Another Denver school community is challenging DPS central administration leadership, this time a familiar controversy over community input in the future direction of a school. Parent leaders and activists have sent a scathing multi-page letter detailing events in a principal selection process that appears to have been manipulated to isolate community.
Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS), located in the Baker neighborhood, is a former magnet school that has been recognized as Denver’s best performing district-run school by US News and World Report and other organizations. That success appears to have rankled DPS administrators, as the school has lost teachers (teaching positions and class offerings) each year for the past five years. If a new principal is appointed in January it will be the fourth principal in a year’s time, a churn that has sent teachers and families running for the exits.
A letter to the Denver School Board
As dedicated members of the Denver Center for International Studies Baker community, we are writing to express our strong concern with what we view as a highly flawed process for selecting a new principal for DCIS. Senior leaders in DPS are expected to announce a new permanent principal by the end of this week. This process has been rushed and poorly conducted. We ask that the selection of a new principal be put on hold and a new recruitment process initiated.
Since its founding as the Center for International Studies at West High School, DCIS has been an example of student-led, globally-focused, rigorous learning in Denver Public Schools. Now, DCIS is in a period of crisis. For the past five years, performance and ratings have declined. DCIS is now in its first year of turnaround status. The former principal went on leave in early 2019 after a family tragedy and never returned. An interim principal was brought in who subsequently left at the end of the year. The assistant principal, who was well known in the school, also left for a position in another district. This summer, a new interim principal and new assistant principal were brought in. Now, more than ever, stability and strong leadership is needed to guide DCIS into its future. Instead, the recent principal selection process was rushed and few efforts were made to recruit a pool of high-quality candidates.
Certainly, recruiting a principal mid-year is challenging. Few experienced school leaders are available until the end of the school year. Yet, we have seen in this process few efforts to mitigate these circumstances and ensure that the strongest possible principal is brought in to guide DCIS into the future. Specifically, we object to (1) a selection process that was effectively compressed into three weeks with little promotion of the position, (2) a process for selecting the School Principal Selection Advisory Committee (SPSAC) that was flawed and inequitable, and (3) a pool of candidates that was directly recruited by DPS staff only two weeks prior to interviews with the SPSAC. Our concerns are elaborated below.
Rushed Selection Process
The DCIS CSC and other members of the school community were notified on the evening of Thursday, November 21, by the school’s Regional Instructional Superintendent (RIS), Nicole Veltze, and Regional Assistant Instructional Superintendent (RAIS), Jesus Rodriquez, that the process of interviewing finalists for the position was underway. At this meeting, Ms. Veltze and Mr. Rodriguez collected thoughts from those in attendance about priorities for a new principal and discussed the timeline for the selection process. To the surprise of everyone in the room, they stated that the district intended to announce a new principal by December 20, which was just four weeks away. With just one dayremaining before the Thanksgiving break, this left effectively only 3 weeks to select an SPSAC, conduct interviews with candidates, hold a community forum with candidates, hold interviews with senior leaders for two final candidates, and then make the final selection.
The CSC and community members were not aware that the entire process would be scheduled that evening. Decisions had to be made immediately, which caught many off guard. At the meeting, there was much concern about this rapid timeline. Ms. Veltze and Mr. Rodriguez simply responded that the timeline had to be met so that a new principal could be in place for school improvement planning to begin in January. In response, the CSC urged Ms. Veltze and Mr. Rodriguez to send frequent communications to the DCIS community via Infinite Campus since the school’s weekly newsletter had already been published that morning. It should be noted here that had Ms. Veltze and Mr. Rodriguez been clearer in the expectations and outcomes for this meeting ahead of time, that day’s newsletter could have been held and published the following day with information about the search process and SPSAC applications to supplement the Infinite Campus message.
Ultimately, only one Infinite Campus message was sent about the search process. The following day, Mr. Rodriguez sent a message with a letter containing information about applying for the SPSAC and the schedule for the selection process. No automated calls were ever sent to account for people without regular access to email. No follow-up messages were sent the week after Thanksgiving break. No paper materials were provided to distribute to students and parents. The week of the community forum, no messages at all were sent out to remind parents to attend. Luckily, the parents who compile the school’s weekly newsletter attended the meeting on November 21 and knew to include the information in the weekly newsletters. Those were the only systematic, community-wide communications sent. As a result, attendance at the community forum was quite low – around 15 parents who did not demographically represent the school community. This was a missed opportunity because parents were able to submit questions for the candidates and provide feedback on each candidate to Mr. Rodriguez. Parents who didn’t see the newsletter that went out that morning and forgot the contents of an email sent two weeks earlier never had an opportunity to provide their input.
