As DPS looks to 2020, here are five things we’re watching for in the new Denver Plan

Denver Public Schools officials this morning introduced to a friendly crowd their updated — and slimmed down — strategic plan to lead them through 2020.

The eight-page document, known as The Denver Plan 2020, sets five goals for the district that include increasing the number of quality schools across the city, investing in early childhood literacy, and closing the achievement gap between the district’s white, Latino, and African American students.

The plan is simultaneously groundbreaking and also  a game of catch-up, experts told Chalkbeat. The document puts a heavy emphasis on investing early, eliminating racial disparities, and improving the social and emotional wellbeing of students. Drafters of the plan say it’s focused, aspirational, and, most importantly, attainable.

“We can meet these goals,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview earlier this week. “There are schools that are meeting these goals already, inside and outside DPS. But there are not districts coming near these goals. To accomplish at scale, that’s ambitious. But that is exactly what we’re focused on. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”

But, the plan, as it is now, is no more than pieces of paper, said Anne Rowe, vice president of the Denver Board of Education.

“Now the work begins,” she said. “We actually have to implement this thing.”

As the plan is rolled out through the city, here are five things we’ll be watching for:

1. Will the plan be a living document or will it collect dust like the last version?

This is the third iteration of the Denver Plan since it was first created in 2005. The document has been intended to be part measuring stick, part accountability tool, and part community rallying cry. But in the past, the district and its board of education have fallen short in accomplishing their stated goals and in holding themselves accountable.

But this board, led by Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe, appears resolved to use the document as its North Star in most manners of business.

Conversations among board members have already shifted at board meetings to be more targeted discussions surrounding the Denver Plan. And there’s promise of more.

“We will do our part to hold Denver Public Schools accountable,” Haynes said this morning.

Some of Denver’s top executives are already using the document to guide their work as well. For example, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief academic and innovation officer, has repeatedly cited the Denver Plan’s goals in board presentations and in private conversations. And Superintendent Tom Boasberg, in an interview, said he and newly appointed Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino will use the plan as they shape the district’s budget priorities.

But how the plan trickles down through the layers of district bureaucracy to the classroom isn’t clear yet. Principals have been provided toolkits to use in their buildings, and teachers will be provided an electronic copy, said Susana Cordova, chief schools officer. But the rollout of the plan will be not be wholesale, but rather based on the needs of individual schools.

Site-based implementation of a district-wide strategic document — which has a high emphasis on culture, according to Superintendent Boasberg — is a gamble. If done correctly, site-based implementation of the plan could lead to targeted and impactful results. Conversely, it could lead to nearly 150 different adaptations of the plan with nothing to show for.

“We’ll see how the next six to 12 months go,” said Van Schoales, CEO of the education advocacy organization A+ Denver.

2. Will parents and community members be able to access and use the plan as a resource?

Denver Public Schools leaders say the Denver Plan is meant for the entire city, not just those who work at 1860 Lincoln St., the district’s headquarters. That’s part of the reason why they scaled back education jargon and condensed the plan from more than 80 pages to just eight.

Board members and the superintendent are expected to head deep into their respective communities this fall and winter to promote the plan and enlist parents and community members to work with the district toward its goals.

“We all have a role in the Denver Plan,” Boasberg said today. “We all have a role in the success of our schools. We all have a role in the success of our communities.”

One parent, who participated in an earlier town hall while the plan was being drafted, said the final version is now a tool she’ll be able to use to have meaningful conversations with her children’s principal and teachers.

“The plan provides me with language that I will be able to go to my children’s schools and say, ‘hey, this is one of our values, how are we living this value?'” said Diana Romero-Campbell, parent of two DPS students.

And according to district officials, principals will be provided with resources to discuss the new strategic plan with parents. And parents will be emailed a copy. The plan is also posted on the district’s website in multiple languages.

But putting the plan in the hands of parents who might not have regular Internet access is a major hurdle the district hasn’t seemed to overcome yet. Coincidentally, those parents are raising the students the district has the most interest in impacting with its new strategies.

Those parents, district officials said, can pick up a copy at select locations or request a copy from the school.

