Denver superintendent goes to Washington

School leaders soon could have another ally in Congress: Michael Bennet, superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, was named Jan. 3 by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter as his choice to fill the remaining two years of the Senate term of Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar, who is awaiting confirmation as interior secretary for President-elect Barack Obama.

Described as a whip-smart lawyer who has turned successively to the worlds of business and education, Bennet likely won’t have much trouble adjusting to the biggest promotion of his life: to U.S. senator. That’s what colleagues, at least, are saying about the Yale-educated lawyer, a quick study who won’t need long to navigate Congress, even though he has never held a public office other than the superintendency.

The Bennet choice, when more seasoned Democratic politicians–including two members of the U.S. House–expressed interest in the job, shocked political observers across Colorado. The Rocky Mountain Newspaper on Jan. 3 announced the selection with a banner headline calling him "Senator Surprise."

But people who have worked with Bennet, a Democrat, who at 44 will become the Senate’s youngest member pending Salazar’s confirmation to the Cabinet, say he’s up for the challenge.

Educators joked that the halls of the U.S. Senate should be a breeze for Bennet after walking into the struggling 73,000-student Denver school system in 2005 with no education degree and managing to court teachers to a business-style turnaround.

Bennet wooed teachers to a pay-for-performance plan called ProComp they had opposed for years and closed struggling schools where minority students were performing the worst.

"He took over I would say a district that was really foundering, that just had kind of a poor spirit. Kids were really struggling. And he was just a breath of fresh air," recalled Nelson Van Vranken, assistant principal at Greenwood K-8 School in northeast Denver.

Bennet was tapped in 2003 to be chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who then encouraged him to apply for the superintendency of the 150-school city system two years later.

In June 2005, the Denver Board of Education unanimously appointed him superintendent of Denver Public Schools after he promised to provide each school with a highly skilled faculty. He also promised to track student progress and provide supplementary help when needed.

The school board said Bennet delivered, and students have made strong improvements in reading, math, writing, and science.

According to Denver Public Schools, the district posted a 6.2 percent increase in reading scores over the three years, more than four times the growth of the state. In math, there was a 6 percent gain, more than twice the growth of the state, and in the middle grades, Denver saw gains of 10 percent in reading and 9 percent in math.

The school board released a statement that read, in part: "The Board of Education, on behalf of the Denver Public Schools community, congratulates Michael Bennet on his appointment to the U.S. Senate. Michael has been a visionary and inspirational leader on behalf of Denver’s kids. We are confident that he will serve our great state of Colorado with the same innovative thinking, endless optimism, and pragmatic approach to problem solving as he has done for Denver Public Schools over the last four years. Denver’s loss is Colorado’s gain."

Bennet understands the value of technology in education, if the Denver schools’ use of technology is any indication. The district operates an online portal called Infinite Campus to connect administrators, teachers, parents, and students; it has a wireless network to support the use of mobile devices in its schools; teachers use software programs such as Inspiration, Kid Pix, and TimeLiner to enhance their lessons; and its IT department routinely sends teachers eMail messages, called Webspirations, with ideas for using the internet in their instruction.

Bennet’s varied resume includes stints writing speeches for former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as an aide to a deputy attorney general; a corporate turnaround specialist who helped Colorado billionaire investor Philip Anschutz reorganize three movie theater chains into the world’s largest movie-theater company, Regal Entertainment Group; and aide to Hickenlooper.

Bennet was editor of the Yale Law Review and received an undergraduate degree in history from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where his father was university president.

His father, Douglas Bennet, also was an aide to the U.S. ambassador to India in the early 1960s, and Michael Bennet was born in New Delhi in 1964. He grew up in Washington and attended the St. Albans prep school. His brother, James Bennet, is editor of The Atlantic magazine and a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.

Bennet’s name was floated as a possible education secretary choice for Obama, though he wasn’t chosen. Colleagues say it was just a matter of time before Bennet’s political career took off.

"I don’t think he’ll have any trouble adjusting to the world of politics," said Alan Gottlieb, editor of Education News Colorado, a web site run by the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. "He just seems born to it."


Denver Public Schools

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Anywhere Anytime Administration resource center. As schools move toward the newest technologies, school administrators need to be reassured that vital information will reach them instantly, whether they are in the office, in a meeting, or traveling across their district or campus. The need for anywhere, anytime access has led many administrators to depend on mobile, handheld devices for eMail and other applications. Go to: Anywhere Anytime Administration