Flawed SPSAC Selection Process
Due to the compressed timeline, there was effectively just one week to recruit students, parents, and teachers for the SPSAC. CSC and community members voiced concern on November 21 about this timeline since there would be few opportunities to communicate the application process in such a short amount of time and over a school break. In particular, the community was concerned about the ability to recruit parents and students on such short notice. SPSAC applications were due at 8 am on the Saturday after Thanksgiving break. As noted above, few communications were sent to inform the school community of this opportunity.
The SPSAC application – which was a Google form only – notified applicants at the top that they “must be able to attend all sessions in order to be considered: HR Training & Interviews: 8 hours on one day – Thursday, December 12th @ 7:30am-5pm.” Clearly, this requirement is not possible for many students or parents to meet, particularly on short notice.
The application asked only how the applicant was connected to DCIS and why they wanted to serve on the committee. Oddly, the only example given for why an applicant might be interested was “For example: you might include demographic information about your connection to this school such as grades of children, languages spoken, community affiliation, etc.” No information about experience at the school or interest in the process other than demographic representation was solicited. A third question asked applicants what grades they or their children were in and what subgroups they identified with (LGBTQ, Special Education, Student of Color, English Language Learner). This question, however, was optional.
The following Monday, the CSC convened to review 40 SPSAC applications, facilitated by Ms. Veltze. The process made at least one CSC member uncomfortable because the only criteria they were given was to select a committee that represented the demographics of the DCIS student body. CSC members were asked to read all 40 applications and select their top choices. Then, Ms. Veltze called for votes for applicants to be called out verbally rather than submitted silently and anonymously. Although the applicants’ identities were masked (they were referred to by numbers), the application information made some of their identities apparent to CSC members who knew them. After votes were called out, Ms. Veltze began culling through the numbers to craft a group that was demographically representative. Applicants’ responses to the question about why they wanted to serve on the SPSAC received little attention, even though some responses were extremely limited. Information about the specific grade levels of parent applicants’ students were aggregated into “middle school” or “high school,” which made it difficult to identify 6th grade parent applicants who were brand new to the school, 8th grade parent applicants who might be transferring to a different high school next year, or 12th grade parent applicants who would be graduating out of DCIS at the end of the year. As a result, the grade representation of the SPSAC was skewed, with two out of five total parents selected having only 6th graders at DCIS, while parents with students in both middle and high school who bring a broader range of perspectives were left out.
Inadequate Promotion of the Position
Despite DCIS’s low rating on DPS’s SPF, the principalship of DCIS should be highly desirable. DCIS was awarded a Colorado Succeeds Prize in 2018, consistently appears at the top of DPS and Colorado high schools in the annual US News and World Report rankings of high schools, and DCIS is a flagship school in the Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network. One would think that numerous talented and experienced school leaders would be interested in at least applying to lead such a school. Yet the pool of candidates was thin because there was very little promotion of the opening.
The message sent to the DCIS community on November 22 stated that the principal position announcement had been posted to the DPS Job Board on November 4. At the meeting on November 21, Mr. Rodriguez stated that it had been posted two months earlier. The posting on the DPS Job Board (still posted) is dated November 13. Regardless of when the position was actually posted, this timing is extremely odd since the district had known since at least early May that the former principal, who was on leave, would not be returning. (Kyle Gamba was announced as the interim principal for 2019-20 on May 23 by a different instructional superintendent.) The position also doesn’t appear to have been widely promoted. A search for “principal denver center for international studies” produced no postings on widely used job boards such as the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) or Top School Jobs. One posting on LinkedIn was found, dated November 27. It should be noted that DPS commonly posts open positions on LinkedIn, including positions for teachers and principals.
As a result, there were only three applicants other than Kyle Gamba at the time the selection process kicked off. At the end of the community forum on December 12, Mr. Rodriguez excused the candidates and then informed attendees that when he reviewed applications the week of November 25, none of them met the priorities he had heard from the CSC and school community on November 21. Therefore, over the Thanksgiving break week, he personally recruited the three other candidates who appeared at the forum. (This perhaps explains the late date of the LinkedIn posting.) All of these candidates were current DPS employees. Of these three candidates, two are assistant principals at high schools very different from DCIS who have never held a principal role before. The third is a principal resident who has been a principal in another state, but is new to Denver and DPS and has not held a principalship here. The effort to bring together a pool of strong candidates, despite months of lead time and the knowledge that the application process for principals involves multiple steps, seems to have been very minimal.
