(Not) back to square one

Community input, teacher voice drive overhaul at a struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Kate Schimel
Parents pick up students at Ashley Elementary School in northeast Denver.

When district officials threatened to replace the entire staff of Ashley Elementary, Donna Simms went with other parents to the school board to protest.

“The way they came in and said, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s going on'” angered parents, said Simms.

But unlike some situations in which the district moved ahead on its plans without community consensus, in this case the district backed down. They replaced the principal but agreed to work with the current staff and teachers to come up with a plan for the school’s principal.

That decision, Simms said, helped save the school, which has over 95 percent of students below the poverty line and has struggled with low performance for years.

“Had we not spoken up, I think a lot of the families that have been with the school for years and years would have left,” said Simms. “We agreed as a community to stay for this year to see what’s happening and see if what they said was going to happen really did happen.”

The result is a plan that would give the school what is known as a innovation status, meaning it is freed from a number of district mandates. The plan, which observers say is unusual in the amount of community input that shaped it, includes cutting class sizes, incorporating technology and adding time for non-core subjects.

It received the go-ahead from the state board Tuesday morning and has garnered praise even from critics of Denver’s innovation schools process.

The full plan, clocking in at over 160 pages, is available here.

Innovation schools

Denver’s innovation schools have proved to be controversial, with critics saying that the plans schools submit often lack rigor or specificity and often fail to produce results. But Ashley’s plan has garnered praise even from those critics.

“Their’s was the only proposal that seem to have buy-in and be substantive in some way,” said Van Schoales, who heads education advocacy group A+ Denver. “A lot of these proposals are superficial. You can tell they’re going through the motions, that they haven’t had conversations with their staff about how they want the school to get better.”

A recent report produced by A+ Denver, CU-Denver and local unions showed that innovation schools produce mixed results, often failing to outperform similar traditional schools and falling below state averages.

Schoales says that’s because of the relative lack of scrutiny in the innovation schools process.

“Almost everyone gets innovation status,” said Van Schoales. In fact, a 2013 lawsuit alleged that Denver’s school board inappropriately approved innovation plans for two new schools, which were not allowed for under the 2008 innovation schools law.

Innovation schools should be required to submit a comprehensive vision for their school, says Schoales.

“If the proposal was a disaster, then [the school’s] probably going to be a disaster,” he said.

How to have a conversation

District officials, school leaders and community members agree that the decision to have the school community lead the transformation is part of the reason for how strong Ashley’s plan is.

“That was a brilliant idea,” said Jennifer Keel, Ashley’s parent liaison who has been with the school for 30 years. “We were able to take our strengths from the past and bridge them into our goals and our aspirations for the future.”

It’s an example of a successful outreach strategy in a district that in other cases has been accused of alienating parents, teachers and community members.

At Ashley, parents and teachers were initially suspicious of the process, believing the district would go ahead with predetermined plans. But the principal’s openness to their ideas brought them around.

“I was one of those that was very, very, very hesitant,” said Simms. She participated in the principal selection process and in the subsequent school design.

For one, the candidate the district selected, current principal Zachary Rahn, raised red flags for Simms.

“We had a feeling that because he came through the DPS system and the DPS training, we were going to get cut under the table,” said Simms. Rahn arrived in the district as a Teach for America teacher and went through a district principal training program last year.

Instead, she said, “he’s been receptive to the input of the staff and the community. He has been upholding what he said he would do and what we wanted to see in the building.”

Innovation status as an afterthought

Paradoxically, the strength of the plan may come from the fact that it was an afterthought, rather than the end goal of the process.

Starting at the end of last spring, the district convened a committee including Rahn, the school’s teachers and a group of parents to begin discussions about what the school should look like.

“The question that we opened it with was, ‘what does your dream school look like?'” said Rahn. “Innovation was never a thought until after.”

Instead, becoming an innovation school was a tool for doing what the community wanted.

“If this is what we want to do, [innovation] is the way to do it,” said Rahn.

The committee also had plenty of time to complete their work, a component district officials say was crucial to having a successful process.

“They started last winter and didn’t finish until September and October,” said Joe Amundsen, a senior manager of innovation schools for the district. He worked with the committee on the school’s design. “Our hope that is schools do go through the similar process of starting in the spring and working over the summer and putting together the plan in the fall.”

He said two other schools going through a similar process, Isabella Bird Community School and the Oakland elementary campus, are on a similar timeline.

Let’s try that again

For many schools, improving means replacing the entire staff and starting at zero. That’s what happened last time Ashley faced an overhaul, in the 1990s.

Keel, who was at the school at the time, said that the staff was called to an emergency meeting and told they would have to reapply. At the time, she thought it was hard on the school but the intense conversations of the past year have made her wonder if that approach was simpler.

“Going through it twice makes me see how important it is to start all over,” said Keel.

With Ashley’s less drastic approach, both Keel and Rahn say they expect the outcome will be the same, with large-scale turnover of the teaching staff. But the timeline will be more gradual, giving people time adjust to the new way of doing things.

“Change is hard for adults,” Rahn said.

The slower process means many teachers have decided for themselves that the school’s new direction won’t work for them, rather than being fired or pushed out.

“There’s a chunk of people who voted for the plan who think it’s right for the school but for themselves it wasn’t right,” said Rahn.

Rahn says the key was to balance making big picture changes with easing community fears.

“Turnaround fails because change is incremental” said Rahn, a message he drove home for teachers starting at the first committee meeting. On the other hand, he understands why school closings and mass firings can be hard on school communities.

For him, it’s still an open question of whether this approach will work.

“Will we get the same results without getting blown up?” said Rahn, but he’s hopeful. “We’re bound to prove the stats wrong.”

