Testing the Waters
Alumna Kristin Waters is floating reform ideas in Denver’s roughest schools.
Early this spring, a gathering of parents sat in the west stands of DU’s Magness Arena and beamed as 73 high school seniors from Denver’s Bruce Randolph School accepted their diplomas.
Bruce Randolph was one of more than a dozen Denver high schools that held graduation ceremonies in Magness, but this event on a sunny day in May was more than just another springtime rite of passage. It was a progress point, a high-water mark in Denver’s efforts to fix its failing schools and a report card to educators on techniques that work.
Back in 2005, Bruce Randolph was one of the worst schools in the state. Gang rivalries had turned the building into a battleground, recalls former principal Kristin Waters.
Veteran administrators had clamped down hard, which suppressed the fighting, but they weren’t able to focus on academics.
“In some classrooms teachers were doing a good job, working hard and making progress with kids, but in most classrooms students were not learning,” says Waters, who served as principal from 2005 to 2009. “Students were not being served.”
Waters got the job of turning things around. Her attack plan was twofold: first, get the district and the union off her back; and second, emphasize classroom expectations, accountability and confidence in the kids. That was key, she says, and the reason she retained only six of the school’s 45 teachers when she came in as principal. Those who didn’t unequivocally express belief in the students’ ability to succeed were replaced.
Five years later, on May 18, 2010, the first group of Randolph students who started under the Waters regime walked across the stage and accepted diplomas. Nearly 97 percent of the school’s seniors graduated that day, with the few who missed the cut working to fulfill remaining requirements by mid-June.
Compare that to the graduation rate for Denver Public Schools as a whole — 76.9 percent. Moreover, nearly 95 percent of Bruce Randolph’s seniors got into college.
All in a school where nearly every student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, the district’s measure of poverty; where only seven seniors speak English as their primary language; and where only two seniors have parents who graduated from college. Overwhelmingly, Bruce Randolph’s seniors are the first in their families to get a high school diploma.
“You pushed back,” Waters proudly reminded the seniors at commencement. “You tested us on whether we would stick to our high expectations. We did. And by late November of that first year you recognized that we were going to help you learn and keep pushing you and not back down.”
Leading with style
The Bruce Randolph turn-around system of pushing kids hard was among the reasons Superintendent Tom Boasberg, Board of Education Chair Nate Easley Jr. and a slew of DPS officials attended the Randolph commencement. And why The Denver Post carried the story on the front page of its local section.
It was also why the Randolph class of 2010 chose Waters as its commencement speaker. The click-click-click of her high heels in the hallway and her ever-present smile were indelible symbols of what they’d been through and how much progress they’d made.
“The kids would hear those high heels and you could see everyone sitting up a little straighter in their chairs because they knew Dr. Waters was coming into the room,” recalls Jessica Chandler, an eighth-grade language arts teacher. “She’d come in, pull up a seat and talk to the students. It wasn’t just sitting back taking notes. She wanted to be involved. Always with a big smile; you could tell she loved being in the classroom.”
Sixth-grade language arts teacher Stewart Amos remembers Waters’ style as charismatic, hands-on and fair.
“She never raised her voice, she just told people what they needed to do,” he says. “She was our leader. We were a team, but you knew that what she said went.”
Cesar Cedillo, who succeeded Waters as principal in 2009, remembers Waters’ work ethic. “She was always the first one here and the last one to leave. Saturdays, Sundays, she would have her car parked out front. She had these cool pink tennis shoes she’d wear whenever she got tired of high heels. The kids would say, ‘Hey, those are tight.’
“And she was always beaming. Nothing got her down.”
Not even her struggle to win waivers from district and union rules so she’d have greater freedom to make the changes she thought best, particularly as to budget, hiring and school calendar. They were modest changes, Waters says, but the effect was huge. “They let us go into the classroom and start guiding.”
Waters’ turn-around plan not only put Bruce Randolph School on a new trajectory, it also generated original research — a case study on her first year at Bruce Randolph — that in 2006 earned her a doctorate from DU’s Morgridge College of Education.
Three years later her efforts got her promoted to Superintendent Boasberg’s office, where as assistant to the superintendent for reform and innovation she oversaw charter schools, innovation schools — which use the state’s Innovative Schools Act to make adjustments similar to the ones at Randolph — and performance schools, which are new schools created from the ground up.
Waters was praised for her accomplishments in school reform during a special visit in 2009 by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and feted as a “transformational leader” by Rocky Mountain PBS. In July 2010, she accepted a new job with DPS as instructional superintendent, guiding high school principals in becoming better leaders.
“The two things that have the most impact on a student’s learning are the teacher and the school leader that supports that teacher,” she says. “If we don’t have excellent teachers and leaders, none of the other things are important.”
Waters’ new mission underscores the fact that as much as anyone in DPS, she has come to symbolize school reform and the formula behind it: goals, high expectations, accountability and unwavering confidence in kids’ ability to achieve.
“We didn’t put programs into place,” Waters, 46, says of her efforts at Randolph. “The programs weren’t it. We had high expectations and we supported them. Yeah, I know. Every school has high expectations. No, they don’t. At Bruce Randolph every kid went into AP language and composition. Every kid! Not only the kids who were prepared; every student went in. Now that’s a high expectation.”
