'leap of faith'

Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding “innovation zone” experiment

PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley Elementary is one of four Denver schools in the innovation zone.

A bold experiment in giving non-charter schools near-charter-like levels of autonomy could be expanded if a recommendation by Denver Public Schools becomes reality.

At a school board work session Monday, DPS staff recommended the state’s largest school district solicit applications for more “innovation zones,” as well as applications to expand the district’s first zone, which is made up of four schools and was created earlier this year.

The board and staff did not agree on a timeline for soliciting the applications, opting to revisit the issue in January for further discussion. However, board president Anne Rowe said, “I think what you heard is a sense of urgency to move forward as quickly as can be done as well as we can.”

The first zone was created in April by a unanimous vote of the board. Officially known as the Luminary Learning Network, it’s made up of two schools in northeast Denver — Ashley Elementary School and Cole Arts & Science Academy, also an elementary — and two schools in southeast Denver: Denver Green School, which serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary school known as C3.

The four schools were already innovation schools, which meant they had waivers from certain district and state rules. But forming a zone granted them even more autonomy, especially over their budgets. The schools can now “opt out” of a wider menu of district services, such as some of those provided by an office that helps schools with family engagement, and keep that money.

This year, that amounted to an average of an extra $425 per student.

The schools spent much of that money on personal coaches for the school leaders, training for teachers and hiring more staff. C3 increased its school nurse from one day a week to three. Denver Green School upped its school psychologist to full-time. Ashley hired another part-time special education teacher. And Cole brought on an in-house substitute teacher.

“It causes less disruption for us when we have people who know our scholars,” Cole principal Jennifer Jackson told the school board last month in an update on the zone’s launch.

But the biggest benefit, school leaders said, has been the increased amount of time they’re able to spend in their buildings. No longer are they required to attend budget sessions or meetings with DPS principal supervisors, known as instructional superintendents.

“Those were great opportunities, some of which aligned to what I needed and others not so much,” said Zachary Rahn, principal at Ashley. “But now I feel my coach and I are in charge of my development. It’s much more tailored to what I need as a professional.”

However, launching the zone has presented challenges, as well. Rahn originally planned to step into the role of zone executive director this year but changed his mind when his assistant principal was tapped for an interim principal job at another school.

“Without that person in the building, I did not feel comfortable to be able to leave my position,” Rahn said.

Of the four schools, Ashley has the lowest rating. It dropped this year from “yellow” to “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color-coded scale, partly due to a decline in student academic growth on state tests. Each zone school has pledged to move up one color in three years in exchange for more autonomy.

The zone hired a new executive director, Jessica Roberts, who previously worked for the Texas charter school network YES Prep. But she didn’t officially start until October 1. She has spent much of her time ironing out the logistics of how the zone should work, meeting weekly with DPS officials to ensure the zone schools are complying with district requirements.

From the district’s perspective, one of the biggest issues has been making sure staff understand the services the zone schools have opted out of and those they’re still entitled to.

“When our office gets phone calls from LLN teachers and leaders, we have to make sure those aren’t services they’ve opted out of,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which authorizes new schools and holds them accountable. “We’re used to saying yes. Sometimes we have to say no.”

Some of the decisions to opt out of district services have had unintended consequences. For instance, the zone schools originally opted out of the services the Portfolio Management Team provides to charter and innovation schools to help them navigate the district’s systems, which allowed the schools to retain about $1 per pupil. But school leaders quickly realized that Portfolio Management was their main point of contact with DPS and they ended up buying back those services, Holladay and the leaders said.

Holladay’s office is currently working on a more granular list of services provided by each department — “a menu of services we can all understand,” she said — so the opt-out process and its aftermath will be clearer for both the schools and for district staff.

The district is also wrestling with how and when to expand the zone. Roberts told the school board last month that for the zone to be sustainable, it needs to grow to eight to 10 schools.

Part of the reason is financial and part is philosophical, she said. While the zone only has one employee — her — it has incurred the same startup costs many nonprofits face: legal fees, the expense of setting up accounting and human resources systems and the like. And though it has benefited from the support of philanthropic foundations, she and others acknowledged those dollars won’t last forever.

Going forward, 100 percent of the money to pay her salary and keep the zone going will have to come from the schools, Roberts said. Running it with just four schools wouldn’t be impossible, she said, but it wouldn’t be ideal; the zone could do much more if there were eight to 10.

Roberts and the school leaders said having additional schools in the zone would allow for even greater collaboration and economies of scale.

“It would be great to have a bigger and more diverse learning community,” said Frank Coyne, lead partner at Denver Green School. “Our four schools are all so different. There’s key things we can learn from each other, which we’re doing now, but we’d like to deepen that.”

And they’d rather not wait, even though the zone hasn’t existed long enough to see if the increased autonomy is trickling down to students and accelerating their learning.

“In our mind, we don’t need to wait to see if student achievement accelerates,” Roberts said. With an innovation zone, “you’re really empowering leaders.”

Several school board members at Monday’s work session expressed interest in taking what one described as a “leap of faith” and betting that the innovation zones will work — despite the fact that the rollout of the first zone hasn’t been smooth.

“This hasn’t been done before,” school board member Mike Johnson, who also serves as the school board representative on the zone’s board of directors, said before the meeting.