3. Will the district have the hard conversations they want to about race? And will they make the hard decisions that follow?

According to board chair Happy Haynes, yes. She told a crowd this summer the district purposefully chose to focus on gaps in test scores and graduation rates between its white, Latino and African American students because that’s where the district has the most work to do.

Latino and African American students make up about two-thirds of the district’s student population. And they have chronically underperformed compared to their white peers. And by some measures, the achievement gap has actually grown.

But the work won’t just be focused on improving student outcomes on tests, Boasberg said in an interview with Chalkbeat. The work will also be about tearing down obstacles to the necessary resources students of color need to catch-up to their peers.

“Our students of color have a series of barriers, spoken and unspoken, they need to overcome,” he said. “It’s important that we tackle those barriers.”

Perdo Noguera, a professor at New York University who studies race relationships inside schools and who has worked as a consultant for DPS before, applauded the plan’s emphasis on addressing the lack of opportunities some students have to succeed, but said the district is following a national movement of explicitly addressing racial disparities.

For Denver schools to make progress, schools are going to have to rethink everything from homework to tutoring.

What’s more, Noguera said, DPS leaders will need to go school by school to ensure the conditions are right for students of color to prosper. And, if they’re not, they’re going to have to make hard programatic and personnel changes.

“If they don’t do that, there won’t be any changes,” he said.

The city may have already had its first pass at how the district plans to tear down some of those walls. Last spring, in a continuos decision, DPS officials announced changes to the elite International Baccalaureate program at George Washington High School. District officials have promised more access to more rigorous classes for all students. But a vocal group of parents claim the district is trying to fix something that isn’t broken.

4. How will the district redefine what a quality school is?

Denver board members heard parents loud and clear last winter when they said they wanted more quality schools in their neighborhoods. So, the board has made that their primary goal in the Denver Plan. By 2020, the number of quality schools will increase from 60 percent to 80 percent, the plan reads. And parents will have access to one of those schools in their neighborhood.

But how the district defines a quality school is a whole other matter, one that will be played out this year as the district tinkers its rubric.

Currently, the district’s ranks schools on various factors including how proficient students are, how many student re-enroll, student and parent surveys. However, because the district puts such an emphasis on student academic growth, or the measurement of how much a student learns year-over-year, some schools that are currently considered high-performing have very low levels of students meeting grade-level standards.

And that’s caused the ire of some district observers.

Whatever form the new ranking system takes next year, there will still be a continued heavy emphasis on growth, Boasberg said. That’s because he believes the measurement can provide equal insight to what kind of learning is happening at both low- and high-performing schools.

The district is still soliciting feedback on how to improve its ranking system.

5. How will the district measure its work around the “whole child?”

The most ambiguous part of the Denver Plan is how the district will measure its success around supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of its students. That’s because the board hasn’t set a measurement of how to do that yet.

Despite the ambiguity, the district’s effort to support the “whole child” appears to be the most exciting and groundbreaking element for supporters of the plan.

McMeen Elementary School Principal Adam Volek said he and his team of teachers pushed the board hard to include this goal in the plan. Volek served on an advisory board during the plan’s redrafting and routinely consulted with his staff on their desires, he said.

“The plan makes our work toward supporting the whole child a reality, not a concept,” he said.

Part of his school’s efforts include inviting parents to participate during classes for students during the day and classes for adults during the evening. His teachers are also heavily active in home visits that he believes are bridging the gap between home and school.

Sharon Murray, president of healthy schools consulting group RMC Health, said she hasn’t seen a Colorado school district put such an emphasis on the emotional status of a child to go as far and put it in their strategic plan.

“Districts aren’t accountable for that,” she said. “They’re accountable for test scores and attendance.”

The district plans to appoint a committee to develop criteria to measure how schools improve their environments to foster the social wellbeing of its students. But Murray said that committee may not have as daunting of a task as it may seem.

That’s because there are already plenty of resources available throughout Colorado and the nation on how to improve school cultures to foster the best for a student’s health and creativity. Further, as the goal is already written, there are plenty of things that can be measured.

What do you think of the Denver Plan 2020? Leave a comment below and we’ll post a roundup of the most insightful comments later this week.