Incoming South High Principal Jennifer Hanson on the record
Updated: Mar 3
Note: the following interview was originally published in the July 2016 issue of the Washington Park Profile.
The 2016-17 school year at South High School will see a new face at the helm as Jennifer Hanson takes over for Dr. Kristin Waters, the well-loved South principal who led the Rebels for four-and-a-half years.
Dr. Waters’ tenure marked many milestones for the school, and in this interview, Mrs. Hanson speaks to both those milestones and her plans for the school, as well as expected challenges facing both Denver Public Schools (DPS) and the nation’s educational system.
Haines Eason: Principal Hanson, you come to South behind a well-respected leader, former principal Kristin Waters. Before I ask you about your vision and how you see yourself picking up or changing Dr. Waters' legacy, what do our readers need to know about you? Who is Jen Hanson?
Jennifer Hanson: I am a passionate and dedicated educator. I have been in this field for seventeen years now, and I come into the role of principal very much believing in the ability of public schools to empower all students.
I have an extensive background of language acquisition and working with students from all over the world. I truly, truly believe every kid who comes to South can succeed, no matter their background, no matter if they're from across the street or the world.
I very much believe in this community and this school, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of both. South is, to me, the epitome of a community public school. I don't want to be anywhere else.
HE: You come to South with an English Language Acquisition (ELA) background, and you've worked with students from all over the world. Have you worked as an educator internationally?
JH: I have not taught internationally; I have traveled abroad and have studied internationally. I've been to thirteen countries and studied a lot in Asia in college.
HE: Where in Asia?
JH: In Japan, specifically. Also, my husband's family is Thai, and we have spent a lot of time in Thailand. I'm learning Thai; not well, but I'm trying! But to speak to my teaching, I taught for thirteen years before going into administration and have started and taught in Newcomer Centers and have worked a lot with refugee communities.
HE: Where have you started Newcomer Centers?
JH: At Sheridan High School. That was my very first job, and a Newcomer Program was very much needed. I then continued that work in Jefferson County and then actually came to South previously before being appointed as principal because of the Newcomer Center here.
I was the ELA facilitator, so I taught and worked specifically with teachers and supported teachers in language acquisition instructional strategies. That's why I originally came because South is a Newcomer School.
HE: What does the average Denverite need to know about the refugee population in the city? How has it changed and grown? You've been in Denver a while and have seen a lot of changes, especially through the educational lens. The average South Denverite doesn't spend much time with the average West Auroran—what's going on with the immigrant community in the city right now?
JH: One thing that always surprises people is that Colorado is a refugee state. We are a specific placement site for various ethnic groups depending on need and international circumstances, and those variables always shift.
I think most Denverites would be surprised to know of the diversity that exists within the refugee community. We have so many people from Nepal and Myanmar and various parts of Africa, both western and eastern. I think that is a shocking piece—most people don't know that or come in contact with it.
I think the way it has changed is just the dynamics. Now we're receiving more refugees from Syria, or Iraq or Iran, where previously, seventeen years ago, it was more Russian, Bosnian, some Turkish. However, the consistency has always been from parts of Asia and Africa.
HE: Does that have something to with Colorado's designation, federally, as a site for certain populations?
JH: Yes, but that can shift. It's interesting.
What also is shifting, which is positive, is the educational support and some of the state laws in existence, so that students who need support can coexist with students who don't and both can be successful.
I think that's a big South piece. Setting up a Newcomer Center seventeen years ago was very different than setting up a Newcomer Center today.
HE: What's changed?
JH: State funding, state law, state awareness. Now, the bilingual pieces and various laws have shifted back and forth, and that's still pretty tumultuous. DPS is really great with that, it kind of conflicts with the state's perspective of bilingual support. But regarding language support and programming in public schools, we've seen encouraging changes in general.
HE: How would you characterize that "conflict" between DPS and Colorado in regards to bilingualism and biliteracy?
JH: Basically Denver supports bilingualism and biliteracy, and the state does not. When I say does not, I mean the state does not currently recognize certain attributes of biliteracy. So, the seal of biliteracy given to our students is a national award—the state does not recognize it.
There's a shift right now, and hopefully, that law will be overturned, and DPS continues to support that, but the outcome will depend significantly on our educational commissioner.
HE: Let's discuss Dr. Waters' tenure. Her tenure was of huge importance to this community, yet your upcoming tenure is also a source of much excitement. How do you look at her legacy; do you see yourself dovetailing with it? Do you have changes planned?
