When students at Englewood School District arrive at school next year, they won’t just find new classrooms and unfamiliar teachers. They may also be facing a totally new academic model.

Students in Englewood Schools will see big changes next year. District photo.
Students in Englewood Schools. District photo.

The school district, located directly south of Denver, has signed a year-long partnership with the non-profit Generation Schools, a non-profit whose model includes extended learning time, increased teacher collaboration and smaller class sizes. The deal is a first for Generation Schools, which has only worked at the school level.

“It really sets a new precedent for what’s possible,” said Wendy Piersee, CEO of Generation Schools. “I think the size of the Englewood district mirrors the typical size of districts across the country. It really hits that model for hundreds of districts across the country.”

Generation’s approach, nicknamed the “Rubik’s cube” model, aims to create longer days and longer schools years for schools while still working within the school’s available resources, including existing financial capabilities and teacher contracts.

Generation’s partnership with Englewood schools is a first for Colorado, said Janet Lopez of the Rose Foundation, to whom Englewood has applied for grants to help fund the project.

“The unique element is an entire district that’s trying to work entirely within the constraints of Colorado’s school finance restrictions,” said Lopez, a program officer for the foundation.

Generation’s typical approach to previous projects has included a massive overhaul of teacher and staff scheduling as well as budgeting to compensate for those changes. The details of how Englewood will manage those changes without increasing its budget remain undecided.

Englewood and Generation Schools, who signed the deal just over two weeks ago, are still unsure what exactly the new model will look like, but they hope to go beyond the academic calendar. The district and Generation’s management group are considering a new approach to student attraction and retention as well as an overhaul of the district’s college and career preparation.

Urban district in the suburbs

Despite Englewood’s distance from Denver’s urban core, it struggles with many of the same issues urban districts do. Roughly 65 percent of Englewood’s 2981 students receive free and reduced lunch and about 15 percent of students make use of English language learning services.

“They are becoming an urban district that sits on the fringe,” said Piersee.

Englewood, which was designated as a turnaround district by the state in 2010, which has already implemented a slew of changes, including a more collaborative learning model for students and including iPads in classroom instruction. The district was re-designated as a priority improvement district in 2011, but has failed to increase its ranking since then. The district’s superintendent hopes the changes the partnership with Generation Schools will bring will accelerate their improvement and increase scores.

“You can have all the best instructional strategies and technology and if you have kids coming in halfway, it takes time to catch up,” said Brian Ewert, the district’s superintendent. “It takes more time and resources to get these kids to the same place as some of their affluent peers, who have far more opportunities. We have to do something significantly different.”

Engelwood’s growth scores have improved but the majority of its students still do not meet achievement expectations on state assessments. Ewert believes the district has already made some important changes but that they aren’t sufficient to the needs of the students.

“We have seen some small successes and we’re proud of that, but we’re really clear within the system that we aren’t moving quickly enough,” said Ewert.

New campus, new rules

Despite the challenges the district and Generation Schools face, change will have to come at a fairly rapid pace. In addition to the constraints of the district’s improvement plan, a bond and mill levy passed last year funded the construction of a brand-new campus for the district’s high school and two middle schools. The district plans to time the academic overhaul with the move to the new campus, which will open in winter 2014.

This presents a unique challenge for Generation Schools.

“This is the first time I know of where there’s a facilities deadline,” said Piersee.

The new building features a far more open floor plan than the old campuses as well as improved STEM facilities and space for the school’s popular new career preparation effort, a culinary training program. The district hopes these aspects will be incorporated in the new model.

“What we’re trying to do is create our climate and culture and what we want the new building to feel like,” said Mandy Braun, principal at Englewood Middle School.

Ewert agrees, saying the two pieces, building and instruction, have to compliment each other.

“The practice supports the building and the building supports the practice,” Ewert said.

A different model of change

Generation School’s partnership with the district comes on the heels of extensive talks between district leadership and a group known as “Team Phoenix.”

Team Phoenix, which is made up of principals, teachers and staff from the district’s middle and high schools, has met twice a week for over a year and a half to discuss possible changes to the district’s model. Last year, they created a list of about 80 things they wanted to see changed in the district.

“A lot of the things we were wanting were things that Generation Schools practices,” said Braun, who is also a member of Team Phoenix. Braun and her team members support the partnership with Generation Schools, as did the district’s board of education.

Ewert says the involvement of school and community members is key to his plan.

“There are two kinds of approach — and this is totally my opinion — to what people call reform,” said Ewert. “You can have boards of education and superintendents come and make a change and say ‘we are going change in a year.’ That really collapses the community of parents and teachers and students.”

Despite the apparent transformations of the past few years, Ewert believes he has taken as restrained and considered approach as possible with lots of community involvement.

“And what we’re trying to do is really thoughtful change,” said Ewert. “If you take people along a bit slower, it’s still painful but people stay involved.”

Ewert’s slow and steady approach is informed by the district’s tumultuous history prior to Ewert’s arrival in 2010.

“There were ten superintendents in ten years,” said Karen Brofft, the district’s assistant superintendent, who was hired at the same time as Ewert.

Englewood’s decision to partner with Generation has not yet been presented to the district and the community, although it’s no secret. Teachers and staff have begun to discuss its implications.

“It will be a huge adjustment for people,” said Lindsay Taylor, a drama teacher at Englewood Middle School and a member of Team Phoenix. But she says, “the parents that we’ve talk to, they’re kind of getting used to big adjustments in the classroom.”

The district and Generation Schools will start holding talks with faculty and staff in the next couple weeks to discuss the decision and any changes those stakeholders want to see. Conversations with parents and community members will start soon as well.

As far as the community response, Ewert is optimistic.

“I’ve been pretty aggressive in our timeline,” said Ewert. “So far the system’s been pretty tolerant.”