“From my perspective, what’s really important isn’t whether I think or the (DPS) board thinks there have been successes,” he added. “It’s what the school leaders think. … Everything I’ve heard is it’s very positive. … That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing is empowering school leaders and people in the building to really focus on their kids.”

state of the union

Will Denver’s teachers union election shake up the status quo?

Monday night's bargaining session between union and district officials (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Their school days concluded, about 35 Denver educators gathered in a high school auditorium earlier this month to hear starkly different visions of what a teachers union should be.

On one side of a table up front, three veteran union leaders painted a picture of steady progress in better engaging members, challenging Denver Public Schools in court and turning out large numbers for the latest round of contract bargaining.

Sitting to their right, three younger teachers gunning for those union leadership positions portrayed the status quo as ineffective in battling a “corporatist” district agenda and in addressing broader social justice issues harming students and communities.

Which vision prevails will be known Friday, when results are expected to be announced in an unusually competitive and testy Denver Classroom Teachers Association election. Seven members of a newly formed caucus within the union — including the three who took part in this month’s debate — are running as a slate to challenge incumbents for every eligible seat.

The outcome will provide a sense of how rank-and-file teachers view the state of their union, which has had little impact slowing Denver Public Schools’ nationally known reforms. It’s also the latest test of a growing movement across the country pushing unions, many of which are suffering declining or flat membership, to drape themselves in progressive social justice causes.

“The caucus is not trying to divide our union,” said Tommie Shimrock, a middle school teacher who is challenging eight-year incumbent Henry Roman for union president. “The caucus is designed to push a viewpoint that members do not feel is being elevated.”

Both Roman and Lynne Valencia-Hernández, the union vice president, refused interview requests for this story. Both said they were too busy with contract negotiations and other responsibilities.

Roman has previously said members of the new caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — are “entitled to their opinions and that’s all good.”

At the March 1 debate, Roman noted that membership challenges are not unique to the Denver teachers union. He said the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest union, is “facing tough times.” A spokesman for the association said it has more than 35,000 members, but he declined to provide information about membership trends.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has about 2,940 members, or about half the teachers in DPS, officials say.

Shimrock portrayed the Denver union’s current leadership as complicit in an era that has seen erosion of teachers’ rights and rapid growth of charter schools and innovation schools. Innovation schools are managed by the district but don’t need to follow the union contract.

Shimrock also criticized the union for failing in efforts to elect candidates to the school board who favor union positions. With four of the seven Denver school board seats up for grabs this November, a high-stakes, big-money election is anticipated.

Roman said at the debate that the union is “absolutely moving in the right direction.” Large numbers have attended a handful of contract bargaining sessions, including a boisterous Monday night meeting about teacher evaluations that drew Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his deputy, Susana Cordova.

Both the current regime and the challengers agree that the district’s teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance systems have not served teachers well. But they disagree on what to do next, with the new caucus arguing it’s time to scrap both and start over.

Roman said that when discussing the pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp, the union has to be realistic.

“As an organization, we cannot deal in absolutes,” Roman said. He added that organizations can have “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

The current union leadership is already claiming some victories in bargaining, including giving every member access to an HMO as part of the health care plan. So far, however, the union has not made headway in trying to change contract language about evaluations.

The upstart caucus in Denver is drawing inspiration and ideas from the Chicago union, where a similarly-minded group wrestled away leadership seats and went on to lead a strike in 2012.

One of the Denver slate members, high school math teacher Marguerite Finnegan, traveled to Chicago last spring to march with union members in a one-day strike meant to pressure state lawmakers to break a budget stalemate threatening Chicago’s schools.

Finnegan said in an email the caucus wants the union to become one that “stands up for justice rather than simply being malpractice insurance for teachers.” That, caucus member say, means teaming up with other organizations to work on issues ranging from poverty to better pay for janitors.

“We want to partner with the community and with parents for the good of our students, because we are natural allies,” Finnegan said. “Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions, and our students deserve the best.”

tackling gentrification

How Denver Public Schools wants to drive a conversation about creating more integrated schools

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

Denver Public Schools is pledging to start a conversation about gentrification and spiraling housing costs in the city, hoping to use the results to create more integrated schools.

The school board on Thursday approved a “Resolution for Strengthening Neighborhoods.” It calls for forming a citywide committee to study those demographic shifts, which are driving a major reduction in the number of school-age children in many neighborhoods.

“It’s important that DPS address this issue, or begin to tackle this issue, because of the impact on our students, our students’ families, and our workforce,” said school board member Lisa Flores, who represents gentrifying areas of northwest, north and west Denver.

The board said it would use the results to recommend policies on school boundaries, choice, enrollment and academic programs “to drive greater socio-economic integration in our schools.”

Denver schools have a troubled history with segregation. It took court-ordered busing in the 1970s to integrate schools that separated white and black students. Now, the pattern is playing out with Latinos and whites, in large part because the city itself is segregated.

Enrollment growth in Denver is slowing even as the city’s population is surging. Housing prices are driving low-income families out of Denver, new construction is catering to empty-nesters and millennials without children, and birth rates have declined since the Great Recession.

The details of who would serve on the committee, how it will be formed and when it will meet still are being worked out, Flores said. Likely partners include city leaders, the Denver Housing Authority and the Regional Transportation District.

The cost of housing and transportation are among the challenges DPS faces as it seeks to make high-quality schools available to families across Denver.

This story has been updated to make clear when court-ordered busing began in DPS.