A national consultant and a charter group want to give Adams 14 schools more autonomy

Internally rating schools, giving them more autonomy, and letting a charter organization turn around at least two schools — approaches that are common in school turnaround work but that might be controversial in Adams 14 — are among the ideas that one applicant has proposed in seeking to manage the troubled Adams 14 school district.

The application from District Renaissance Partners, submitted jointly by a national consultant and a local charter organization, also proposes creating a new community board to oversee the district’s improvement.

“That’s what’s different about this proposal, this new structure,” said Brett Alessi, a co-founder of Empower Schools, the national consultant. “We don’t do takeover, we do partnerships. We thought this was an opportunity to be able to do that.”

The group is among four finalists to become an external manager for Adams 14. Finalists will be interviewed this weekend by a community group, and then the school board plans to make a selection Feb. 12. The state, which ordered the district to hire an external manager, will then have to approve that pick.

The proposals don’t come with price tags, so the district will have to choose without knowing how much a manager will cost. That negotiation will come after the district, and state, approve the best manager.

In narrowing the nine manager applications to four finalists, community reviewers considered applicants’ ability to understand and work with a diverse community like Adams 14, and their track record of managing school districts.

Leaders of Empower Schools oversaw a high-profile district turnaround in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A few months ago, when Adams 14 officials asked the state education department for examples of external management structures, experts pointed to the Lawrence turnaround.

While Empower’s co-founders including Alessi have district management experience predating Empower, most of the group’s experience is in school turnaround.

Most of Empower’s experience involved improving schools by creating “innovation zones,” where clusters of schools have autonomy from district rules or union contracts, similar to what charter schools have.

Alessi said his proposal makes up for some of that lack of experience managing whole districts by partnering with the charter management organization Third Future Schools, led by Mike Miles.

Miles spent three years as superintendent of Dallas schools, where he made headlines for creating new evaluations for teachers and principals and for firing three principals after the district’s school board voted to keep them.

Before Dallas, Miles served as superintendent of the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs for six years. In that role, he led the district to adopt one of the first teacher pay-for-performance models in the state that tied salary and raises to annual evaluations.

The Adams 14 proposal would have Miles’ group operate two existing district schools and possibly expand to four in the third year. The schools wouldn’t necessarily be converted to charters, but leaders would look into giving them state “innovation status,” which would grant the schools flexibility in some rules so they could expand hours, or hire and fire teachers, for instance.

“Our initial thought is to do an innovation zone, but maybe there’s also a hybrid model,” Miles said. “I don’t want to get ahead of the process.”

The two schools would follow the same model for serving at-risk students as the other charter schools Miles operates. They would be open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to accommodate working parents, they would call on community experts to teach non-academic electives, and would use a model of “personalized learning,” that often relies on technology to let students work at their own pace.

A community board named later and district staff could help decide which schools Miles’ group would manage and which would undergo other strategies for improvement.

In the model, Alessi said, the board wouldn’t replace the district’s board of education, but would serve as the contracting entity with Adams 14, instead of Empower or Third Future Schools.

That new board, likely with nine members, would be “responsible for ensuring all partners, including District Renaissance Partners, deliver on their contracted responsibilities.”

Together the approach Empower and Third Future Schools propose includes many of the pieces that would be considered part of a “portfolio model” for schools — where the district offers families more school choices, creates a system to rate schools, and give schools more flexibility.

Asked whether the goal was to create a portfolio model similar to Denver’s, Alessi instead called it “educator empowerment.”

“We would certainly move toward educator empowerment, empowering educators at the school level,” Alessi said. “It would not be a top-down approach.”

Empower Schools is a member of Education Cities, a national group that connects organizations that push for school autonomy and the portfolio model.

The idea of choice is not unpopular in Adams 14, but the idea of closing schools, creating charter schools, and bringing in outsiders can be.

Barb McDowell, a teacher and president of the teachers union in Adams 14, said many teachers and administrators are questioning why any large consulting group would want to take on the work of fixing schools in the district, and whether they can handle the work.

“They don’t know the district,” McDowell said. “They don’t know the community.”

Alessi acknowledged that the biggest challenge for the team he is proposing to bring to Adams 14 will be bringing the community together and making sure people support the plan. He said he hopes the community process to select a manager helps build some buy-in, and then, that the proposed new board helps grow that feeling.

“We know there’s not a single voice for Adams 14,” Alessi said. “I want to make sure as much as possible that the school board and the district feel bought into this.”