Denver school board declines to expand autonomous innovation zones — for now

Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.
Kepner Beacon Middle School is one of two schools in the Beacon Network Schools innovation zone. The zone wants to expand.

Two Denver schools will not be allowed to join innovation zones — at least not right now — after the school board denied their applications to enter agreements that would afford them more autonomy and flexibility. 

Board members say they’re in the midst of a monthslong process of evaluating innovation schools and zones, nicknamed the “pause and reflect” period. The board has pledged to consider new applications in August.

But innovation leaders, teachers, and families said the delay puts them at a disadvantage in planning for next school year. And they fear that autonomous innovation zones may be falling out of favor with the board.

“Please extend the innovation zone by ending the pause and hitting ‘play,’” said Jessica Bell, a teacher at Denver Green School Northfield, which is part of the Luminary Learning Network innovation zone.

The pause on innovation zones is part of a larger trend of the Denver school board taking a critical look at practices commonly associated with the education reform movement. Charter schools have also drawn scrutiny from this board, as has a prior district practice of rating schools based mostly on test scores and closing schools with low ratings.

A majority of board members campaigned on moving the district away from reform strategies, which won them the endorsement of the Denver teachers union. But supporters of school autonomy asked the board to think of students before politics.

“Don’t let politics get in the way of doing what’s best for our students,” said Matt Sands, a parent whose children attend Grant Beacon Middle School, which is part of Beacon Network Schools innovation zone.

Denver currently has three innovation zones that contain a total of 14 innovation schools. The district also has 39 innovation schools that are not part of a zone.

Innovation schools are district-run schools with the flexibility to waive certain rules. The waivers allow the schools to do things like extend the school day to give students more learning time, or recruit new staff earlier in the year, affording them a first look at the best candidates.

Being in a zone allows schools even more autonomy. Zone schools can opt out of some district services, keep the money they would have spent on the services, and use it how they want. Each zone has an executive director who takes the place of a district principal supervisor, providing coaching, arranging training, and helping schools troubleshoot and improve.

Innovation schools and zones are codified in state law. But not everyone likes them. Achieving the flexibility that innovation schools have sometimes requires teachers to waive parts of the teachers union contract. The union says those waivers strip teachers of their rights.

The “pause and reflect” period came about because school board member Brad Laurvick floated an idea to address the union’s concerns: Instead of agreeing to the waivers as a package deal, teachers would vote on them one by one. They could agree to flexibilities that would benefit students but keep their contract rights intact.

The idea generated fierce pushback from innovation school leaders and teachers, who argued that the waivers are interconnected. In the words of one innovation zone principal, “removing even one waiver would make this house of cards fall down.”

So Laurvick came up with a compromise: an eight-month pause on approving new innovation schools or expanding innovation zones. The district would spend the time considering “tension points” and proposing changes. The pause was set to last through May.

In February, two Denver schools applied to join innovation zones. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, a middle and high school in far northeast Denver, applied to join the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. And the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, a high school in central Denver, applied to join the Beacon Schools Network.

Each school had its own reasons for wanting to join a zone. At a virtual event Tuesday that drew more than 500 zone supporters, Kimberly Grayson, the principal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, said she’d had six different district supervisors in eight years. She said she was looking forward to the stability and support a zone would provide. 

Evelyn Cruz, the principal at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, said she was hoping to formalize an informal partnership her school has established with the Beacon network, which has already helped the small high school boost enrollment and funding.

Before, Cruz said she felt like her school was on an island by itself. The informal partnership, she said, “allowed us to experience a glimpse of how challenges can be addressed.”

Zone supporters also showed up in force at Thursday’s school board meeting, giving hours of testimony about the benefits of innovation. Delaying the zone decisions until August would rob the schools of the ability to plan for the next school year, zone leaders said in an interview.

“School starts Aug. 23,” said Vernon Jones, the executive director of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. “There is no way that gives us the runway you need to be successful.”

But the school board held firm. Board members unanimously denied the two schools’ applications. They also expressed sadness about what they called disinformation being spread among families about the board’s intentions or the meaning of the denials.

“I could hear the frustration and worry in your voices,” board President Carrie Olson said. “It’s unfortunate to hear the fear and anger from all of the zones and educators and families because it doesn’t help us create strong schools where our students can grow and thrive — and that’s what we need, especially in the backdrop of a pandemic.”

Olson said the district would release the findings of the “pause and reflect” period next month, and she said board members would review the findings “to identify potential shifts in policy or practice.” The board will resume taking zone applications in June, Olson said. 

The school board doesn’t meet in July, so August would be the earliest the board could vote.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Denver Green School Northfield is part of the Luminary Learning Network innovation zone, not the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

The Latest

The school board would fill vacancies – but a write-in candidate could also snag a spot.

“When school is closed they're grasping at straws trying to find the resources to feed their families," said Kelly McEvoy, director of food programs for Oak Park-based Forgotten Harvest.

Just 4.5% of offers at specialized high schols went to Black students and 7.6% to Latino students, a slight uptick from last year. About two-thirds of the city’s students are Black or Latino.

Teachers report managing student behavior and low pay are major sources of stress. But they aren’t more likely than other workers to want to leave their jobs.

Nineteen people seeking seats in the Aug. 1 election answered questions from Chalkbeat and the public. Hear what they said.

A new analysis by The Trace finds that an average of 57 shootings a day occur near U.S. school buildings. These shootings can traumatize students and hinder academic growth.