Building Better Schools

Training overhaul aimed at a big IPS shortfall: Just 1 in 4 student teachers stick around.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Seventy-four student teachers trained in Indianapolis Public Schools last year. But just 17 of those freshly minted educators were hired by the district after they graduated.

In a district where some schools struggle to hire enough teachers, that gap is a problem.

That’s why IPS is revamping teacher training to give student teachers more time in the classroom and attract new educators to the district.

“We really need to focus in on the folks who are student teaching in our buildings, making sure they have a really strong experience,” said Mindy Schlegel, who leads human resources for the district.

In order to attract new teachers and make sure they are well prepared, IPS is rolling out a host of plans, from making sure student teachers in traditional programs are working with experienced mentors to launching two new residency programs.

The residencies, which will be selective, will allow students to spend one to three years in the classroom — far more than the six to nine weeks education students typically spend teaching, said Schlegel.

Those plans are among three programs getting a boost from a new grant program run by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports Indianapolis school reform.

  • IPS received a three-year, $207,000 grant to pay for a staffer dedicated to improving student teaching in the district;
  • KIPP Indianapolis received a three-year, $38,500 grant for a new yearlong leadership program for current teachers; and
  • Christel House Academy received a $20,000 grant to plan IndyTeach, a transition-to-teaching program at the charter school that it plans to pilot in 2017-2018.

The program will support new efforts to improve teacher recruitment, training, retention and diversity, said Jackie Gantzer, director of talent strategy for the Mind Trust.

“A lot of the best solutions to any one of those pieces is likely going to be developed and driven locally by schools and networks and the teachers who are in that environment,” she said. “We are really interested in testing those hypotheses and seeing what is effective and what can potentially be scaled.”

IPS plans to begin the first teaching residency this fall, with about 10 students from Purdue University’s online degree program in special education. The students will train in IPS schools during the three-year program.

The other residency is still in the planning stages, but the aim is to assign college students to work with experienced teachers in schools using new teacher-leadership models.

One reason the district is focusing its attention on improving recruitment of student teachers is that it is hard to attract educators from other areas, Schlegel said.

“A lot of urban districts are moving in this direction because it is so difficult to get teachers to relocate,” she said. “(We) are really refocusing our recruitment efforts to what local pipelines exist.”

clearing a hurdle

These 20 schools just won approval from the Denver school board

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012.

The Denver school board Thursday unanimously approved 11 new elementary charter schools, all of which are part of charter networks that already have a presence in the city.

The board also approved new elementaries that would be managed by the school district and three charter high schools, one of which targets teenagers in addiction recovery.

In winning board approval, the schools cleared a necessary hurdle to open in the state’s largest district. But that doesn’t mean all will open, or open right away. Some are seeking placement in a Denver Public Schools building, while others are planning to find their own real estate.

DPS every year solicits new schools to join its nationally recognized “portfolio” of district-run, innovation, charter and magnet schools. Because of slowing enrollment growth, the district didn’t solicit any new standalone schools this year. Such schools were still welcome to apply — and many did. But the only new schools sought by the district were replacements for existing schools scheduled to be closed due to chronic poor performance.

Three of the elementary schools approved Thursday are competing to serve as a replacement for low-performing Amesse Elementary, which is slated to close next year.

However, only two of the schools will move forward to the next stage of the competition: consideration by a review board that will recommend which school the DPS board should pick when it makes its final decision next month. District staff found the plan for teaching English language learners submitted by the other school, University Prep, fell short of requirements.

Two other elementary schools applied to replace Greenlee Elementary, also scheduled to close.

But the board on Thursday rejected the application of one of them, a Wyoming-based charter school called PODER Academy whose founder complained his school wasn’t given a fair shot because of “prior controversy.” As such, only one school will move forward to the review board.

DPS board members also denied a charter to SLAM Colorado, a proposed school based on a Miami charter that focuses on sports and was founded by rapper Pitbull.

Several board members noted that both DPS staff and an independent committee of community members that reviewed the charter application found that the proposals submitted by PODER and SLAM did not meet the district’s quality standards.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he’s encouraged “to see such a strong mix of schools, both district-run and charter,” get approved. He said the large number of new elementary schools speaks to “a real focus on the district-level and the charter side on really trying to strengthen our elementary schools” after years of focusing more on improving secondary schools.

Below, read the applications of all the new schools approved Thursday:

The Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, a district-run elementary school proposed by the current Greenlee principal as a replacement for the program that will shutter next year.

The Montbello Children’s Network, a district-run elementary school proposed by the principal of nearby McGlone Academy as a replacement for Amesse.

Denver Elementary Community School 1, 2, 3 and 4, four district-run elementary schools proposed by DPS central-office staff members that could serve as replacements for low-performing schools slated for closure in the future.

KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary, a charter elementary school that would serve southwest Denver and add to the roster of KIPP schools already operating in Denver.

Rocky Mountain Prep 4, 5 and 6, three more schools in the elementary-focused charter network, which currently operates two schools in Denver and one in Aurora.

STRIVE Prep Elementary 4, 5 and 6, three more elementary schools in the local charter network, which currently operates 11 schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade.

A previously approved STRIVE Prep Elementary is competing to replace Amesse.

University Prep 3, 4, 5 and 6, four more schools in the elementary-focused charter network, which currently operates two schools in Denver. University Prep 3 is also competing to replace Amesse but its application will not move forward in the process because it did not meet the requirements of a program to teach English language learners.

5280 High School, a charter high school focused on project-based learning that would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school aiming to open in northeast Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, another location of a charter alternative high school.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that two other schools, Cooperative Community Schools and an expansion of Academy 360, also won approval. The board did not vote on those schools Thursday.