Denver board nears finalized strategic plan with focus on “great schools in every neighborhood”

The 2014 Denver Plan, still in draft form, is just eight pages long — one-tenth the girth of the last iteration of the Denver Public Schools strategic governing document.

But DPS board members believe the scaled-down and more focused plan packs more punch than both of its predecessors combined.

First published in 2005, the Denver Plan is meant to be part gut check, part road map, and part measuring stick for the urban school district.

The plan, however, has often been criticized for being both too arbitrary and cumbersome. The last update in 2010, for example, called for the district’s annual growth in state assessment scores, graduation rate, and student growth to increase annually by 3.5 percent.

But that’s no longer the case, argue the board’s president and vice president, Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe, respectively.

“We’re going to focus on what moves the needle,” Haynes told a gathering of education reform supporters organized by the advocacy organization A+Denver last week at the Daniel’s Fund headquarters in Cherry Creek.

The invitation-only meeting of A+ Denver supporters and members was the last focus group the DPS board will hold before finalizing the plan later this month. However, members of the community are still able to participate in an online survey hosted at the district’s website until Thursday.

Most in attendance at the A+ meeting praised the district for its brevity and clarity. But some also wondered if the new plan was a little too light on the details.

More detailed strategies and reports to complement the plan are to follow — and likely soon — district officials said. But as the plan is rolled out, in a public awareness effort that may be run like a political campaign, Haynes said, it’s important to the board to keep it simple.

Among the district’s goals, as described in the plan:

  • By 2020, 80 percent of DPS third-graders will be at or above grade level in reading and writing.
  • By 2020, the four-year graduation rate for students who start with DPS in ninth grade will increase to 90 percent.
  • By 2015, a task force including DPS staff, community partners, and city agencies focused on providing services to DPS students will recommend to the board a metric to measure the growth of the whole child, not just by test scores.

Other goals that are still missing precise targets or metrics include a goal for closing the gap in third-grade reading and writing state test scores between white student and their peers of color and plans for how to better prepare high school graduates for college or career.

The board is expecting to finalize the goals by the end of the month.

While the board’s self restraint is noteworthy, and welcomed by many, the most telling  section of the plan is the board’s first goal:

Students and families thrive when they have high-quality education choices. DPS will dramatically increase the quality of schools available in every neighborhood to ensure that every student in every community throughout the district has access to great schools. By 2020, 80 percent of students from every region within DPS will attend a high performing school, as measured by the district’s school performance framework.

That goal reflects the sentiment of many Denver parents who shared their feelings with the board throughout the town halls and surveys. And in an interview, Haynes said this goal represents the plan’s overarching aim.

One of the major concerns parents raised across Denver during the district’s first wave of town halls on the plan concerned the district’s emphasis on school choice, or the process of which a family chooses to enroll their children in schools outside of their traditional attendance boundaries.

One proposed core belief, on which the plan would be based, originally read, “We believe in choice and access to high quality schools for all families.” Parents of all socio-economic backgrounds balked at that phrasing, arguing that choosing to send their children across town was burdensome.

While the most current draft does include the aforementioned core value, it’s been amended to include, with emphasis, “in their neighborhood.”

But this goal to increase the number of high-performing schools in every district neighborhood also foreshadows difficult work ahead.

“That definition — of what a great school is — is an important question that needs to be answered,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver, in an interview last week.

While the metric to measure the district’s success to this goal is clear, it’s not certain whether DPS’s school performance framework, or its rubric to determine which schools are performing, works.

Many of the same individuals who have criticized the plan historically have also highlighted flaws in the framework, or SPF. Some believe the data used in the SPF isn’t comprehensive enough and does not hold schools accountable for their work in early childhood education. Others, who are skeptical of the use of data as the a solution to improve schools, believe the SPF can’t adequately measure individual school cultures.

To their credit, the district is aware of the SPF’s shortcomings. And so is the board. But what tweaks or overhauls the district makes to the SPF in coming years will play a determining role in whether the district meets the board’s goal.

Currently, the district considers 61 percent of its schools as high-performing.

“Now comes the hard work,” Rowe said last week. “Now we need to go out and do this.”