As regular readers of this blog know, the Denver Public Schools are facing some very serious issues: Truancy, a high drop out rate, dismal academic performance on standardized tests, and budget pressures caused in part by having too much real estate and too few children. So, why do I send my children to this school system?
The answer is that, like every big city, the key to understanding Denver is its microenvironments. My children attend Steele Elementary School and they probably will until the 5th grade. This little piece of the Denver Public Schools, and it is certainly not alone in this distinction, is a good place for my children to grow up. Being "free" (sort of) and within walking distance doesn't hurt either.
A case in point is Steele's science program (Robert Steele himself, by the way, after whom the school was named, was a notable judge in Colorado's earlier years and part of a family of notable early Colorado personalities). It was on display last night at the school's "Sciencepalooza" event for parents and their children.
Center stage, in the auditorium, were all of the science fair projects the children in the school had done. Even kids too young to do them for themselves did class projects. Ever aware of their urban environment and interested in doing research of value to their parents, my daughter's classroom actually did some science research which I can actually use. They studied which brand of toothpaste is most effective at removing coffee stains. Interestingly enough, they learned that the expensive whitening toothpaste doesn't actually produce the desired results. Instead, the empirical evidence indicated that cheaper regular AIM or regular Crest Toothpaste is best for removing coffee stains on your teeth. (If I were inspired I'd figure out how to get the blogger interface to disclose that AIM and Crest are registered trademarks with the proper circle R notation, but I'm not.)
This was surrounded by a variety of programs on arthropods, reptiles, physics and astronomy, in some semblance of order. Creditably this was done in a format that both kids and parents could learn from. I'd certainly never petted a giant cockroach before in my life, hadn't known as much about the proper means of relocating a black widow, and was unaware that scorpians were arachnids. I was more familiar with reptiles but learned how to distinguish diurnal from nocturnal snakes. Physics was more familiar, but it is still fun to see that optical illusions work even when you know why they are deceiving you. And, whose childlike curiousity isn't awakened by being learning where precisely in the sky the center of our own Milky Way galaxy is located in the school's own planetarium.
Obviously, this was a special event. Professional outside scientists don't drop in for every class. But, Steele has a lot of special events. As I write this, my children are in Spanish Club, learning a skill vital for life in Colorado. My daughter enjoys art and poetry, and has had special opportunities to develop those interests. Other children spend much of the year getting ready for the school's contribution to the district's annual Shakespeare festival. One teacher has made an extra effort to develop a program to address "girl politics", the cruel but subtle backbiting and gossip that was a problem in her class. My children's classes have taken field trips to the opera, the art museum, the puppet theater, and the stock show. The orchestra has come to school.
The social side of the school is healthy as well. Parents float in and out of classrooms, helping out. There is far more hugging than fighting going on. Children greet each other with smiles. A buddy reading program has turned older students at the school into friend and mentors for the younger kids, instead of bullies. A fifth grader and one of my children (I have a first grader and a pre-schooler) were on a first name basis yesterday evening. Every here and there you see a kid wearing a costume for no particular reason, not surprising in and of itself, but I haven't once seen one of those children being teased. It is simply a fashion statement.
This doesn't mean that the basics are ignored. Lists of words to work on for the weekly spelling test come home to our house every week and over the course of the year there have been a great many of them. Math journals wizz by, page by page, as students advance at their own pace, for the most part. My children spend an important part of every day studying the basics.
The great diversity of the school, compared to your typical suburban school, is more apparent on nights like Sciencepalooza, when you see the parents, than it is when only the students are around. Some parents (in addition to occassional grandparents) are starting to sport considerable tufts of gray hair. My six year old has peers who have parents in their 50s. Others appear to be in their young twenties. Some parents are still working on learning to speak English. Others are senior professionals as well as Colorado natives. Some parents are affluent, many are not. But, the school does not have the pervasive poverty the dominates life at so many schools in Denver. Ethnically, it isn't monolithic, and my wife and I are certainly not the only parents who are a mixed race couple in the school. For some reason, Steele happens to have one of the largest percentage of Asian students in the district.
School grounds aren't everything, but an ongoing program, the "Greening of Steele" to improve the landscaping of the school (this summer's projects include major overhauls of the playgrounds), along with some recent major rennovations of the building's electrical system and windows, have definitely contributed to an optimistic feeling about the school's prospects.
Is life at Steele bliss? No, it isn't. The fund raising schemes are incessant, even though they are a necessary evil to keep the school healthy. There are a number of children at Steele who have "special needs" and troubles, and the school doesn't always do a perfect job of dealing with their needs. It isn't some utopian environment of "gifted kids", which is what many parents want, those who seek to choice into Bromwell, the district's glamorous symbol of success in Cherry Creek North, prominent among them. The principal is green, and definitely hasn't mastered the skill of dealing with parents (in a school where parents are quite actively involved), the community (I ended up crosswise with her over how poll workers were treated during an election held in the school cafeteria), or the budget process of the district (some last minute surprises this year were something of a fiasco). But, a school is not just its principal, especially where 80% of the teachers in the building have tenure.
Of course, ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. The best way to know the quality of your children's school for them is to see how they are managing. My children are happy, learning about hard truths like divorce from their peers without having their own innocence irrevocably shattered, mastering the basics, exploring their interests, and fitting in socially far better than my wife or I ever did as children. Other schools may be better for other kids, but we are happy, for now, with our neighborhood school, Steele Elementary, in the Denver Public School District.