DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Law grad is ready to fight for Denver school reform

When Mary Seawell (JD ’01) is sworn in Nov. 30 as a new member of the Denver school board, don’t be surprised if she’s wearing 10-ounce boxing gloves and protective headgear. The at-large seat she was elected to fill could feel more like 12 rounds in the ring than four years helping run Denver Public Schools.

“I’m ready to get hit,” she laughs. “Ready to get beat up because I believe so strongly in this time and moment for education.

“We have a federal government and a president with a vision that the state legislature shares, that the current superintendent shares. There is an alignment of the stars. And the question is ‘Are we going to grab this moment and push through change that’s transformational and effective?’”

Translation: When she steps into the ring on Monday, she’ll be fighting for kids. And for reforming schools. For changing mindsets and developing school leaders. For empowering principals, inspiring teachers, motivating students and connecting citizens. For seizing what she says is a “pivotal moment” and punching hard until every child gets an “amazing education.”

Seawell knows she’s in for a fight. But she’s been in a few scrapes in the past. She fought for crime victims as a member of Bill Ritter’s district attorney’s office. She ran Judi’s House, a grief center for kids started by former Denver Broncos quarterback Brian Griese, and she helped DU Trustee Donald Sturm (LLB ’58) fund charter school programs as head of the Sturm Family Foundation.

More recently, she helped hammer together DU’s new MBA program in school leadership. The new program melds business courses at the Daniels College of Business with a leadership curriculum at the Morgridge College of Education. The program also draws key support from Get Smart Schools (www.getsmartschools.org), an advocacy group for high-performing schools that serve low-income students. The result, she hopes, is an energetic new crop of school leaders trained to overcome whatever administrative obstacle they encounter.

“We can’t just hand over an autonomous school to someone who isn’t prepared to do all the budgeting and leadership and management,” she says. “With education, we can’t take those risks. These are kids’ lives. We have to have assurances in place that a leader can do it. We have to train them.”

Autonomous schools include charter schools and a whole range of others that fight low achievement by getting exemptions from union or district rules. The idea is that with flexibility, school leaders can more easily implement ideas to improve student performance or change a school’s culture.

“It’s a way of saying we need freedom from this piece or those pieces, not from the whole district,” she notes.

The new MBA program in school leadership fits that plan. Having secured backing from Get Smart Schools, Seawell approached Daniels and Morgridge.

“Because I was invested in DU and had good relationships, I started there,” Seawell says. “But I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. I didn’t know how Daniels or Morgridge would feel about creating this program.”

Pretty well, as it turned out. The first group of students starts in March and should graduate by August 2012.

The MBA program is companion to a growing pipeline of students being trained at DU and funneled into high-needs Denver-area schools with the mindset and knowledge to turn things around. The Ritchie Program for School Leaders prepares principals, and the Denver Teacher Residency Program trains teachers. The MBA program adds the business component that is key to running and marketing a turn-around school.

“We need really strong school leaders,” Seawell says. “Leaders who are able to handle those freedoms from the district and use them in a way that the school can thrive. And we don’t have enough.”

When Seawell speaks of leaders, she means hard-charging, figure-out-how-to-make-it happen people who empower others.

“When you see those leaders and the dynamic schools that are working so well, you see teachers incredibly empowered and typically happy. It’s a very different kind of work environment. It’s not micro-managing, but they’re accountable. And it works.”

Other than a street law class at DU, Seawell has not taught. Nevertheless, teaching is a strength in her family. Her grandfather’s sister, Elizabeth Seawell, was so highly regarded as a teacher in the Chapel Hill, N.C., school system they named a school for her. Seawell’s father, Buie Seawell (JD ’75), is clinical professor of business ethics and legal studies at Daniels.

Three of Mary Seawell’s brothers hold advanced degrees from DU: Malcolm Seawell (JD ’91) and David Seawell (JD ’01) from the Sturm College of Law and Duncan Seawell (MA’06, PsyD ’08) from the Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

“In my family there were two real paths: law and teaching. My dad is reflective of both, which is why he’s such an amazing educator. There were really high standards in my family about being a teacher.”

Buie Seawell received the Distinguished Teaching Award from DU for 2002–03 and is the Louis D. Beaumont Professor of Business.

Mary Seawell is a 40-year-old attorney, a zealot for effective public education, and the mother of an 8-year-old daughter and two 4-year-old twin girls. She has a husband who’s a real estate developer, a “huge respect for DU” and the determination to put the pedal to the metal for public schools.

“What I’m good at is bringing people together” and getting them up to speed on how they can contribute and lead. Seawell figures that could mean taking one on the chin once in while. But she’s ready.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” she warns.

Opening bell is Monday. Round 1.

Comments are closed.