JH: I think the biggest piece of Dr. Waters' legacy is her achieving community buy-in and the return of a lot of neighborhood students. These are fantastic things because they are how you ensure a successful school. I am very indebted to her for doing such great work because there are so many foundational pieces that now I can build on. The passion around South, the excitement, the fact that we have parents of elementary students calling asking about South is wonderful. I think what she really did was change the narrative into a positive one. South always had the Newcomer and ELA narrative, but now it can couple that with a neighborhood narrative, and those things can coexist in a positive way, and they are mutually beneficial.
My goal is to continue to encourage high expectations, continue to develop high-level courses and to find the action steps that can continue to push to even higher status. We're currently the second-largest school in DPS—we're at 1,600 students—and from a community standpoint, there's a tipping point... There are benefits to that increased population, but we don't want to get too big. I think we have the ideal mix right now. We have all of the electives and upper-level classes, honors classes, excellent opportunities for kids with various concurrent enrollment programs, pathways to career and tech ed. We're small enough that we can still maintain the 25-to-one student ratio, 28-to-one in the upper grades, and that's amazing, but that's a balance, and we have to be strategic about our priorities so that balance remains.
HE: How realistic is it to keep up the teacher-student ratios you just described?
JH: We will do our very best because that is crucial for our kids, for maintaining that real piece for our community. I have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old; I would love for their high school classes to be 25 and 28. I understand that not only as a school leader, but as a parent and a community member. So, we will do our very best to maintain that ratio. Right now we're at an ideal point with population, and we'll do our best to continue it. Honestly, it is a marketing piece, but it's just smart practice.
HE: So, if you're at a tipping point, where are the stress points? Where do you see the challenge in your next year, in your next two years? You're fighting to keep the ratios, you've got usual DPS turnover with people coming and going, and funding's always what funding is, so what challenges are most pressing?
JH: I think maintaining the richness and the perception of South, and continuing to make that perception a reality for people. I believe that because we do have such a diverse population, making sure that all our programs are aligned to meet the needs of every kid is important. I wouldn't call that a challenge, necessarily, it's just a really splendid goal, and that's why I want to be here. I see so many schools that are segregated, and I don't want that ever to happen here.
HE: Do you mean the special education students or the ELA students that are in a separate part of the building, in different classes?
JH: Right, or you have schools... For instance, here's one school with all free-and-reduced lunch students, students of color, language learners, and then here's a school where people drive BMWs and it's all one race. Even though desegregation happened, segregation still occurs. Again, that's why I love South; it's the epitome of what a public school can be. You have every kind of kid, and it creates an incredible balance.
HE: If you do some digging in the state and national press you can find talk of re-segregation in education and other arenas. Are we starting to see schools and populations begin to drift apart again? Do you see this happen in your work? Is this something that's real?
JH: It's very real.
HE: Is it something you see happening in DPS?
HE: And do you think DPS is combating it?
JH: No comment. But loosely, here's what I think. And, this is not just a DPS piece—this is national, this is state level. School in general, education in general, on all its levels, is in transition. Everyone is looking for the silver bullet, the answer. My hope is that with the Denver 2020 plan they talk about a great school in every neighborhood—I want to be that. And we are, but I want to continue that.
The idea of the whole child, which is paramount—again, when I'm talking about making sure we have programs to meet every kid's needs, that's from an academic standpoint but also a social and emotional perspective. That's a huge piece of South: kids want to be here. That's amazing.
The district has, I think, good intentions, I just think, unfortunately with some of the shifts in the city and with housing... We have to be very intentional to make sure that our school meets every kid's needs.
HE: So how much can a school district do? We can move kids around, we can encourage traffic in different directions, but are school districts responsible at the end of the day for the whole child?
JH: From a resource standpoint you have to be responsible, and that's what we have control over. You don't have control over the fact that the city's changing or gentrification is happening, but you can control how you allocate resources. How you take federal, state and local dollars and allocate them to make sure you have a great school in every neighborhood—you can control that.
I do feel I have good district support for maintaining South at its current level, but, in the end, it's high stakes. I will be able to count on that support as long as I maintain the test scores and maintain the outcomes. That's just the reality. That's my role: to listen to what my community wants and needs and to communicate that to the district and make sure that those resources are there.
HE: Is that where you feel the most pressure? Test scores? Where are the pressure points for you, personally?
JH: The pressure point is precisely the tension I just talked about: do we have all the resources and support from the district that will let us do what we need to do? Test scores, I'm just kind of over them. Meaning that they're not the end-all, they're a piece of the puzzle. But if we go back to the idea of the whole child, what are the other puzzle pieces? I sometimes think, in the end, people love South because of the intangibles. Community.