Denver pins high hopes on new leadership programs, incentives

“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

That line from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” stuck out this year to Barbara O’Brien, a member of the Denver school board and the director of Catapult Leadership, a Denver-based leadership development organization that works with schools, as she listened to the audiobook that’s been playing in her car this winter.

Dickens was describing Mr. Fezziwig, a kind-hearted boss in late Victorian England (who stands, of course, in stark contrast to the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge).

It struck O’Brien that Mr. Fezziwig’s example also applies to school principals, who, she said, have significant power to shape the schools in which they work.

Principals manage everything from community relations to teacher evaluations to leading schools through changes in instruction that are accompanying new standards.

The demands of the job can take a toll: High principal turnover, especially in higher-poverty schools, has been a major challenge for Denver and for urban districts across the country.

While Denver has seen its overall principal turnover decline in recent years, the district still struggles to quell churn in its neediest schools.

Figuring out how to prepare, incentivize, and retain principals in all of the district’s schools has been a major focus of Denver Public Schools this year. Improving school leadership is one of the major focuses of the Denver Plan, the district’s five-year strategic roadmap.

The district is now running and partnering with a number of programs that train, certify, and support assistant principals, principals, and even the instructional superintendents who supervise school leaders. District officials are also proposing significant financial incentives for school leaders and new attention to the details of principal preparation, support, and placement.

That Denver is turning its attention to the particular challenges of principals puts the district at the forefront of a national and statewide shift in focus. “Denver’s ahead of the curve,” said Bob Farrace, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Across the country, it’s finally sinking in that principal leadership matters.”

Part of that shift comes as Denver principals are preparing to receive their first performance reviews under the district’s LEAD framework, which ties school leaders’ evaluations to measures of student learning.

“There’s been such a tremendous focus on teacher accountability,” O’Brien said. “Even though [principals] are included in S.B. 10-191 [a law that created accountability systems for teachers and principals] they were in a way sort of an afterthought because the focus was on classroom teaching.”

Now, she said, there’s an acknowledgment that “there’s a really serious role for principals.”


The district’s leadership strategy includes a proposal to increase financial incentives for principals that is similar to systems already in place for teachers.

“We are in the middle of developing an incentive system for school leaders that’s like our teacher incentive system through ProComp,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, referring to the district’s taxpayer-sponsored incentive program for teachers.

She said principals would be able to earn incentives for performance and placement: Principals in turnaround schools and in high-growth schools, for instance, would both earn bonuses.

“We want our leaders to be well-compensated,” she said. “We see other districts competing…we want to make sure we are number one so we don’t lose the best people.”

Cordova said extra funds would help the district send principals where they’re most needed, attract potential leaders from within and outside of Denver, and retain successful principals. “It’s certainly not the only reason people take on hard positions,” she said of compensation, “but it’s a big part.”

In a recent draft of the incentive system, an elementary principal who is eligible for incentives could earn $103,000, a K-8 principal could earn $112,500, a middle school principal $106,700, and a high school principal $121,000, Cordova said. Right now, the minimum salary for an elementary principal is $80,500; K-8 is $84,000; middle school is $87,000; and high school is $96,000. (These are all the low ends of a range that extends up to $125,000 for high school leaders.)

That jump would represent an significant additional investment on the part of the district, superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a recent meeting of the district’s board. Most board members expressed support for the plan at that meeting.

“We want to create a value proposition for leaders to come here,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic officer.

New Leadership Programs

DPS is also building out a series of programs to train or license people within and out of the district who might be interested in becoming principals. As part of that effort, the district recently applied for and was awarded the ability to license principals.

