Blue School Partners are
doing great things in the Denver area. I recently had a chance to speak with their CEO, Nate Easley, about their mission and strategy, and the unique challenges they're seeking to overcome to help grow more high-quality public schools in Denver.
What did you find compelling about the opportunity to lead Blue School Partners? I've spent my life promoting educational equity and this felt like the next logical step. I started my career as an Upward Bound counselor for high school students. After six years, I learned that we were basically helping kids accommodate to a broken public education system and what was really needed in addition to individual help was systemic change. I saw this again when I worked for the University of California, San Diego, as the head of the student learning center, in the '90s when they rolled back affirmative action. I'm compelled by policy and leading BSP gives me the opportunity to focus on policy and to apply all that I've learned working in Denver for the last 10 years, as well as nationally and internationally.
How would you describe Blue School Partners' mission? Is there anything about the initial strategy you want people to know? I started in early October, so we are developing our strategy. What I can say is that everything we do rolls up to the guiding vision of 35,000 additional quality seats inside Denver Public Schools by 2030. How do we get there? In general, we want to focus on teacher and principal pipelines, replicating high performing school models, incubating promising new models, and engaging families so they know what a good school is and how to demand one for their children. We also want to better understand what a quality school is in Denver and whether that definition should be expanded. We're doing our homework on the current efforts to inform families on what is a quality school. To me, this is the most important thing we'll do. Everything else rests on it. No matter how great a school is, if we can't convince families that it's a good option then it's not going to succeed.
How has your personal and professional experience shaped your approach to leading Blue School Partners? I'm proud of my deep ties in Denver and the relationships I've built with local leaders. People who know me know that I'm relentless about educational outcomes. I hope this reputation precedes itself as Blue School Partners is starting up. I have a public history of promoting educational equity, so we're not starting from scratch.
What do you hope Blue School Partners adds to the education ecosystem? A relentless focus on quality education for all families in Denver, especially those who happen to be in the bottom quartile of income. I want us always asking where is the throughline? For example, if we're going to invest in a particular organization, what is the throughline to ensure that the investment leads to more quality schools in the neighborhoods that need them? That's exciting to me! There's been a lot of good work to date in Denver, but a lot of it is in silos. At its best, Blue School Partners should be like a conductor. We see an opportunity to make a symphony out of what may sound like a cacophony of noise to families. We're asking ourselves if there are better ways to leverage and channel investments to get the impacts we all want. Instead of every organization doing its own thing, we want to figure out how to bring investments together to illuminate pathways that work and to build on our assets in Denver—and not just focus or get stuck on our deficits.
Many cities across the country look to Denver Public Schools (DPS) as a leader/innovator in improving public education. DPS also has a strong superintendent, Tom Boasberg. How do you envision working with the district? Blue School Partners is an independent nonprofit organization. We're not the district, but we do have a common goal. I know that building the kind of relationship we need to reach our common goal isn't going to happen overnight. We'll need to work with the district and not in spite of the district. This doesn't mean that we can't or won't be critical of each other. What's most important is that we build relationships not just with the superintendent but with the leadership team, teachers, principals, and the board. Superintendent Boasberg and I have worked with each other for a long time, and we're the same age—but speaking for myself, I don't plan on working forever. The goal is to build relationships that outlast transitions, outlast me and outlast the superintendent.
What do you find most challenging about growing more high-quality schools in Denver? And what is the biggest opportunity? The challenge and opportunity are the same thing. They're both democracy. Democracy is challenging because when you know what you want to do, you have the data to back it up, the facts are on your side, you just want to do it. You don't always want to convince people. But you must sell it. So, it's a challenge. It's also a huge opportunity because we can do a much better job of selling education reform. To just assume that communities—especially low-income communities—are going to trust philanthropists and the business community is a big mistake. How do we have the conversation with families that this is a public-school system and quality should be a right not just a luck of the draw or based on if you can afford a house in certain neighborhood?
What would people be surprised to learn about you? People who don't know me would be surprised to learn that I moved away from home at age 17, and that my eldest daughter came to my high school graduation. I was a teen parent. My mother raised five of us on her own. I grew up in North Denver in a segregated neighborhood that was 90 percent African-American. However, I had great teachers at Montebello High School and professors at Colorado State University. Despite everything I navigated my way through to earn a Ph.D.
Ethan Gray is the CEO of Education Cities, a national nonprofit that convenes and advises a network of city-based organizations in the effort to increase the number of high-performing public schools in their cities.