Memo from the Boss

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg’s vision for giving more power to schools, annotated

PHOTO: Wesley Wright
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg visits a district summer camp in 2016.

Denver Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado, is striving to be more decentralized and less top-down. More than a year after the school board granted school leaders more autonomy, Superintendent Tom Boasberg has penned a document detailing how he envisions the district should function under that philosophy.

“The purpose of this document is to try to make clear in one coherent framework how all these pieces fit together,” he said. “We’ve been saying that the school is the unit of change. We wanted to take the time to say, ‘What do we mean by that?’”

What follows is the full text of the document. We’ve annotated it with comments and explanations from Boasberg, and links to our previous coverage and other sources. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.

EQUITY AND EMPOWERMENT:
THE SCHOOL AS THE UNIT OF CHANGE
October 2016

In order to meet our goals of student growth and achievement under the Denver Plan, we believe it is essential that we empower our educators at all levels to act and lead under a theory in which the school is the key unit of change. School leaders and their teams, working with their communities, should have a strong ownership of all that happens within their buildings, encouraging innovation, flexibility and differentiation at our schools to meet the needs of the students and close gaps in student achievement in each school. To complement this, the district should play a leading role in establishing performance expectations, leading research and development, sharing best practices, coaching and support of school leaders, and ensuring that in all respects our actions and practices promote greater equity among our students.

A. SCHOOL EMPOWERMENT

We believe that effective teaching drives student achievement and that effective leadership is critical to attracting, retaining, and developing great teachers. We believe that empowering our school leaders will help us attract and retain the most talented leaders and teachers who will drive growth among our students. Our school leaders, working collaboratively with their parents, teachers and leadership teams, should have ownership of what goes in their schools – a sense of efficacy and urgency, a conviction that they have the opportunity to set vision, strategy, and priorities for their school. In so doing, they should be encouraged to re-imagine and innovate to challenge the status quo.

In order to set and implement the vision, strategy and priorities for their school, our school leaders should have the authority to:

  • Define the unique vision and mission of each school, working with the school’s community;
  • Lead engagement with parents and the broader school community;
  • Establish the critical priorities for the school based on their root cause analysis of the challenges facing the school, with a particular focus on equity and closing gaps within the school;
  • Make personnel decisions about school staff (hiring/non-renewal);
  • Choose and develop the instructional expectations, practices and systems within the school, consistent with overarching district vision and Colorado Academic Standards. This would include choice of curriculum, implementation of professional learning for teachers and school staff, and use of data and progress monitoring systems to ensure all students access grade level material and are on track to meet graduation requirements;
  • Establish the culture and behavioral norms and expectations for adults and students in the school, with a focus on inclusion, respect, and equity and consistent with district-wide expectations and shared core values;
  • Establish systems for supporting social, emotional, mental and physical health of students;
  • Define the use of time in the school;
  • Align school budgets to the above choices on school priorities through our student based budgeting system.

B. ROLE OF THE DISTRICT

In this construct, what then is the role of the district and the principal’s supervisor, the instructional superintendent?

The starting point of the discussion is that the default is that decisions are made at the school level. When a decision or policy is not reserved for the school level, there needs to be a compelling reason why not.

In short, the main role of the district is to recruit and develop talent at every level and in particular to ensure that school leaders have the skills, knowledge and support they need to lead their schools successfully.

In addition, it is the role of the district to:

Ensure Equity. The district has a vital role in establishing expectations and practices to ensure equity for all students, especially those with the greatest needs and least privilege — our students of color, those from lower-income families, English-language learners, and students with special needs. Experience has painfully shown us the need for clarity in such expectations and practices and the cost to students of their absence. We live in a society where differences in privilege and social capital often work to perpetuate in our schools the inequities in our society, and the district has a fundamental leadership role in driving and ensuring equity in all we do.

Equity issues can involve both inter-school issues such as resource allocation, boundaries, enrollment systems, and transportation and intra-school issues such as personnel decisions, discipline, culturally responsive education, and access to rigorous classes. Where practices or actions at the school or district level exacerbate inequities, the district must ensure changes are made.

Establish a Vision of Excellence and Performance Expectations. In order to drive improvement across all schools, the district has the responsibility for defining excellence – both in terms of what excellence in classroom instruction looks like as well as what student performance goals we are setting for ourselves. While under our approach the district is generally loose on inputs, the district is tight on outputs – what the performance expectations are for schools, educators, and students. Setting clear performance expectations and a system of performance accountability aligned to such expectations is an important role of the district, as is offering the supports that help schools, educators and students meet and exceed such performance expectations.