DPS now advertises programs for people who are already certified to lead schools and for those who have some relevant experience but may not meet all the state’s requirements for traditional certification:

  • The Residency of Educational Development of DPS Intrapreneurs (REDDI) Program places aspiring school leaders into charter schools, where they observe the systems and school cultures in those schools.
  • AP Ascent, new this year, is a cohort-based program for assistant principals in which the participants execute a project focused on improving their school.
  • Learn to Lead, or the Denver Principal Residency, places full-time residents in schools. The candidates ideally become DPS principals the year after they finish their residency.
  • Denver Lead Today is an alternative licensing program for aspiring principals.
  • Catapult is an external program that also offers alternative licenses to principals, especially focused on turnaround and innovation schools. (O’Brien said Catapult would likely begin to shift its focus to work on helping current school principals evolve as leaders.)

The district also has partnerships with the University of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver’s programs that offer principal licenses. One of those programs, the Ritchie Program, was the district’s earliest foray into pairing with a university (the University of Denver) to ensure principals are prepared for the district’s and schools’ real needs.

The district also recently hired a firm to help with external recruiting.

Jonta Morris, an assistant principal at McGlone Elementary who is one of the first participants in AP Ascent, said she thought the variety of programs would allow anyone who was interested in being a school leader to find a path.

“With the district being so large, it’s easy for emerging leaders to fall through the cracks,” Morris said. “But they’re make it their priority to ensure candidates are exposed to a lot of leadership opportunities.

She said she had been looking for something like AP Ascent program, which would allow her to focus on her own leadership style and strengths while learning from a group of peers. “This allows the district to have people who understand the DPS core values.”

District officials point to a reduction in turnover from 20 percent three years ago to 13 percent last year as evidence that the focus on leadership is paying off. Shannon Hagerman, the director of talent preparation for the district, said that more teachers are rating their principals as effective than before. Just 3 percent of teachers have deemed their principals not effective.

But as far as the effect of the entire suite of training programs, especially newer efforts like AP Ascent and REDDI, “there’s no way to know if they’re making much of a difference yet,” O’Brien said. “They’re too new. New things take a whole lot of tender loving care to get them going.”

“The focus coming out of the senior team has been on the preparation of principals. That’s led to this proliferation of programs, which kind of worries me,” she said. “How do you do anything well when you have so many things?”

Looking Up and Looking Down

The district is also focusing on those who oversee principals and on potential principals-to-be.

For principals-to-be, Whitehead-Bust said the district is looking at improving  teacher leadership programs and career pathways in addition to its AP Ascent program. One district official described finding potential leaders a year before, two years before, and even three years before they’re prepared to be principals.

For the first time, the district held meeting of all its assistant principals to give them a glimpse of the district’s expectations for school leaders. A leadership framework outlines the basics.

For overseers, DPS sent a cadre of instructional superintendents and principals to a training run by the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York over the summer. The Relay Graduate School of Education, which initially garnered attention several years ago for creating a training program for teachers that is unattached to any college or university, is planning to expand to Denver.

DPS also reduced the number of principals any given Instructional Superintendents oversees to eight, and in some cases to just four. Principals will receive their first review under LEAD, the district’s new evaluation system, this January, and instructional superintendents are responsible for those evaluations.

Some of the district’s work on expanding its leadership programs is funded by the Wallace Foundation. Denver is one of six large school districts that received a grant focused on building principal pipelines — building the systems that identify, train, and retain school leaders. The NASSP’s Farrace said those funds help the district fund principal training programs that can be prohibitively expensive elsewhere.

As these efforts and others get off the ground, discussion has turned recently to nuances that were less talked-about in the past: How can potential school leaders be matched with schools that fit their particular skills? How can the district identify teachers with leadership potential early on? At a board work session, board president Happy Haynes encouraged the district to focus on diversity in school leadership.

Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, said there is also a new focus on “succession planning” at schools to help make sure that gains made during one principal’s tenure aren’t lost if and when that principal moves on.

At a meeting of the district’s board, Cordova said she was most optimistic about the supervision and support for principals. “It matters what teachers do in the classroom, and the way you give them feedback also matters,” she said. “Principals have to get coached to be that presence in the classroom.”

Whitehead-Bust said the district would be proposing some tweaks to its existing leadership programs and career pathways and a more final version of the incentive systems early next year.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct acronym and timeline for the district’s school leader growth and performance system, LEAD.