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Goodstein’s latest: Denver Public Schools

Book Cover, The Denver School Book by Phil GoodsteinOne might think that after writing umpteen books on Denver history, Phil Goodstein might choose something simple or one-dimensional for his next project — and one would be wrong.

The Denver School Book, its nearly 500 pages notwithstanding, is only the first installment in what the historian plans as a trilogy describing the history of public education in Denver. This volume covers DPS from its beginnings in the Gold Rush days up to the late 1960s; the next two will tackle more recent, and considerably more controversial, phases of that complex history.

In his thoughtful and well-balanced introduction, Goodstein points out that he is a product of DPS himself, and relates that for the most part he felt his school years, particularly at East High School, were boring and limiting. He decries the school’s , discipline and an attempt to put a harness on me,” in addition to an over-reliance on test scores, as systemic failures of Denver’s public education efforts.

That criticism, as well as others, appear frequently through the book, relating not only to the years of Goodstein’s own education but to eras long before that, driving home the author’s point of view that many of the district’s shortcomings were long-lived and resistant to change.

But he also displays his growing maturity as a fair historian by giving DPS credit where it’s due, noting that for decades Denver was seen by much of the nation’s educational establishment as a model system.

The district’s early emphasis on vocational education — best exemplified by the Emily Griffith Opportunity School — was a much admired examplar, as were its efforts to educate students with physical disabilities, although the latter effort eventually ran into a wall of resistance when handicapped activists demanded mainstream inclusion.

An overarching theme in this detailed account is how public education in Denver was always tied into the city’s business and political power centers, determined to exert influence on the city’s next generation of adults. The Chamber of Commerce, in particular — routinely with the ready assistance of the PTA establishment — dominated the DPS school board for half a century at least, Goodstein contends.

Similarly, the political ebb and flow in Denver and Colorado had profound effects on school board leadership and policy. During the heyday of the KKK in the city, around 1920, pro-Klan board members sought to weave WASPish “patriotic” nationalism into school curricula while fiercely opposing parochial education advocates, mainly Catholic educators who lobbied for public funding. They also resisted immigrant, particularly Catholic, involvement in district leadership, a prejudice that sometimes extended to Jews.

While always a sizeable part of the district’s collective student body, and well represented in faculty, Denver Jewry was severely underrepresented in the district’s administration, Goodstein writes. Not until the election of Isadore Samuels in 1947 did a Jew appear on the school board.

Jews show up in several other places in The Denver School Book. The West Side’s legendary Cheltenham School, arguably the most Jewish public school in Denver history, gets an interesting treatment here, and the role of Jews, as well as other immigrant minorities, is described in reference to the district’s “Americanization” efforts.

While only touched briefly in this book, the reader suspects that busing — a social experiment very much tied into local and national political currents and which became a hugely divisive issue for DPS — will play a central role in subsequent volumes of this history. It’s something to look forward to.

As is always the case with a Goodstein book, there are plentiful sidebars and anecdotes here, covering a wide range of educational and scholastic subjects, as well as a collection of images that can only be described as amazing. It seems that every building that ever served as a schoolhouse in Denver is illustrated, those long torn down along with those still standing.

While the idea of such an exhaustive examination of a single school district might seem cumbersome, Goodstein keeps the history lively and relevant. He contends that public education is vitally important, which is fairly obvious, and then manages to make it interesting, which is considerably less so.

Chris Leppek may be reached at [email protected].

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

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