Keeping it simple
Teaching isn’t rocket science, she says to anyone willing to listen. And it isn’t sweeping changes and new laws. It’s figuring out where students are, building on that and not dumbing things down as you go along.
“You keep pushing and you keep providing the support so they can be successful,” she says. Sounds simple, but stare into the byzantine world of public education and you don’t have to look far to find a labyrinth of process, crushing rules, resistance to change, conflicting messages, suspicion, anger, vested interests and enough edu-babble to qualify as a foreign tongue.
“We have our principal trainings and everyone talks the talk, but they can’t always go back and do it,” Waters complains. “They struggle with saying, ‘OK teachers, go look at your assessments, look at the results, group your students, see what they’re missing, teach that.’”
Not much rocket science there. More like a primer on the mechanics of teaching, but an important piece that reformers such as Waters and Boasberg believe needs to be reinserted as broadly as possible while the chance is at hand.
Pressure on Colorado schools to perform has come barreling down from the Obama administration in the form of the $3.4 billion that states are competing for in the Race to the Top school turn-around program, and Secretary Duncan has been aggressive in calling out everyone from teachers to the schools that train them.
In May, teacher tenure reform took center stage in the Colorado Legislature, and Denver Public Schools Board of Education meetings often roil with sharp disagreements.
Boasberg isn’t deterred. “That’s natural,” he told the Denver Board of Realtors in April. “Change is tough. But the status quo is unacceptable.”
Which is why he has Waters on his team. “She does a great job at challenging the status quo in a determined and passionate way,” he says. “When Bruce Randolph was one of the worst schools in the state, she took it on. She said, ‘Here’s what I need,’ and it was the right request.’”
Plans in place
Waters is the first to admit that innovative schools aren’t for everyone. She’s careful to counsel teachers who want greater control about what getting their wish really means.
“Helping them do what they want to do pushes on schools in the system everywhere, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” she says. The process requires urgency to get things done but also patience so no adult is left behind.
“She wasn’t looking for perfect teachers,” recalls Greg Ahrnsbrak, high school physical education teacher at Bruce Randolph and the school’s union representative. “She was looking for teachers who were willing to get better and grow with their students.”
But in a reasonable way. For years, Ahrnsbrak says, principals were under so much pressure to get students’ math scores up that they forced math into everything: physical education, art and all the electives. When Waters came in, Ahrnsbrak steeled himself for more of the same, politely asking how she wished him to work math into teaching volleyball. “Dr. Waters just looked at me and said, ‘Why would I want you to do that? That’s not your job.’”
Ahrnsbrak was instantly impressed. “She didn’t know anything about PE, but she knew about teaching. She could break down the mechanics. I was amazed at the eye she had.”
Five years later, if you ask Ahrnsbrak and other Randolph faculty members what made Waters a great principal, you get a long list that begins with charisma, moves quickly to mentoring teachers and culminates in building morale. The litany goes on: Be direct and hold people accountable for the results — not the talk, the results. Have a plan and push it hard. Make decisions based on what’s best for the kids, not the adults.
“You’ve got to be an administrator, building manager, PR person, do the books, be a disciplinarian — and most importantly, you’ve got to be an instructional leader,” says Ahrnsbrak, a 17-year DPS veteran. “How many people can wear all those hats? What we’re asking principals to do is really almost impossible.”
Which is why institutions such as DU’s Morgridge College of Education focus on equipping graduates with the skills to make a difference in some of DPS’ roughest schools. The Morgridge-based Ritchie Program for School Leaders, which in May produced its seventh group of graduates, combines a heavy dose of internship with classroom courses to prepare principals for low-performing schools in Denver and Adams counties.
Another initiative at Morgridge, the Denver Teacher Residency Program, this summer launched its second wave of students whose five-year track is aimed at developing skills for Denver’s high-needs classrooms. With the help of an $8.2 million federal grant, the program aims to produce 75 teachers a year when it hits its stride.
“The relationships that were built through the Ritchie program paved the way for the Denver Teacher Residency,” says Morgridge Assistant Professor Susan Korach. “Denver wanted to be a true partner instead of a university saying, ‘No, this is our program and we’ll prepare your teachers.’ [DPS] knew that we believed in sharing the work.”
Other DU programs also are helping meet DPS needs, including a Morgridge partnership with the Daniels College of Business to produce MBA students able to apply business expertise to public schools.
Better include a course in herding cats, Waters quips. She fumes at how slow even effective steps can be and how urgent the needs are. “You only get one shot at these kids and then they’re gone,” she says, already thinking of how else DU might lend its educational legerdemain to DPS difficulties. Maybe expertise in continued mentoring, she muses — some ongoing way to help teachers get better and to make sure good teachers stay teachers instead of jumping into administration to advance their careers.
“Once they’re trained, they’re dumped off in the schools and what happens to them?” she says. “Is the support we provide as a district meeting their needs? Sometimes, but a lot of times not.”
Waters’ voice trails off as the wheels turn. She’s noodling a solution, working out a better way of looping back to DU the lessons of what’s working in DPS classrooms and what isn’t — where teachers and principals feel prepared and where they don’t.
It’s school reform at its simplest: a dedicated educator reaching into a thicket of intellectual thorns for a good idea.
“There needs to be ongoing dialogue,” Waters says decisively. She doesn’t have all the details yet, but she will. For now, it’s a matter of pushing hard, solving problems and not backing down. For the kids, she emphasizes. Always for the kids.