Aye for Innovation

Denver school board approves innovation zone, granting schools new freedoms

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students, parents and teachers made their case for the innovation zone.

Four Denver public schools will enjoy unprecedented autonomy next year after the school board Thursday unanimously approved a new “innovation zone.”

Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community will be part of the zone, dubbed the Luminary Learning Network.

The four are already innovation schools, which means they have waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools but not as much as charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. The zone will allow the four to act more like charters without separating from the district.

“This is one of the most exciting things we’ve done since I’ve been on the board,” said board member Mike Johnson. “I fundamentally believe those who are closest to the students should be making more decisions about how to educate the students.”

“I’m trying to think of a time I’ve been more excited, more proud, more optimistic about what we can achieve for kids,” said board president Anne Rowe.

The schools will be overseen by a new nonprofit organization, and they’ll be exempt from “district meetings, initiatives, practices and requirements,” according to an agreement between the zone schools, the nonprofit and Denver Public Schools.

Just as revolutionary is that zone schools will have more control over how they spend the state funding attached to their students. That funding is expected to amount to $7,682 per student next year, according to the district’s proposed budget.

This year, the district held back about $2,000 per student from each of the four schools to pay for things like curriculum, teacher training and administrator salaries.

Next year, the zone schools can choose to opt out of centralized district services other district-run schools must pay for, such as help with website design, reorganization of school libraries and advice on staffing decisions.

If the zone schools turn down all the optional services, they’ll receive about $350 more per student, according to the district. The schools can use that money to either buy those services back from the district or purchase their own.

DPS is predicting an estimated $600,000 funding loss because of that flexibility, although it may get some money back if the zone schools buy district services.

The nonprofit can also raise money for the schools.

Students, parents and teachers from the four schools made their case to the school board Thursday. They wore light blue T-shirts with the Luminary Learning Network logo, a yellow star, in the center. To each board member, they handed a T-shirt and a paper bag luminary.

“The move of forming the (Luminary Learning Network) puts us as school leaders and teachers in the driver’s seat of what we believe to be best for our students,” said Frank Coyne, a leader at Denver Green School. “I’m really proud of that. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something big.”

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law that also created innovation schools. While there are 40 innovation schools in DPS, and more than 20 others elsewhere in Colorado, the state only has three other innovation zones. Several school districts, including Aurora and Pueblo, are considering them as a strategy to improve low-performing schools.

What’s unique about the Denver zone is that the four schools aren’t in trouble. Instead, the school leaders said they banded together to form the Luminary Learning Network after encountering pushback and mandates from the district they felt hindered their autonomy.

The board’s vote authorized the zone for three years. Existing innovation schools are allowed to join it if the zone schools think they are a “good fit.”

In exchange for more autonomy, the zone schools will be subject to higher achievement goals. Per the agreement, the schools must seek to move up one tier on the district’s color-coded school rating system by the end of three years.

Ashley and Cole are currently rated yellow, the third-highest tier out of five, while Creativity Challenge Community and the Denver Green School are rated green, the second highest. The agreement notes that since the green tier is so wide and getting to the highest level might not be plausible, the district and the zone will work together to figure out what is.

Other action the DPS school board took Thursday:

— The board voted unanimously to delay the openings of two schools: the Near Northeast Community Engagement School and a new STRIVE Prep elementary in the far northeast.

The schools were supposed to open this fall but will now open in the fall of 2017. Both schools had lower than expected enrollment, according to school officials. Chris Gibbons, the CEO and founder of the STRIVE charter school network, said his school’s leader also unexpectedly stepped down.

“We believe students and families deserve a strong start,” Gibbons said.

This is the second delay for both schools, which were originally slated to open in the fall of 2015.

— The board unanimously approved the contracts of four charter schools it renewed in December 2015: Odyssey School, STRIVE Prep – Lake, Venture Prep High School and Denver Justice High School. It also amended several other charter contracts.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.