Digging the dirt on Denver Public Schools

Besides nannying, mowing the occasional lawn and the seemingly full-time job that basketball and soccer demand, neither of us had really<!–more–> had a “real” job until this summer when we worked for a prominent Denver businessman and private investor.

While the majority of college students were basking in the freedom that comes with summer vacations, we were inside an office doing research on the Denver Public School system. Although at first, the topic seemed dull and as arid as the Colorado weather, after digging in, we both started to become emotionally enticed by the subject. Did you know that almost half of DPS students do NOT graduate?

This figure came as shocking to us; we both attended private, religiously affiliated schools and graduating was the only viable option for us. While both of us had been exposed to the occasional troublemaker-type drop-out or the befuddled kid who didn’t take enough P.E. credits, neither of us had any idea that the chance of a kid graduating from is really a coin-toss. We were even more discouraged when we found that Denver has one of the best big-city public school systems in the United States. What has gone wrong in the public school system?

The passionately compassionate businessman we worked for believes that outdated and politically corrupt teachers unions are the culprits; they prevent individual schools from having effective control over their staff, abdicate the power of the principal to make informed decisions for their school, and protect the jobs of impassionate, ineffective, and just plain bad teachers. We both have been blessed to have many inspiring, zealous and talented teachers, who are probably one of the biggest contributors (next to our parents and the fear of being grounded) to our academic achievements. Teachers can motivate and encourage their students towards success- both in and out of the classroom.

So why the shortage in good teachers, we ask? The teachers’ unions are run by and for the benefit of the teachers that are late in their careers. Accordingly, they are motivated to pay the new teachers as little as possible, allowing the older teachers to get paid more and vest in larger retirement benefits at the end of their careers. It is also almost impossible to fire a teacher after they receive tenure, which happens after three years on the job. As a result, less than 1% of teachers in DPS receive unsatisfactory ratings each year, and only a handful of DPS teachers have been terminated over the last several years. See data here.

However, the blame cannot be thrown entirely in the teachers unions’ or even the bad teachers’ corner; parents and family life play a big role in a student’s success. John and Rama Pfannenstein never missed a single parent-teacher conference in either daughter’s entire academic career. When in high school, they recalled that one teacher even commented that they didn’t need to be there; “its usually the parents who should come that don’t show up.” Maybe they only liked to hear all the good things about their bright and charming daughter (says Kari Ann tongue in cheek), but we think the real reason they attended 14 years worth of conferences is because they genuinely care and take interest in their children’s academic pursuits.

Opening the car door or walking in the kitchen every day after school and being pummeled by questions like, “how was school today?” or, “did you learn anything interesting?” is really just an excited attention and the recognition of the importance of an education; even though they were usually answered with a curt, “fine” or, “no, not really.”


Roommates Rally is the byline of Kari Ann Pfannenstein of Denver and Corinne Smith of Virginia, sophomores at Washington & Lee.

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