Two candidates with southwest Denver roots battle to represent region on school board

Two political newcomers are dueling for a wide-open school board seat in southwest Denver, a part of the city that has seen a lot of school changes.

Abraham Lincoln High School. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

Two political newcomers are dueling for a wide-open school board seat in southwest Denver, a region of the city that has seen a multitude of school improvement efforts in recent years.

Angela Cobián, a former Denver teacher backed by pro-reform organizations and current board members, is facing off against parent and real estate agent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who has the endorsement and the funding of the Denver teachers union.

In many ways, the race for the District 2 seat appears to follow a political storyline familiar to voters in the state’s largest school district: A candidate who disagrees with the district’s direction challenging one who supports it. Neither candidate is particularly well known, and both have compelling personal stories to tell as they introduce themselves to voters.

The Nov. 7 election has the potential to flip the school board majority. Four seats are up for grabs on a seven-member board whose current members unanimously back Denver Public Schools’ key policies, including its embrace of school choice and autonomy. Even if one challenger to the status quo prevails, a dissenting voice would shift board dynamics. The District 2 race is the only one this year that doesn’t feature an incumbent running for re-election.

Cobián and Gaytán both have roots in southwest Denver.

Cobián, 28, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who bought a house there when she was in fifth grade, ending the frequent moves and school switches that marked her early education as an English language learner. When her mother got a job at an Englewood Head Start preschool, Cobián said she transferred to that city’s schools and graduated from Englewood High.

Cobián said she became the first in her family to go to college when she enrolled at Colorado College to study political science. Her goal was to get a PhD but she changed her mind after an experience she had while interning for an early childhood education organization.

She was at the home of a family in southwest Denver training a mom on how to help her young child develop literacy skills. The child’s grandmother was also there, and Cobián said she noticed the older woman was limping. When she asked why, she said the woman told her about a bungled surgery and an unapologetic doctor not willing to fix his error because he knew the woman was undocumented and would be too afraid to report him.

“I still feel like somebody punches me in the gut when I think about that moment,” Cobián said in a recent interview. “…You think about the success of that child and all of the different systemic barriers that trap them. That’s when I was like, ‘No way. I need to be a teacher.’”

Cobián joined Teach for America and spent two years teaching English language learners at Cole Arts and Science Academy, a low-income district-run school in northeast Denver. She left teaching to become a community organizer and now works for Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes. School board candidate Jennifer Bacon, who is running in District 4, also works for the group.

Gaytán, 42, also grew up in Denver. She was born in Mexico and said the experience of being an undocumented child in the city’s public schools means she truly understands what it’s like for students who are “living on the edge of society.” DPS doesn’t collect immigration status information but estimates several thousand of its 92,000 students are undocumented.

Gaytán said she attended several schools in the western part of the city because her family moved frequently in search of affordable rent. She graduated from southwest Denver’s Lincoln High and went on to earn a business degree from Metropolitan State University. Gaytán, who said she became a U.S. citizen as an adult, works as a real estate agent and volunteers as president of her neighborhood association, the Harvey Park Improvement Association.

She has said she and her husband moved to that neighborhood in part because of the reputation of the local district-run elementary school. Gaytán has two children and said her family’s own experience with school closure influenced her views on the controversial topic.

When they were getting ready to send their oldest son from Doull Elementary to Kunsmiller Middle School just blocks from their house, the school board voted to close it. Gaytán knew Kunsmiller was low-performing but said she felt confident her family could be part of an effort to turn things around. The announcement that it would close was “last-minute,” she said, and sent her and her husband scrambling to find a new middle school for their son.

In the end, they chose one about 10 miles away and adjusted their work schedules so one of them could drop him off and the other could pick him up. But it was a big sacrifice, she said, and left her wondering how less advantaged families were managing.

In addition to complicating logistics, she said the school closure left her community hurting.

“The message is, ‘You’re no good. Your child is no good. Your child is not performing. Therefore, we’re closing you down,’” Gaytán said. “It’s such a detriment to our community.”

As a school board member, Gaytán said she’d look to provide the social and emotional “wraparound services” that many struggling schools need instead of closing them.

DPS in recent years has closed schools based on poor performance, and the school board in 2015 adopted a policy that includes strict criteria for when to do so. Gaytán has campaigned as the candidate who will keep open her alma mater, Lincoln High, which is one of several schools in danger of meeting those criteria next year.

Her opponent, Cobián, said she’s “not out to close Lincoln or any schools, by extension.” But she said that if the district has provided resources to help a struggling school improve and students still aren’t showing at least a year’s worth of academic growth every year, the board should intervene, which could include closing or restarting that school.

The two candidates also disagree over the district’s strategy to cultivate a “portfolio” of traditional district-run schools, publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and district-run innovation schools, which have more autonomy than traditional schools but less than charters.

Gaytán has called for a moratorium on new charter schools, the number of which “has grown too fast, too soon” in southwest Denver, she said. While some charter schools post high test scores, she questioned whether they’re meeting students’ non-academic needs and criticized the district for not having a clear way to determine that for all schools.

“I would support our charters that are in our neighborhoods now. I support what’s working for our families now,” she said. “I don’t want to shut them down. I just want them to simply be working.”

The five-color scale DPS currently uses to rate schools is a poor measure, Gaytán said, because the criteria for quality have changed over the years and because the formula too heavily weights academic growth, which she has said can “create a misconception … that schools with very low proficiencies are doing well because they are growing.”

Cobián is not calling for a charter moratorium, but agreed that “it’s not a real portfolio model if all you have is no-excuses charter schools.” Such schools generally have dress codes, strict discipline policies, a commitment to using data and a focus on preparing kids for college.

Cobián said the district should strive to open a variety of options in all neighborhoods so families can choose the schools that are right for their students. DPS should also do a better job of asking community members what kinds of schools they want and making sure all schools are equitably funded and “equitably excellent,” she said.

“There are no silver bullets,” Cobián said. “… Every community is different.”

As of Oct. 11, when the first campaign filing period ended, Cobián had raised nearly four times more money than Gaytán: $94,152 compared to $24,134.

Cobián’s big contributors included businessmen and philanthropists who have donated large sums to pro-reform school board candidates over the years, while Gaytán’s largest investments came from the Denver and statewide teachers unions.

Both candidates also have benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Every Student Succeeds spent $110,000 on Gaytán, which was the most it spent on any union-backed candidate. Meanwhile, two groups spent a total of $52,234 on Cobián.