for kids," such as making sure all students are reading at grade level by third grade, she says.
When it comes to improving chronically low-performing schools, O'Brien thinks the board should be willing to make dramatic changes. "The board has to really insist that there's a serious plan for change and not to let kids languish in that school," she says.
barbaraobrien.com Barbara O'Brien in a photo from her website.
That plan should include having a strong principal to lead the school through the turnaround, O'Brien says. "They need to know how to get the teachers all on board with a vision and a mission...and they need to know how to share leadership. We see a lot of principals in turnaround schools burn out because it's a gigantic job, but it's completely doable if you learn to empower the teacher-leaders in the building."
O'Brien helped pass the law that created charter schools in Colorado, which she believes "is teaching us a whole lot about how you can educate vulnerable kids." But she also admits that there have been some "horrible" charter schools and says charters alone aren't the answer. "Parents have flocked to charter schools, no question, but they also want a really strong neighborhood school," she says. She thinks the district should look at every school individually and figure out how to make it a great option.
O'Brien likes that DPS has been aligning its curriculum to its academic standards, and she appreciates that the district is willing to share its student achievement data, "even if it's painful to read sometimes." She also feels good about what's happening in northwest Denver with Skinner Middle School and North High School; North's principal came from Skinner, and she says the two schools have been collaborating on how best to help individual kids.
But she definitely thinks the district has room for improvement.
"Denver needs to be smarter about learning from what's working and sharing that across the whole district," O'Brien says, "and where something's not working, stop doing it."
O'Brien has been criticized for her support of a 2003 state bill that would have created a voucher program for low-income kids in failing school districts. She says she does not support vouchers now: "I strongly oppose vouchers at DPS, and I would never support such a measure as a boardmember."
Continue for our interview with Poston.