Why former principal Jane Shirley is running for Denver school board

A former teacher, principal, and district administrator, who also once ran a downtown cabaret theater, is running for an at-large seat on the Denver school board.

Jane Shirley was a middle school math and science teacher in Aurora Public Schools before becoming a district administrator and then principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, where students demonstrate their learning through projects. She also worked for an organization that provided leadership training to principals, and now does executive coaching for a consulting firm.

Shirley, 61, lives in east Denver near the Aurora border. Her son attended a Denver charter school from kindergarten through eighth grade, but graduated from high school in Aurora.

She decided to run for the Denver school board because she thinks her background in education and leadership development could be helpful for the board.

“I haven’t seen ‘effective’ from the board,” she said, noting that a school board’s biggest responsibility is to manage the superintendent. “They either don’t hold them accountable or they hold them too accountable, or they don’t tie the goals to the actual strategy.”

In all, 13 candidates are running for four open seats in the Nov. 2 election. The winners will help lead a district that is still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to make up for a year and a half of disrupted learning. The board will oversee a new superintendent, craft a new strategic plan, and grapple with several long-simmering issues, including declining enrollment and continued disagreement over the role of independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools.

In addition to her work in Aurora Public Schools, Shirley worked at the Catapult Inc. leadership program, which has since closed, with outgoing school board member Barbara O’Brien. Catapult coached principals at both district-run and charter schools, including in Denver.

Currently, Shirley is an independent contractor, working with companies to improve their culture. She also volunteers as president of the governing board of High Point Academy, a charter school in Aurora authorized by the state Charter School Institute. Shirley formerly sat on the board of RiseUp Community School, a charter authorized by Denver Public Schools.

Shirley is also an improv actor who has written and produced several shows. She and her husband Dave opened a cabaret theater that’s now known as The Clocktower Cabaret.

If elected, Shirley said she would focus on students’ and teachers’ well-being.

“We’re killing our kids’ souls with this over-emphasis on competition and test scores and getting into good colleges,” Shirley said. “And we’re killing off the creativity in our educators. …. Nobody goes into this business to raise third-grade test scores. That’s a byproduct of good teaching.”

The way districts hold schools and teachers accountable is defeating, she said. Shirley was on a district committee that recommended getting rid of Denver Public Schools’ controversial color-coded school ratings in favor of using the state’s rating system instead.

“When you’re measuring people against things that they can’t do or they don’t care about or they don’t have enough mastery over to really be in the game, it’s defeating,” Shirley said. “I think it’s a core reason why we’re losing so many leaders and teachers and kids.”

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, serving about 90,000 students. A little more than half of students are Hispanic, 26% are white, and 14% are Black. Its school board has seven members — five regional and two districtwide.

We asked Shirley about several key issues the district will face in the coming years.

Declining enrollment and a growing number of small schools: In deciding whether to close or consolidate some small schools, Shirley said the district should start with a few essential questions: What school attributes do parents want? And what school size is optimal?

Once the district knows those answers, she said it should look at its roster of schools. If parents say they want racially diverse schools, she said, is there a place where two small racially homogenous schools could be combined to make that happen?

“We have to be intentional about how we’re going to use our public school system to help our young people grow up with cultural competence,” Shirley said.

Charter and innovation schools: Shirley questions the need for so many independent charter schools and semi-autonomous innovation schools. The original idea that these schools could innovate and share best practices with other schools was good, Shirley said.

But she said it hasn’t played out that way. Instead, she said, charter schools are often at odds with the district and are “in many ways less progressive” than district-run schools.

Shirley also has concerns with school choice, which allows families to send their children to a school outside their neighborhood. School choice is a state law but Denver heavily promotes it. Shirley said she doesn’t like that it presumes that some schools are good and others are bad.

“We’re putting all of the burden on the families to make a choice because we haven’t done our job of making all the schools good,” she said.

Improving education for Black and Hispanic students: The first thing the district should do is establish the outcomes it wants to see for students at each school and then work to hold the schools accountable for achieving them, Shirley said.

She said she worries that requiring schools to write plans to improve education for certain students, as is mandated by the school board’s 2019 Black Excellence resolution, becomes “a compliance thing” rather than a path to real change.

“What is not true today that needs to be true?” Shirley said. “And then let’s make that happen. And it may not be the same for every school.”

This article was originally posted on Why former principal Jane Shirley is running for Denver school board

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