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.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.

stuck in the middle

How changes to dual credit and federal law are affecting schools and putting Indiana education officials in a bind

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post
Algebra teacher Jessica Edwards helps students with math problems during her 9th grade algebra class at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado.

Dual credit classes are at the center of a trifecta of competing forces in Indiana education — and it’s a complex problem the state needs to solve sooner rather than later.

Essentially, Indiana officials are juggling rules from three separate groups:

  • The Indiana General Assembly, which says all high schools must offer classes where students could earn college credit.
  • The Higher Learning Commission, a regional group that accredits Indiana colleges, which now requires all dual credit teachers to have master’s degrees or 18 credit hours in their content areas by 2022;
  • And the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind and wants states to have rigorous goals on how they expect schools to prepare kids for life after high school. It goes into effect for schools this coming school year.

Since 2006, Indiana schools have had to offer dual credit classes, but teachers weren’t required to meet more advanced education requirements. Indiana State Board of Education member Steve Yager, former superintendent in Fort Wayne, remembers that schools worked hard to carry out the new law on the ground.

“The legislature challenged us as educators across the state to provide more opportunities for academically able students to get more credit while they were in high school, and we did a darn good job of it,” Yager said.

But schools were handed a setback in 2015 when the Higher Learning Commission updated its policy for states it oversees, throwing Indiana educators into a tailspin. It was a problem because in the time schools had been increasing their dual credit offerings, the state as a whole was disincentivizing teachers from earning master’s degrees. A 2011 overhaul of teacher evaluation made advanced education count for much less in salary negotiations.

Now, about 75 percent of Indiana’s more than 2,500 dual credit teachers don’t completely meet the new dual credit teaching requirements, putting local teachers in a position where some must pay for thousands of dollars in college classes in a fairly short period of time.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said the department is working on a plan that brings together state universities and other partners to devise a solution that can get teachers the extra credits they need while keeping cost and time to a minimum.

“We are working diligently … regarding partnerships and how to put some of that expense back on the state to help move this along,” McCormick told Indiana State Board of Education members last week. “It is not something we are being stagnant on.”

Other proposed solutions have fallen through — lawmakers passed a bill in 2016 that created a “dual credit teaching” fund to help support teachers pay for more credentials, but when the budget was created in 2017, the fund received no money.

Complicating the problem further is ESSA, which the state board is busy incorporating into its new education plan, due to be delivered to federal officials in September.

There are a number of options on the table, but essentially the board can take one of two paths: It can ask schools to ensure more students take dual credit classes, pass Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and earn industry certifications, which would satisfy the new federal requirements for statewide goals and make earning top marks for state A-F grades more challenging.

Or, given the uncertainty around new dual credit teaching requirements, it could stop counting dual credit in letter grades entirely.

That move could put schools in an even worse position, ensuring that only a fraction of them can meet the goal at all.

Currently, 25 percent of graduates must meet the state’s college and career readiness goal for schools to earn full points in their A-F grade, a threshold that most schools easily hit. But U.S. Department of Education officials say a goal most schools can easily meet doesn’t tell the state much about how schools are doing or fulfill the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal officials are pushing states to develop their own goals, but have indicated they should be rigorous — few specifics have been offered.

One reason why so many schools meet the goal is explicitly because they offer dual credit classes. For a number of those schools, the points earned from students completing dual credit classes far outweigh those earned in the other areas of AP, IB and industry certifications. And unlike other advanced courses, more low-income students and students of color take advantage of dual credit.

Ultimately, as part of the new state education plan the board can decide to:

  • Swiftly increase the percentage of students who must meet the college and career readiness goal, and expect far more schools to miss the mark;
  • Keep the same 25 percent requirement Indiana has now, with a note to federal officials that the rate will be adjusted in the future — a move that could put the entire ESSA plan’s approval at risk;
  • Take a phase-in approach, where the rate incrementally rises over the next several years, also a potentially risky move if federal officials don’t like it;
  • Remove dual credit from the A-F grade formula.

At last week’s state board meeting, board members were unsure about whether a swift change to how dual credit is measured would be fair to schools that have tried to stay afloat as state law has told them to first offer the classes, and then external policies now demand they change them.

Bluffton Principal Steve Baker said that while he knows there’s been a lot of work started to solve the dual credit teaching issues, he hopes state officials are aware of the very real problems schools could be facing in the near future and how important dual credit is to their accountability grades.

“Dual credit is where we get a lot of those (A-F grade) points,” Baker said. “I just wanted to caution them that in 2022, dual credit credentialing is going to get much more difficult and we need to be prepared for that.”

The board is expected to have further discussions on ESSA in August.