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.

social studies

Tennessee’s long journey to new social studies standards nears its finish line

Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.

Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.

The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.

“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.

“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”

Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.

He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.

The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.

The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.

Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.

“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”

Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.

Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.

“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.

During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.

“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”

Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.

If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.

Compromise

Indiana budget deal would offer modest school funding increases plus a big fix for teacher bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Many schools across Indiana could expect more money per student in the coming years and strong teachers at struggling schools would be likely to receive higher bonuses under a budget deal announced Friday.

House and Senate lawmakers have come to an agreement on how much money to send to Indiana schools over the next two years. The budget would increase total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019. Included within that: a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 this year. The budget is expected to go up for a final vote late Friday.

Overall, the budget plan would accomplish some of the key goals prioritized by Gov. Eric Holcomb, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and House Republicans. Those goals include increasing funding for the state’s preschool program, internet access for schools, and Advanced Placement exams that help students earn college credit while in high school.

Under the compromise, every district in Marion County would see its basic state aid and per-student funding increase, including Indianapolis Public Schools. (IPS would have seen cuts in the House plan, and the increases wound have been higher under the Senate plan.)

Suburban districts such as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern would get sizable funding bumps as with the Senate plan. Districts losing enrollment, including East Chicago, could lose state money. But overall, many of the districts with some of the state’s poorest students stand to see increases. The Gary and Hammond districts, for example, would both see gains in per-student funding and overall.

Lawmakers also settled on a compromise about how to pay teachers.

Throughout the session, they waffled about whether to pay teachers more for their performance or for taking on additional work in their schools.

At first, the House cut the bonuses entirely and set aside $3 million for a “career pathways” program that would reward teachers who take on leadership roles in their schools. That was far less money than the $40 million the Senate wanted to put toward teacher bonuses, but some teachers said they would rather have the long-term opportunity to improve their teaching and leadership skills rather than a short-term bonus that might not go toward their salaries in the future.

“I want a leadership role, but I want to be a teacher — I don’t want to be an administrator,” said Allison Larty, a teacher in Noblesville and Teach Plus policy fellow. “(A bonus) is not going to be make an impact. The creation of career pathways will make an impact in the long run.”

But those dollars were eliminated in the Senate budget and the budget compromise. Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it came down to Senate negotiations. Senators were willing to spend more on preschool, Brown said, if they didn’t have to spend elsewhere — so career pathways dollars were cut.

But lawmakers did agree to change the state’s now $30 million teacher bonus program, which came under fire from educators across the state last year for rewarding effective teachers in high-performing, usually affluent schools at a higher level than similar teachers in lower-performing schools.

Going forward, the program will dole out money based on a policy created by each school district, rather than ISTEP scores. Under the plan, the state would distribute $30 per student to each district, which would then divvy up the local bonus pool among teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” Of that money, up to 50 percent can be added into a teacher’s base salary so that the teacher receives it in future years as well. And teachers in virtual schools can receive these bonuses — something the Senate had moved against.

The compromise plan keeps other requirements suggested by the Senate for virtual schools, mandating that they report information about class size, teacher-per-student ratios, and how often teachers have in-person meetings to the education department each year. Virtual schools would get 90 percent of the basic per-student funding amount from the state, as they do now. (The House’s plan would have increased that to 100 percent.)

The state’s voucher program would see its funding grow over the next two years under the compromise plan. Indiana is projected to spend more than $156 million by 2018 and $167 million by 2019 on the program, up from $146 million in 2017.

This new agreement no longer carves out the voucher money as a budget line item. Critics of making it a line item said it made the program vulnerable to cuts, but supporters applauded the change because they said it increased transparency around how much the state spends on vouchers but pulling it out of school-by-school calculations and placing it squarely in the budget itself.

The budget also includes:

  • $22 million per year for the state’s preschool program, up from about $12 million. $1 million per year is set aside for “in-home” online preschool programs.
  • About $32 million for English-language learners, up from about $20 million. The grant would be $250 per English-learner student in 2018 and $300 per student in 2019. Schools with higher concentrations of English learners would get additional funding.
  • $3 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services.
  • $10.4 million for Advanced Placement tests and $4.1 million for PSAT tests.
  • $1 million to align initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs.
  • $26.3 million per year for testing and $12.3 million per year for remediation testing.
  • $15 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program, which would support schools that want to become “innovation schools.”

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.