Drive R&D and Differentiated Professional Learning. To provide such supports, the district should be responsible for researching and spreading effective practices and promising innovations (including best- in-class curricula and assessment and instructional methods). The district also should provide professional learning to enable educators to master these practices, generally by supporting the delivery of professional learning at the school level and at times on a direct basis to teachers.

At times, when leading a major change management effort, the district may require all schools to participate in a particular initiative in order to establish a common base of learning or practice across schools (e.g., full-day preschool and kindergarten, ELA training, early literacy, teacher leadership and collaboration). Generally, however, schools have the opportunity to opt-in to district-provided professional learning.

There is a critical difference here between our approach and that seen in most successful charter management organizations (as well as private sector entities of similar scale). In those successful CMO’s, schools and school leaders generally have little flexibility or choice regarding instructional strategies, assessments, professional learning, or progress monitoring tools. In our system, school leaders do have the choice to accept district-recommended offerings in these areas or choose alternative offerings.

We believe that giving school leaders such choice will stimulate competition among support alternatives both inside and outside the district, and such competition will improve the quality of both district and third-party offerings. Giving school leaders these choices is also designed to address long-held concerns in both schools and the public about the quality of the district’s supports. It also furthers school-level empowerment and ownership of critical decisions. In order for the district to offer high-quality supports, the district does not expect to have the ability to support more than its recommended offering in matters such as curriculum and assessment. Schools choosing alternative offerings, therefore, will generally have to obtain supports from third parties or through their own internal capacity and will be provided with funds to do so, in an amount equal to the school’s pro rata share of the per-pupil cost of the district’s offering.

Stimulate Innovation. As part of its R&D role, the district should also seek to stimulate innovation by researching, resourcing and supporting innovative change efforts. While a critical part of supporting innovation is the freedom to innovate at the school level, equally important is the district’s role in researching innovative practices and supporting schools through approaches like investments in innovative practices and cohorts who work together to develop, refine, and implement such practices.

Lead Talent Development and Mapping. In order to develop the best leaders across schools and to ensure our best leaders are working with our students who have the greatest needs, the district has a role in both recruiting and developing leaders over a long-term horizon and mapping leadership talent across schools. This is one of the most important jobs of the instructional superintendents, both individually and collectively, and includes the shaping of leadership growth paths, evaluations of principals, planning for succession, and recommendations on hiring and non-renewal of principals.

Manage Economies of Scale and Inter-School Issues. The district also can supply economies of scale or assistance to principals in operational matters (like student safety, purchasing, recruiting or transportation), where expecting each school to perform the function for itself could lead to significant additional expenses or decreases in quality. Nevertheless, the power of school leaders to seek alternative providers for many support services provides an important check on assumptions by the district about the quality or cost-effectiveness of its supports. Likewise, where issues necessarily involve multiple schools (e.g. enrollment, transfers, and feeder patterns), the district plays a leading role.

Meet Legal Obligations. Education like medicine is one of the most heavily legislated and regulated areas of our economy with significant risks and penalties for failure to fulfill legal obligations. The district has a responsibility to be aware of its legal, contractual and regulatory obligations and to ensure that those obligations are fulfilled at the district and school levels.

C. ROLE OF INSTRUCTIONAL SUPERINTENDENT/NETWORKS

Role of IS. As is clear from the above list of what we are empowering and expecting our principals to take on, the diversity and level of skills a principal needs is extremely high. No principal, and especially a new principal, is likely to have all such tools in their toolkit from day one and will be constantly learning and strengthening this wide range of skills. And our data is clear that, in order to close our achievement gaps, our principals and teachers must perform with a very high level of professional skill.

Therefore, the most important role of the instructional superintendent (each of whom has been a successful principal) is to coach and grow principals to master the diverse skills they need. This comes generally in the form of strategic planning guidance, school visits, joint observations of instructional practices and systems, analysis of student data, and reflective coaching conversations. Just as we expect our principals to be empowered to lead their schools and be accountable for the growth of their students, so our IS’s need to be empowered to lead their networks and be accountable for the performance of students in their networks.

In their leadership of networks, the IS is responsible for facilitating peer-to-peer learning among principals. Networks play an important role in the sharing of successful practices, as well as professional and personal supports for principals.

As discussed above, the IS also has the primary duty of assessing and growing the level of leadership talent in the school among all the school’s leaders.

