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School Boards Are at a Critical Juncture. Here’s What DU Is Doing About It.

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Joy Hamilton

Publications and Research Writing Manager

The Morgridge College of Education is collaborating with Colorado school boards to address school closures, mental health and teacher retention.

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Aerial view of DU campus with the Rocky Mountains and Denver skyline in the background

Colorado’s school boards grapple with a range of issues, from fluctuating enrollment and changes in state funding to concerns about school safety and persistent teacher shortages. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened political attention have thrust school boards into even more turbulent waters.   

Effective school boards serve as strong advocates for their community,” says Lolita Tabron, associate professor in Morgridge College of Education (MCE). As representatives of their community, they are well positioned to catalyze widespread democratic engagement to address the needs of their local school community, Tabron added.

That’s why Provost Mary Clark, Dean Knight-Manuel and Emeritus Chancellor Dan Ritiche gathered a year ago to address a question frequently on their minds: How might MCE support the important work of Colorado school boards?

That led to loads of research to learn more about school board’s needs and issues our Colorado school boards are facing,” says Starla Sieveke-Pearson, clinical assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies

So, Pearson, Tabron and Doris Candelarie, clinical associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies, set out to lend MCE’s research and networking prowess to leaders who serve Colorado’s 800,000+ students impacted by school boards. Made up of democratically elected, unpaid members who are mandated to execute state policy and law, school boards play a crucial role in educational governance, says Pearson.

The result was a year’s worth of research leading up to the University of Denver’s inaugural School Board Symposium, in which school board directors from 29 districtssome waking before sunrise to travel from Gunnison, La Junta and the Roaring Fork Valleygathered on DU’s campus for day of discussion, networking and, ultimately, action to address K-12’s most pressing challenges.

School closures, mental health crisis and teacher shortages

MCE’s research started with gathering input from school board members across the country and in Colorado to determine hot topics facing school boards. Four themes emerged that served as the symposium’s focus: 1) superintendent relationships, 2) shifting enrollment and school closures, 3) youth mental health and 4) teacher shortages, recruitment and retention.   

In preparation for the event, Doctoral students in MCE's educational leadership and policy program—who are experienced practitioners within K-12 schools—prepared literature briefs with faculty containing research on the symposium’s themes. This provided participants with cutting-edge information to inform decision-making.

A speaker at DU's School Board Symposium presents information to a full room of participants.

Panel speakers represented a diverse range of experiences. Jeffco Public Schools superintendent Tracy Dorland, for instance, shared the difficult process of closing 21 out of 180 schools and encouraged school board members to lead with courage, heart and honesty.

“It's just extremely challenging work with lots of emotion,” Dorland told participants.

Declining birth rates, rising housing costs and suburban flight are all factors impacting school closures, which has recently been complicated by an influx of migrant students.

It’s not just data—it’s data and stories. What are the lived experiences of people in these communities?” added Dr. Carrie Olson, former teacher and current president of the Denver school board during the panel.

Bringing together academic and practitioner perspectives

From the onset, DU faculty intentionally merged academic and on-the-ground practitioner expertise in an effort to support school boards that are often siloed and create an atmosphere conducive to community building and collaboration.     

“It was empowering to be in community with so many leaders engaging in conversations on pressing topics that are impacting our students, teachers and communities,” says Katilyn Daniel, a PhD student who created fact sheets for the symposium. 

The symposium’s atmosphere was intimate, with panelists speaking on problems keeping them up at night. For some, the youth mental health crisis causes many sleepless nights.

Jillian Blueford profile photo
Jillian Blueford

“I think about the children who had experienced the trauma in the last five years that hasn't been collected,” said Jillian Blueford, clinical assistant professor in the department of counseling psychology.

Blueford presented data that 1 in 13 students in Colorado will lose a parent or sibling by the age of 18, a statistic that she knows well, having lost her mom at a young age. 

“The systems and the policies and lack of resources and lack of mental professionals we have in schools is causing more trauma for students,” she adds.

As part of the symposium, MCE faculty documented various mental health initiatives to support education, prevention and intervention in an effort to help directors accomplish milestones in supporting youth in crisis.  

“These conversations were a reminder that with partnerships, collective action and commitment, our school communities can increase mental health care access for all students. No one has to do this work alone,” says Daniel.

Creating a roadmap for the future

Coming together to grapple with these hot topics collectively will be immensely impactful,” says Tabron.

Lolita Tabron profile photo
Lolita Tabron

Organizers say the symposium is something between an “inaugural event and a maiden voyage,” indicating MCE’s long-term commitment to supporting school boards in the years to come as they navigate an educational system constantly in flux.

“It is my hope that the Morgridge College of Education can be a partner for school boards today and well into the future, as we are well aware of the invaluable impact of school board members in representing the voices of the families and communities that you serve,” Dean Michelle Knight-Manuel told the 51 attendees during opening remarks for the event.    

In addition to research presentations and discussions, MCE used the symposium to identify what additional needs school board directors have that DU might support in the future.  

"We see ourselves as a bridge, a connector," says Tabron, "to not only just the research but also to an extraordinary community of colleagues. We want them to know they're not alone and that we're there to support them."  

For more information on the symposium and literature briefs on the four themes, visit the event website.