Coffee Break: Denver's Mary Seawell on How to Wrangle a School Board and What Bloomberg Does in a Slacker Coffeehouse

Feb 3, 2016 12:00:00 AM


There has been no education leader more critical to the progress and stability of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) than Mary Seawell. She was a strong and steady hand as president of a sharply-divided Denver Board of Education from 2011-13—a time of big, tough changes in DPS. And she spearheaded the community campaign that passed a record-high school tax initiative by a nearly 2-to-1 margin at the ballot box in November of 2012—bringing the city a $500 million investment in its schools over the next two decades. It’s a continuation of the Seawell family’s legacy of deep and lasting contributions to the Denver community. And it’s work that Mary is continuing with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, as a documentary producer, and as a champion for educational equity. Denver is the place now—one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and a hotbed for new ideas in public education. Everybody's coming here. And you probably know Denver better than anybody. What's the can't-miss place for coffee in the Mile High City? When it comes to food or drinks, I am a creature of habit. I have been going to St. Mark’s on 17th Avenue since it first opened. I’ve had two jobs within a block of it and spent a lot of law school studying there. It used to have a basement speakeasy filled with old church organs. The customers are people with time just to hang out. When I was on the DPS Board of Education, Superintendent Tom Boasberg asked me if I wanted to meet him and Michael Bloomberg for coffee, and if so where should we meet? I said, “St. Mark’s.” After sitting for five minutes, Bloomberg said, “Who are these people? What do they do? Do they have jobs?” Great questions. I still don’t know the answers. Love that place. When you led the Board of Education it was often split on votes, but there was also a unanimous respect for the strength and openness of your leadership. What was your approach? I tried to do three things. The first was to keep us moving forward with a consistent and clearly articulated agenda for improving our schools. The politics in education, especially in Denver, can be brutal and personal. So the second aspect of my approach was learned the hard way—if you want to accomplish something important, you have to let go of any personal hurt and just accept that sometimes people behave like assholes and then work with them anyway. The third was my respect for our role as school board members. The hours are long, and the work is challenging on every level: intellectually, emotionally and psychologically. No one commits that much of themselves unless they are motivated by something important. I never saw us as a “4-3” board. I believed we were seven people who cared deeply about students and teachers. DPS is a big believer in Innovation Schools (which are granted greater autonomy to tailor programs to the needs of students). Talk about the work you're doing with the Gates Family Foundation to build on that and create "Innovation Zones." As part of my work, I became aware of other states taking over low-performing schools from school districts. Some of these takeovers clustered schools into “zones.” Most interesting to me was the work of Empower Schools, and a zone they created in Springfield, Massachusetts. Working with the state and local community, they created an autonomous zone of schools overseen by an independent governing body. In Colorado, DPS was one of the only districts willing to make dramatic changes, including closing schools, to improve student academic outcomes, but they did it voluntarily and without state intervention. In March of 2015, I was contacted by a group of innovation school principals in Denver. Their schools are not low-performing,but they want to better utilize their innovation status. Empower Schools and the Gates Family Foundation are working with them to design and launch an innovation zone where the schools will have greater autonomy around budgeting, administration and governance. What makes this effort so transformative and extraordinary is the zone is being initiated by the schools, and not by the state or school district. Standing in the Gap is a remarkable piece of work—a candid, comprehensive look at educational equity in Denver. Talk about the significance of the title and your biggest takeaways from leading the project as its executive producer. The title came from then-city councilmember, Michael Hancock, who is now Denver’s mayor. In 2010, the district and some of the school board members had been working with the community for months on a plan to turnaround some of our lowest-performing schools in far northeast Denver. During a community meeting at Rachel B. Noel Middle School, Hancock spoke in a deeply personal way about not letting our students fall through the cracks anymore. We have “to stand in the gap” for our students even if it means making hard choices. His words changed people’s minds and inspired me personally. “Standing in the Gap” is meant to shine a light on the inequity of opportunity that many students of color and in poverty still face. It looks at both the history and present-day reality of our schools. Too often, people think segregation and unequal opportunity is in the past. Our schools are as segregated now as they were before court-ordered busing began in 1969, and too many of our students are denied the opportunities that will help them succeed. What's the best documentary you've seen? What did it teach you? I should probably have a more intellectual answer, but my favorite documentaries are ones about sports. My husband and I have been making our way through all of ESPN’s 30 for 30. The best ones are always about a team and not just one person. They overcome incredible odds with no one but each other believing in what they are capable of. There is deep love born from respect and shared sacrifice. They have a singular goal and are able to get there by trusting and relying on each other. I feel lucky and blessed to have had experiences like those in my work in education.
Photo of Arne Duncan, Mary Seawell and Michael Hancock, courtesy of Mary Seawell.

Michael Vaughn

Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until Arne Duncan’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009. Mike then served for five years as the Chief Communications Officer for the Denver Public Schools, a national leader in ed reform.

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