Where We Are Now
The DCIS community was told that two of the four candidates would be advanced to interviews with senior DPS leaders after SPSAC interviews and the community forum. What we’ve learned, however, is that three candidates are advancing. Only Kyle Gamba is not.
This decision is baffling to us. While Kyle Gamba has strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, he has experience as a principal, unlike two of the candidates. He has experience leading a school in DPS, unlike any of the other candidates. He also has experience turning around a school, which none of the candidates have, and is experience strongly needed at DCIS now. Additionally, he has been leading DCIS for the past several months and has made considerable efforts to learn about the school’s unique mission and programs. The other candidates, when asked directly at the forum what they know about the DCIS model, demonstrated only passing knowledge that they’d gleaned from the school’s website. It’s certainly possible that something drastic occurred during Dr. Gamba’s interview process or that he’s had conflict with the school’s new instructional superintendent team. However, the decision to remove only him from the process leaves the school with a selection of two people who would be new to the principal role and one who is new to DPS. For a school at such a critical juncture, making such an important decision under such conditions is simply irresponsible.
As longtime members of the DCIS community, we are left with a number of questions:
What we are left with is the sense that the district has priorities for DCIS other than finding the strongest possible leader for the school. We have no idea what these priorities might be, but they cannot possibly be more important than finding a leader who can mend this community and forge a mission-aligned path into the future.
At the end of the day, we believe DCIS deserves much better than this. This school has provided opportunities for students to learn about culture and language, to travel and explore the world, that no other schools in DPS provide. It has consistently produced one of the strongest graduation and college-going rates in the district. It’s one of the few schools in DPS that actually reflects the makeup of the Denver community. Over the past few years, though, as the school has struggled, it has been overlooked and under-supported (see an attached letter from DCIS PTSA members to the board in 2018). We have seen this special school that has done so much for so many students allowed to slowly deteriorate. This flawed process to make such a critical decision amounts to pouring salt on the wound.
Some of us are beginning to explore other school options, including schools outside of DPS, out of exasperation and the growing perception that the district is not committed to supporting DCIS. We ask that DPS live up to its core value of integrity and revisit this selection with a thorough, rigorous, and equitable process to ensure the best possible leadership and future for DCIS students and community.
We will be attending the December 19 board meeting to share our concerns in person. We welcome any questions you have for us.
Francisco Bustillos, 12th grade parent
Theodore Cekan, 7th grade parent
Carter Craven, 7th grade student
Grace Craven, 10th grade student; CSC Student Representative
Melissa Craven, 7th and 10th grade parent
Laura Douglas, 9th grade parent
Allison Freeman, 6th grade parent; DCIS PTSA Treasurer; SPSAC Member
Darin Freeman, 6th grade parent
Sam Freeman, 6th grade student; SPSAC Member
Isabella Gibson, 12th grade student
Guerin Lee Green, 9th grade parent
Pallas Green, 9th grade student
Karen Herbert, 7th and 12th grade parent; DCIS PTSA Vice President
Peyton Herbert, 12th grade student
Steve Herbert, 7th and 12th grade parent
Daulton Hunter, 12th grade student
Izzy Jurien, 10th grade student
Urte Land, 9th grade parent
Yurii Land, 9th grade parent
Michael Lopez-Jensen, 10th grade parent
Sabina Lopez-Jensen, 10th grade student
Silvia Lopez-Jensen, 10th grade parent
Eli Masket, 12th grade student
Sadie Masket, 9th grade student
Seth Masket, 9th and 12th grade parent
Vivian Masket, 9th and 12th grade parent; CSC Parent Representative
Marie Meyer, 11th grade parent; DCIS PTSA President
Carmen Ortega, 7th grade parent
Terri Porter, 12th grade parent
David Rascon, 12th grade student
Lucy Rosas, 8th grade parent; CSC Parent Representative; DCIS PTSA Secretary
Antonio Samora, 10th grade student
David Scudamore, 7th grade parent
Amber Shearer, 9th grade parent
Wendy Weigler, 12th grade parent
Claire Weiser, 12th grade student
Anonymous 7th grade student
Anonymous 7th and 10th grade parent
Anonymous 12th grade student
A death by suicide of a former student, the son of the last permanent principal, left the school nearly rudderless last year. A veteran assistant principal was pushed out of the school, just a year after the longest serving administrator, another assistant principal left, a casualty of budget cuts. Multiple Denver School Board were contacted for comment on the story. All demurred.