Finally, an IS can help principals navigate district support systems, as needs for supports (such as IT, HR, facilities) generally cut across multiple schools. In this role, the IS plays an important policy role at the district level in influencing how support systems are designed and how services are provided.

Direction. In a system of empowerment where schools are the unit of change, an important issue to address head-on is where should a principal’s supervisor, the IS, go beyond coaching and advice to direct or order a principal to take or not take a particular action. Direction by an IS should not be the norm; coaching and empowerment of principals should be the norm. Nevertheless, if coaching does not produce changes in actions/behaviors, there are times where an IS should be directive.

Two important guidelines should be a central part of this conversation. First, only an IS should give direction to a principal so there are clear lines of authority and accountability. While coaching resources from the district such as network partners are vital, these resources are strictly coaching resources. They should not be directive. Second, it would be expected that direction from an IS should be more infrequent with veteran principals or with principals leading higher performing schools.

So, when, if coaching fails to produce changes, should an IS be directive? Several situations come to mind:

  • When school practices are causing or perpetuating significant inequities for students – e.g., disproportionalities in discipline, lack of culturally responsive educational approaches, lack of access to rigorous course opportunities, high numbers of students referred to center programs, failure to provide services and accommodations to students with disabilities;
  • When a school is demonstrating significant deficiencies in critical practices or systems that are leading to poor student outcomes, especially over a sustained period of time – e.g., instruction of English language learners, lack of observation and feedback or use of progress monitoring data, lack of student-centered instructional practices;
  • When schools are not fulfilling legal obligations or are otherwise at risk of breaching public trust (e.g., IDEA or ELL obligations, breakdowns in financial management, or poor parent and community relations);
  • When school-level decisions are materially inconsistent with high-priority district-wide systems such as student discipline, diversity in hiring, or personnel evaluation;
  • When a school-level decision creates significant health and safety risks.

D. TWO FINAL FACTORS

Finally, in looking at the distribution of decision-making authority between schools and the district, two additional factors are important to consider:

o Clarity. As important as determining the balance between school and district decision- making authority is the paramount importance of clarity. A theoretically better-balanced system that does not provide clarity to its participants will almost certainly perform worse than a system with greater clarity of decision-making rights. Therefore, it is very important that we seek to make decision-making rights and responsibilities as clear and as straightforward as possible.

o Transaction Costs. Any system should strive to minimize transaction costs. For example, a system that gives school leaders flexibility to opt in or out of district supports at a very granular level (e.g., pay-per-use of district supports) or to require significant customization of district-provided services is likely to impose significant transaction costs. While some transaction costs are certainly going to be part of our growth and implementation of greater school-level decision-making authority, we should be very conscious of the resources we invest in such transaction costs that might be better spent in direct provision of services to students.

school performance compact

Denver Public Schools is already looking to overhaul how it closes schools — and these schools could meet that fate

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori (Denver Post photo).

Denver Public Schools is considering major changes to its year-old school closure policy — changes that could result in more of the city’s lowest performing schools being shuttered.

District leadership is considering steps that include drawing a brighter line for determining which schools would be initially considered for closure, and eliminating use of a subjective “school quality review” as the final step in recommending a school’s fate.

District staff introduced the potential changes, including several different scenarios, at a school board work session Monday night. The board plans to decide on a path in March.

Between two and six schools could face a board vote on closure this fall, depending on how the schools perform this year and how aggressive the board is in revamping the policy.

The schools most at risk of closure are West Early College — which narrowly dodged that fate this year — and Beach Court Elementary in northwest Denver, according to data DPS officials provided Tuesday to Chalkbeat.

Other schools put on notice that they too could be subject to the closure policy, according to the data:

  • Abraham Lincoln High School, a tradition-rich comprehensive high school in the heart of Latino southwest Denver;
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver;
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school that recently had its charter renewed by the board;
  • The Math and Science Leadership Academy, a union-designed, teacher-led and district-managed elementary school in southwest Denver;
  • Venture Prep High School, a northeast Denver charter school.

That so much about the closure policy could change so soon reflects both its troubled rollout and the pressures on a school board trying to meet ambitious goals to lift school quality.

Deciding how to close schools for performance or financial reasons is a challenge for school districts across the country. Last week, the Jeffco school board struggled through decisions on closing schools for budget reasons. Denver’s performance-based policy, called the School Performance Compact, is considered one of the most specific and detailed in the country.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The new policy adopted last year was meant to make a process often driven by emotions and politics more fact-based and transparent.

The current policy evaluates low-performing schools using three criteria:

— Whether they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings and aren’t exempt from the policy because they’re in the midst of a significant intervention meant to boost performance;
— Whether they failed to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
— And whether they scored fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that met all three criteria are recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff.

The draft proposals would bring major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

District staff is proposing no longer using the “bottom 5 percent of schools” measure, saying it creates uncertainty for schools by being so tied to how other schools perform.

Two alternatives were presented for defining a “persistently low performing” school:

— A school is rated “red,” the lowest category, in the district’s current school rating system, and rated “red” or “orange,” the second lowest category, in both of the preceding years. One possible variation: the district could require that one of those years be “red.”
— Back-to-back “red” school performance ratings, but with a caveat for how the policy would play out this fall: Any schools rated on the 2014 school rating system as “blue” or “green,” the two highest categories, would be safe from closure.

For any school to be recommended for closure, it would need to be rated “red” this year on measures that include results from this spring’s state standardized tests.

If the school board chooses the first option, West Early College, Beach Court and Lincoln High would be recommended for closure if they are rated “red” this year.

Lincoln would be spared if the board decides a school must be rated “red” in one of the previous years. The school was rated “orange” in both 2014 and 2016. (A change in state tests made 2015 ratings impossible).

If the board goes with the second option, Lincoln High would not be recommended for closure because it wasn’t classified as “red” in either of those years. Both West Early College and Beach Court would be recommended for closure, along with Castro Elementary, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

Again, all of those schools would be need to score “red” on this year’s DPS school performance framework to be recommended for closure. Then the board would need to vote to close the schools next fall. The district also floated the possibility of holding off on adopting the “back-to-back red” standard until the fall of 2018, which would give a reprieve to four of the six schools on the list under option No. 2 — Castro, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

None of the school board members voiced a preference Monday for an option.

The majority of board members were clear, however, in their desire to abandon school quality review scores as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became a flashpoint in a controversy over the board’s vote in December to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

The reviews came after visits to the schools under consideration for closure by teams of DPS staffers and employees of an education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews.

Gilpin supporters filed an open records request that showed  the school’s score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized, and didn’t buy the district’s explanation that such changes are routine.

Several board members — and Superintendent Tom Boasberg — said Monday the discussion focused too much on one number from the review and not enough on the school’s long record of not adequately serving students. Boasberg pointed out that only one Gilpin student of color in grades three through five scored at grade level on last year’s state math tests.

“The conversation wasn’t about the quality of (what was going on within) four walls in the school,” said board member Rosemary Rodriguez. “It was about the points, and less about what was going on in the classroom with kids.”

In trying to save Gilpin, community members insisted the school was improving. The board ultimately voted to close Gilpin after this school year, and to restart two other elementary schools in the fall of 2018.

Board members expressed interest in either eliminating the school quality review scores from the closure process, or conducting the reviews earlier — in the spring instead of the fall — as part of a body of evidence to consider and not as the final “bright line” to decide a school’s fate.

Only one board member, Lisa Flores, voiced support for cutting the reviews from the closure designation process altogether. She said she was disappointed in how they were used to hold schools accountable. “I will own that this did not work,” she said.

District staff also said a preliminary review found a “low to medium correlation” between the school quality reviews and ratings the schools received on DPS’s school rating system — suggesting the reviews could be a flawed measure for something so high-stakes.

District leadership considers the school closure policy one way — but not the most important way — to help it meet its goal that by 2020, 80 percent of the district’s 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are in schools DPS considers lower performing.

“We need to be thoughtful about our sense of urgency about using the compact as we need to,” Boasberg said.

He said DPS also must be sure school operators stand ready to launch successful “restarts” of shuttered schools. “Otherwise,” he said, “it’s just churn for our communities if we have false restarts.”

On Friday, executives of four Denver charter school networks wrote to district leadership asking for approval to open several new schools in the coming years. Some have expressed an interest in running restarts. Boasberg has said he welcomes interest from both charter and district-operated schools in taking on that role.

big ask

Charter schools band together to advocate major expansion in Denver Public Schools

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

Leaders of four charter school networks delivered an open letter to Denver Public Schools leadership Friday asking the district to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The charter school executives’ letter, a copy of which was obtained by Chalkbeat, came on the deadline for responses to the district’s annual open call for new school applications.

Three of the networks — University Prep, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep — submitted 10 charter school applications this cycle for schools they hope to open over the next few years.

The school board already has approved six additional DSST schools to open in the coming years, and two existing STRIVE charters are awaiting permanent placement. If all those schools are approved and open, they would serve 11,300 additional students at full capacity.

In all, the district received 23 letters of intent for new school proposals, 17 of them from charters, by Friday’s deadline.

Seven came in response to the only needs the district asked be filled for the 2018-19 school year — replacing two persistently low-performing elementary schools the school board recently voted to shut down in the first test of a new school closure policy.

The united front from the four charter operators signals that they want to play a large role as DPS tries to meet a goal of giving at least 80 percent of district students access to high-quality schools by 2020. As of now, less than 50 percent of students are enrolled in schools that meet that bar through being rated “blue” or “green” on DPS’s color-coded rating system.

In their letter to the district, the charter operators touted the collective success of their schools, saying 91 percent of their 22 schools are rated green or blue. Altogether, the networks serve a population that is 90 percent students of color and 81 percent high-poverty.

“We have a deep sense of urgency now,” said DSST CEO Bill Kurtz. “We aren’t making very much progress, particularly for students that are in low-performing schools that are not seeing much opportunity to be in a high-performing school.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday the district welcomes both charter and district-run proposals for new quality schools — and acknowledged that a lack of supply has been a challenge in reaching the goal outlined in the Denver Plan 2020.

“We keenly feel a sense of urgency about reaching that goal,” he said. “I do think it is achievable.”

This year’s “Call for New Quality Schools” does not provide much of an opening for would-be school operators. DPS only solicited two “new high-quality programs” to replace the elementary schools being closed — Greenlee in west Denver and Amesse in far northeast Denver. The goal is to launch those school “restarts” in the fall of 2018.

The current Greenlee principal, Sheldon Reynolds, filed an application to lead a restart at the school under a new name, the Greenlee Community School.

The DPS grad said he hopes to build on a foundation that has begun to bear fruit, including a jump in DPS’s quality ratings. Reynolds adopted a “Possibility Plan” that celebrates students’ accomplishments and seeks to strengthen school culture.

“We’ve had a lot of positive things going on,” he said. “Me being in my first year, and in the first year of implementing the (closure) policy, it was more that we got caught up in the history of the past of the school … This gives us an opportunity to show we can have growth for a number of years.”

A proposed charter school using Core Knowledge curriculum also put in a letter of intent for the Greenlee restart, as did a college prep-focused charter called PODER Academy.

The competition for the Amesse space is more heated, including applications from two charter operators — STRIVE and University Prep — that co-signed the Friday letter to DPS.

The leadership of McGlone Elementary, a district-run turnaround school that has become a DPS darling for posting impressive academic growth, also filed a letter of intent for the Amesse restart. The PODER Academy team also formally filed interest.

The school board is scheduled to choose new programs for Greenlee and Amesse in June, and applicants will get plenty of chances to make their pitches in community meetings before then.

Three of the four charter schools that sent the joint letter to DPS used the filing deadline to express interest in opening more schools in the next several years.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which operates two elementary schools in Denver and one in Aurora, wants to open one new school in 2018-19, one in 2019-20 and one in 2020-21. CEO James Cryan said the network is open to being a restart operator in the future.

“I believe firmly that every student deserves a great school and a great public school to go to, and I know there have been generations of students who have been failed by historically low-performing schools,” he said. “I don’t believe any school has a right to exist just because it’s existed in the past if it has a track record of failing its community and students.”

One possible tension as the district tries to lift the quality of schools citywide — disagreement over the role school closures will factor in the efforts. The new closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, had a rocky rollout marred by confusion and community criticism.

STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who put in letters of intent to open three new elementaries over the next five years in addition to seeking to run the Amesse restart, said “urgent action” is needed to provide families high-quality educational opportunities.

“We need more families in high-quality options to get there,” he said. “And more aggressive use of the compact is one path.”

Boasberg, however, has made it clear that the district does not see school closures as the primary vehicle for achieving the district’s ambitious goals in the next four years.

“Clearly, the overarching and most important strategy is to improve and support our existing schools to ensure they are meeting the needs of our kids, particularly our highest needs students,” he said. “We also have been really clear over the last decade that if after sustained efforts to improve, if a school is not showing more growth for kids, we will restart that school.”

“To us, it’s not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’ — with a very clear primacy on improving our existing schools.”