Denver's Political Animal
Superintendent needed. Must transform urban school district plagued by bureaucracy, administrative turnover and low-test scores into unified, focused organization. Top-notch reading skills in everything from high school graduation standards to children's classics needed. Arctic explorers encouraged to apply.
Mission impossible? Apparently not, for Denver Public Schools. This beleaguered district found its superhero in public school outsider Jerry Wartgow.
Wartgow assumed the helm of DPS in June 2001 after a successful career in higher education and business. His former positions were difficult, but "they all pale in comparison to being superintendent of DPS," he says.
"When I was recruited, people told me it was impossible to make progress because of bureaucracy, micromanagement and negative press. That hasn't come to fruition."
From the outset, Wartgow had three goals: set high expectations for all students, parents and teachers; improve the performance of all students; and close the gap between the better-performing and poorer-performing students. School board member James Mejia credits Wartgow's easy-going, yet outcome-oriented, pursuit of these goals as the reason for his success.
The school community has embraced Wartgow's bold changes. Reforms include abolishing the deputy superintendent position to make room for a Chief Academic Officer, moving four area superintendents out of the central office and into schools, and reallocating millions in Title 1 dollars to implement a comprehensive literacy program.
And the board is so enamored with Wartgow, it extended an open-ended contract with an additional 10 vacation days. Wartgow used some of his time to recharge on an Arctic voyage last summer.
Wartgow's leadership skills have enabled him to weather administrative fiascos with ease. Historically, DPS teacher contract negotiations have been contentious. So he hired a facilitator to institute interest-based bargaining. Starting with goals and a wide-open contract, the process reportedly produced smooth, friendly negotiations. To celebrate, Wartgow planned a teachers' night at the Denver Zoo.
Wartgow earned more kudos when he created a $50 slush fund for every teacher. He initiated the fund after a shopping spree with his daughter-in-law for her classroom showed him how high teacher out-of-pocket expenses are.
Chief Academic Officer Sally Mentor Hay says Wartgow's political acumen serves him well. "He is an incredible political animal. He see issues coming and is able to get ahead of the curve," she says. One example: Seeing that Proposition 31, an amendment to eliminate bilingual education in Colorado, would have polarized the community, Wartgow won the votes, defeating the proposition.
Meanwhile, the district has seen record amounts of donations in the past two years. It's clear that local foundations believe in the leader, says Mejia. "They've rewarded us with support for everything from pay-for-performance for teachers to the new reading program."
Inside a leader
When he's not wooing legislators, teachers or foundations, Wartgow can often be found with an open book. The district's Million Words Campaign encourages each child to read a million words a year. To help, Wartgow reads popular tomes like Edward the Emu to students.
Like any superintendent, Wartgow has had challenging days, too. Last year, there were flashers, an afterschool abduction and the arrest of a pedophile on staff. Most incidents occurred outside of schools, but the district faced intense scrutiny. Friends told Wartgow, "You don't need this," and urged him to quit. But he didn't. "The situation only heightened my resolve to stay. That's when we needed leadership," he explains.
Despite the accolades, Wartgow knows his job isn't finished. "I'm constantly keeping the big picture in mind. With standardization and test scores there is the temptation to do a quick fix. ... I feel very good about the progress [we've] made. We have the infrastructure in place. We just need to continue the momentum."
Within five years, Mejia predicts that student achievement, relationships between teachers and central administration, and community trust in the district will keep growing. And it's Wartgow who will continue to make it happen. Not bad praise for the new kid on the block.
Lisa Fratt, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.