Keith Oxman’s coda


DENVER — Keith Oxman doesn't want to spend the rest of his life under the harsh glow of East High School’s fluorescent tube lighting.

“I have a real love about this school and these kids, but I don’t want to die here,” said Oxman, the oldest teacher at the school and the longest tenured band teacher in school history.

Oxman, 65, is retiring after 24 years at East, where he led the school’s storied jazz band.

The decision to retire was hard enough on its own — he still struggles with it — but Oxman said he began to lose sleep when he learned that East High School was not going to hire a teacher to replace him, a decision that will leave East’s more than 2,300 students with just one full-time instrumental music teacher.

“He’s clearly a strong leader and I think he’s built a very valuable program, and the idea that they’re going to take advantage of this moment where he’s retiring to reduce the staffing by 50% — it definitely seems short-sighted to me,” said Casey Vader, whose son, Paul, is one of Oxman’s students.

Vader is one of many parents who, along with their students, have raised concerns to East’s administration and the school board about the decision to cut the number of music instructors at the high school in half. 

At the center of the parents and students’ inquiries is a mill levy that Denver voters approved in 2012. The initial budget guidelines established by the mill levy required that secondary schools — e.g., East High School — provide a minimum of 0.5 instrumental music teachers for every 400 students. 

According to that baseline, then, East High School’s roughly 2,300 students should have at least two instrumental music teachers. Casey Vader and other parents said they did not receive a response from the school district or East administrators when they asked about the mill levy baselines.

Scott Pribble, the director of external communication for DPS, told Rocky Mountain PBS that the mill levy baselines circulated by Oxman and the parents were “outdated.”

The current guidance, which DPS’ “curriculum and instruction” team adopted in 2018, requires that East High School have 7 full-time employees across visual and performance arts. The guidance no longer specifies how many instructors are required for each artistic discipline. 

“For the 2024-2025 school year, East High School will have one teacher for instrumental music and one for vocal music, both teaching six classes,” Pribble said in an emailed statement. “Denver Public Schools takes the commitment to our voters very seriously. All of our schools must, and do, meet programmatic baselines for Art, Music, and PE as well as other services that are provided to students. East High School is no different and they meet their baseline. The established programmatic baseline is for the school, not each subject.”

Instrumental music is not the only program facing cuts. Declining enrollment and expiring federal funds means teachers across the district are at risk of losing their jobs. Students and parents organized a protest in response.

Oxman, meanwhile, does not think the cuts are equitable.

“I will never understand how cutting one of two band teachers is the same as cutting one of 20 English teachers, not to mention the amount of time that this progs been around and prospered with so many great players coming out of here,” he said.

Keith Oxman taught at East High School — one of Denver’s four original high schools — for 24 years.
Photo: Kyle Cooke, Rocky Mountain PBS

East High’s penchant for churning out first-rate musicians led to the school’s induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

“Denver East’s world-class musical alumni include Paul Whiteman, beloved cornetist-educator Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, members of Earth, Wind and Fire, Purnell Steen, and many others,” wrote KUVO JAZZ’s Steve Chavis.

Paul Vader hopes to join those ranks some day. But as a rising junior, he’s still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he won’t have Oxman as a teacher next year.

“We don’t call him Mr. Keith or Mr. Oxman. We just call him Oxman,” Paul Vader said. “He’s really caring. He really cares about music. And he makes it clear, too. And he’s different because he cares about you so much … it’s hard to explain.”

“He’s really developed quite a reputation — a positive reputation — with the students,” Casey Vader added. “I don’t know if his reputation is as positive with the faculty, with the administrators. I think he can be a bit of a curmudgeon.”

Alexis Senger, whose daughter Madeleine plays piano in Oxman’s classes, said “I don’t think [Oxman] is a very good school bureaucrat.”

Oxman would be the first to tell you that these are fair characterizations.

“As I told one of my assistant principals, I just feel like I don’t fit with organized education and quite frankly I’d be embarrassed if I did,” he said.

He skips all-staff meetings and ignores his teacher evaluations. “I've been very disobedient on so much since I got here,” he said. 

The parents certainly don’t mind.

“To me, teaching is pushing students to achieve more. And I think by that definition, he’s the ultimate teacher,” Alexis said.

Oxman, squeezing his imposing figure into a cluttered office in the corner of the band room, spoke about organized education with such contempt that it is hard to believe he made it this long.

“They had their opportunity to get rid of me and they never did. Especially the last few years, I have not been the most agreeable employee so to speak,” he said.

Rocky Mountain PBS submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request for Oxman’s evaluations. The available records date back to the 2013-14 school year and show that Oxman’s LEAP Ratings since then are overwhelmingly positive.

Positive evaluations aside, Oxman’s relationship with his students and their parents — not to mention his Grammy-nominated talent as a saxophonist — was the primary source of his job security.

“I think I’m good at what I do,” he said. “I’ve taught for 33 years and I haven’t had one single parent problem. Not one.”

His relationship with the students is even better.

“There’s not a kid that I don’t like in this program — not one. And it’s been that way for a long time. My first year here, I hardly liked any of them. They weren’t real fond of me either,” he chuckled.

One of the things Oxman is most proud of from his time at East is the amount of professional experience and exposure he's provided to the students. They performed at KUVO, clubs like Dazzle and each year Oxman has them record a CD at Mighty Fine Productions’ recording studio in Denver.

“It's so much work that he does just to have that happen,” Alexis Senger said. “You would think that he has a small staff, but he does it all on his own as an extra.”

From Ron Miles to Bill Frisell, many esteemed musicians walked through East’s halls.

Photo: Kyle Cooke, Rocky Mountain PBS

Recently, Alexis and Madeleine drove to a tennis match between East and Colorado Academy. Located at the southwestern border of Denver County’s limits, Colorado Academy is consistently ranked as one of the best private schools in the state. It comes at a cost — tuition for grades 6-12 is more than $39,000 a year.

“It looks like the Broadmoor. It’s just lovely,” Alexis Senger said, referencing the 5-star resort in Colorado Springs. “And the kids were talking about how it costs $40,000 a year to go there, and it’s definitely impressive. But as we were leaving, I said, ‘You know what? They don’t have Keith Oxman.’”

“You can have all the money in the world and go to a school like that, but we had Keith Oxman.”

Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS.