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.

Difficult choice

Denver schools chief backs community panel’s pick to replace closing school

PHOTO: Sara Gips Goodall/McGlone
McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall with some of her students.

The Denver Public Schools superintendent is backing a community group’s recommendation that leaders of McGlone Academy, a once-struggling school that has shown improvement, take over nearby Amesse Elementary School, which is slated to be closed for poor performance.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg is advancing the recommendation despite concerns about low participation by parents on the “community review board” for Amesse. Review boards were created this year to give parents and community members a more central role in the difficult and emotional process of choosing new schools to replace closing ones.

“To try and do something right the first time is hard,” Boasberg told the Denver school board at a meeting Monday. But he added that “having watched the processes and seeing the quality and integrity of the processes, I am endorsing the community review board recommendations.”

The Denver school board has the final say. It is expected to vote June 19.

None of the eight parents and family members chosen to serve on the Amesse review board attended its final meeting, at which four community members and a professional reviewer voted 3-2 to recommend McGlone’s plan to “restart” the school. One parent was asked to leave the board, and others did not show up for meetings, according to the group’s final report.

That dearth of parent involvement was a limitation, two members of the group told the Denver school board Monday. However, they said parents’ voices were heard throughout the process and that the remaining members weighed the desires of those parents heavily.

Local charter network STRIVE Prep also applied to restart Amesse. The review board members noted that both applications were strong — and STRIVE Prep scored better on DPS’s school rating system that gives a large amount of weight to performance on state tests.

But review board members were swayed by McGlone’s experience with a specific court-ordered program to teach English language learners that must also be used at Amesse, its success turning around an entire elementary school all at once and its extensive community engagement. Its plan, written with input from Amesse educators and parents, calls for a partnership between the two schools that would be known as the Montbello Children’s Network. Both schools are located in the Montbello neighborhood in far northeast Denver.

“We truly do believe we can be stronger together,” said McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall.

STRIVE operates 11 schools in the city, including one elementary. STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill does not yet serve students in all grades; it currently has kindergarten through third grade with plans to add fourth and fifth. It also does not use the same program to teach English language learners. However, another STRIVE school — STRIVE Prep Kepner — does use the program. That school is a restart of a middle school that was closed for low performance.

On Monday, STRIVE CEO and founder Chris Gibbons emphasized to the school board the charter network’s experience and willingness to restart struggling schools. He pointed out the closeness of the community review board vote and said that of the two applicants, he believes STRIVE has the strongest academic track record, which is a priority for the district.

“We believe the recommendation merits a very thorough review from the (Denver school) board, because it was so close,” Gibbons said after the meeting.

In his remarks to the school board, Boasberg praised STRIVE, calling it one of the finest school organizations in the country and a leader in serving all types of students.

“The fact that the choice at Amesse was so difficult is wonderful,” he said.

Boasberg is also advancing the recommendation of a separate community review board tasked with vetting programs to take over struggling Greenlee Elementary in west Denver. That board had only one application to consider: the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, submitted by the current principal and seeking to continue recent gains made under his leadership.

The board “overwhelmingly” recommended it, according to its final report.

tall order

Denver is trying to involve the community more in its school closure process. It hasn’t been easy.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill.

The cluster of adults ambled from classroom to classroom at Denver’s McGlone Academy. They peeked in as fifth-graders brainstormed essays about Nazi Germany, fourth-graders answered questions about the novel Maniac Magee and first-graders in a class taught primarily in Spanish listed the characteristics of elephants, tigers and wolves.

Two hours later across town, the group did the same at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. They observed third-graders solving word problems and first-graders learning to tell time. One adult crouched down in a kindergarten classroom to watch a girl and a boy quiz each other in reading.

When the boy mispronounced “could” as “cod,” his partner furrowed her little brow.

“Oh!” he said, correcting himself. “Could, could!”

The visiting adults are members of a community review board, a critical new piece of Denver Public Schools’ methodical, multi-layered process of replacing struggling schools.

Comprised of parents and community members, the board will carry a strong voice in deciding which school — either McGlone or STRIVE — takes over low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver, slated to be closed next spring. A separate review board will do the same for Greenlee Elementary in west Denver.

In a school district known nationally for aggressive reform efforts, DPS officials also hope the review boards address a lingering criticism — that the district’s decisions are preordained.

“What we’re seeking to do with the (community review board) is to encourage and stimulate that community ownership,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

DPS has for years shut down schools with poor test scores and replaced them with programs it deems more likely to succeed. But the impending “restarts” of Amesse and Greenlee will be the first to happen under a new policy that aims to make such decisions more fact-based and less political.

“Every time we’ve done a restart … we’ve had extensive community involvement,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, there have been questions … and concerns within communities as to their roles — and a very strong desire from communities to play a central role in the process.

“Effectively,” he said, “this is the next stage in our development.”

But issues with the review boards have already emerged. Recruiting people to serve on them proved difficult — and the district soon found that many who applied had potential conflicts of interest.

“I do think it’s a little bit of a lesson learned,” said Jennifer Holladay, the executive director of the DPS department that authorizes new schools. “When you’re using a community review board that is predominantly community-based, it’s going to be really hard to find community members who are interested in serving who don’t have a tie to the schools or to the applicants.”

New policy

The DPS school board passed the district’s new school closure policy in December 2015. It calls for closing schools that meet a strict set of criteria, including years of lagging academic growth.

Board members used it for the first time a year later when they voted to close Amesse, Greenlee and another poorly performing elementary, Gilpin Montessori. The board decided to restart Amesse and Greenlee, meaning the school buildings will stay open but the way students inside them are taught will change in the fall of 2018.

Because of declining enrollment at Gilpin, the board decided not to restart that school.

The process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee began in February, when DPS issued a call for applications from charter school networks, district-run schools and others.

Several schools applied, but the path to getting picked is a long one. First, applicants must meet the district’s quality standards and gain approval from the school board. Then it turns into a competition for which applicant best meets the needs of the affected students.

That’s where the community review boards come in to help.

The Greenlee board has just one applicant to choose from: a proposal submitted by the current Greenlee principal that seeks to continue the changes he started after arriving two years ago. Another applicant did not meet the district’s quality bar.

The Amesse board has two: McGlone, a district-run school in the same neighborhood as Amesse that’s earned accolades for its academic improvement and whose leader sought input from Amesse educators and families in crafting her application, and STRIVE, a charter network that emphasizes college preparation and operates 11 schools in the city.

A third applicant, local charter network University Prep, is out of the running because its plan for educating English language learners didn’t meet court-ordered requirements.

The community review boards will use a rubric developed by DPS to make their decisions. It asks them to consider the track records of the applicants and their plans for teaching special education students and English language learners.

It also asks whether the applicants offer things the Amesse and Greenlee communities have said they want. For Amesse, that includes a discipline policy that minimizes the use of suspensions and teachers who “represent the culture and backgrounds of students in the neighborhood.” Ninety-six percent of the students at Amesse are children of color.

The boards have been meeting since April and are scheduled to meet for the last time Wednesday. They will make their recommendations to Boasberg, who will make his recommendations to the school board. The school board is expected to vote June 19.

“I’ve said publicly multiple times that absent significant anomalies in the (community review board) process that would raise questions around the integrity of the process, … I am expecting that the (board’s) recommendation will be my recommendation,” Boasberg said.

Lessons learned

For a process that potentially carries that much weight, it has had some hiccups.

To solicit parents and community members to serve on the review boards, DPS emailed all families at Amesse and Greenlee, and talked about the boards at community meetings, Holladay said. The district also asked organizations working with the schools for help.

“It was a pretty tall order to find someone who is both interested and willing to serve and knows enough about the issue but isn’t so invested in the outcome that they could be perceived as having a conflict,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which helped recruit parents for the Greenlee board.

Those interested were asked to fill out a self-nomination form. An appointments committee made up of three DPS representatives, three community members and two charter school leaders was tasked with reviewing them and choosing the boards.

But there weren’t as many people to choose from as officials had hoped, Holladay said.

“And when we looked at folks who self-nominated, we realized a lot of these people have conflicts of interest,” she said. The district decided not to disqualify anyone up front, Holladay said, but to put all the nominations before the appointments committee.

Nine people ended up on the Greenlee board. Thirteen were seated on the Amesse board: six parents, five community members, one person with experience reviewing schools and a third-party facilitator. Not everyone who applied got chosen, Holladay said, including the mother of a leader of one of the schools in the running to serve as a replacement.

But people with less glaring conflicts did. One parent chosen for the Amesse board has a child who goes to a STRIVE charter school. A teacher on the board served in the same Teach for America contingent as the principal of McGlone. He disclosed that he signed an online petition supporting McGlone’s application to replace Amesse “as a professional courtesy.”

Two community members disclosed they know some of the people involved with STRIVE’s application professionally. And two parents wrote that they liked what they’d heard about McGlone’s plan for Amesse. They didn’t mention STRIVE.

In addition, both boards have shrunk since they were chosen. A parent and a community member dropped off the Greenlee board, Holladay said. A parent on the Amesse board who showed up at a DPS school board meeting as part of a large group giving public comment in support of McGlone’s application was removed from that board, she said.

“That kind of demonstration of public support called into question whether that person” could evaluate the applications without preconceived notions, Holladay said.

Sara Gips Goodall, the principal of McGlone, said she loves the idea of a community review board and believes members can overcome any biases they might have. It’s to be expected that Amesse parents are familiar with McGlone’s application, she said, because she and others consulted them before deciding to apply for the replacement.

“We talked to them, saying, ‘What do you want for your school and could we possibly be a fit?’” Gips Goodall said.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of the STRIVE network, said in a statement that he doesn’t have concerns about conflicts of interest.

“All of our interactions with the (community review board) have been fair and objective,” he said.

Once the process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee is over, Holladay said the district plans to evaluate how it went, including taking a close look at the role of the community review boards.

“We’re going to have to think a lot about this polarity between a fair process and the fact that community members have opinions — and their lived experiences matter, too,” she said.

“Balancing those two sets of values is something we’re never going to get perfectly right, but it’s a tension that is very much worth balancing to the best of our ability.”