doubling down

With nod to charter networks, DPS is giving a successful principal a second school

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students at Grant Beacon. The district plans to bring the school's model to Kepner Middle as part of its effort to improve schools in Southwest Denver.

What do you do if you’re a school district with a successful principal?

In the case of Alex Magaña, the principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, Denver Public Schools has an idea: Give him two schools.

Starting in 2016-17, Magaña will oversee Grant Beacon and a new district-run innovation school, which will be called Kepner Beacon, at the Kepner Middle School campus in southwest Denver.

As executive principal, Magaña will supervise principals at both Kepner and Grant. A small network staff will include a data specialist and an operations officer responsible for both schools. Teachers at Kepner and Grant will plan and train together.

The schools together will be known as the Beacon Network. Both will be innovation schools, which have flexibility from certain district and state policies, and will focus on blended learning, in which technology is integrated into classroom instruction.

DPS is calling the new arrangement an Innovation Management Organization. The structure and its name are directly cribbed from the charter school world, where charter management organizations run networks of schools.

The hope is that the Innovation Management Organization structure will allow successful principals to expand strong programs without leaving their current schools to crash and burn.

Many DPS principals stay at their schools for only a few years, which leads to instability for staff and students. Magaña says this new arrangement means he will be able to expand the scope of his work while maintaining his ties to the community and programs at Grant Beacon.

“The biggest fear is, if you leave this falls apart. That’s not a good feeling,” Magaña said. “So much has been invested here.”

A template

Beacon is likely the first of several such networks in Denver.

At least one other district school, McAuliffe International School in Park Hill, has already applied to expand and become the city’s second innovation management organization. (McAuliffe principal Kurt Dennis declined a request for an interview.)

Other innovation schools, such as DCIS and Ashley Elementary, might also be candidates for expansion, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver’s chief academic and innovation officer.

“It makes sense to do more of what we know already works versus always trying to design from scratch,” Whitehead-Bust said.

Magaña said that the rapid growth of charter school networks in the city made him wonder.

“There’s a demand for effective schools to replicate quite quickly,” Magaña said. “We thought, ‘Why can charter schools replicate so quickly? Why can’t I do that?’…I think we can show public schools are just as effective as charters.”

Bryan Hassel, a co-director of Public Impact, an education policy and management consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C, said that the idea of a single principal overseeing several schools is not unique. But, he said, both the idea of using this as a strategy for expanding the reach of successful principals and the charter-inspired name is new.

“Urban areas are desperate for good principals,” he said. “When they find them they often promote them into a central office job where they aren’t really impacting teachers and kids like they are in the principalship. The idea of creating this alternate career path is compelling.”

But there are challenges for principals newly charged with overseeing several schools, Hassel said.

“If you’re over two schools, over three schools, how do you have the time to do them justice?” he said.

Current Grant Beacon staff are optimistic.

“I think that Grant Beacon Middle School is pure magic, and I’ve been here long enough to know what it used to be like and what it’s like now,” said Valerie Svodoba, a teacher leader and language arts teacher at the school. “To be able to take that success and transplant that into a school that really needs it is a beautiful thing.”

Grant Beacon has earned national attention for its blended learning program. It has also moved from the second lowest rating of five on the district’s school performance framework to the second highest during the past eight years. The performance framework evaluates a schools’ academic performance and other characteristics.

The school has also seen a trend toward declining enrollment reverse.

Magaña said that if the Kepner expansion goes as well, the network might eventually add a high school or an elementary school.

New plans, complicated history

In 2016-17, Kepner Beacon will start enrolling students in the Kepner building. The plan is to phase in a grade at a time, starting with sixth graders.

But the new school is opening in a complex environment, as part of an effort to replace the current Kepner Middle School. Kepner, in southwest Denver, was identified as in need of drastic improvements last school year. DPS floated and then retracted several proposals for the school over the course of 2014.

In December, the district put its decision-making on hold yet again to respond to concerns about whether its plans adequately met the needs of the school’s English language learners and the requirements of a court-ordered agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Congress of Hispanic Educators, a group of local Denver Latino educators and parents, that governs how DPS works with Spanish-speaking students.

As part of an effort to meet the requirements of the agreement, Kepner Beacon will have a native-language program for Spanish speakers. Such a program is not in place at Grant Beacon.

The plan the district’s board eventually approved means that in 2016-17, four schools will be running in the Kepner building: the current program that will be in its second-to-last year of being phased out; and two charter schools, Compass Academy and a school run by STRIVE Prep. The school will also be within one of the district’s new shared enrollment zones, in which students are not assigned to a neighborhood school but are given enrollment preference at a cluster of schools.

Magaña said he is approaching the shared space with some trepidation.

“Culture is our number one priority,” he said, and creating that culture in a shared space might prove more challenging.

Kepner Beacon teachers will start work in 2015, a year before the school is scheduled to open. Using school start-up funds earmarked by the district, the network will begin preparing new teachers for Grant Beacon’s blended learning approach and work with English language learners.

Unknowns remain

At Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver, Principal Alex Magana greeted a parade of students as they moved between classes in early March.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
At Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver, Principal Alex Magana greeted a parade of students as they moved between classes in early March.

Magaña said he thinks the model will be more sustainable for the principals at Grant and Kepner, who will have the support of the network team and the executive principal as well as teacher leaders in their schools. He said he envisioned himself spending far more time in each school than the district’s instructional superintendents, who oversee principals across the district.

He said he also thinks the model will be more financially efficient in three years than running two separate schools. That’s because the schools will be able to share some staff and resources.

But just how the Beacon Network team — an extra level of administration — will interact with the rest of the district’s staff is still not yet clear.

“We’re early on in our thinking,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Clearly [Magaña] will report to an instructional superintendent, but he’ll have more autonomy in managing the two building leaders.”

Svodoba, who currently leads Grant Beacon’s data literacy team, said she is interested in working as one of the Beacon network staff.

“There’s a little bit of apprehension about what that will look like,” she said. “The roles aren’t clearly defined yet, so we’re sort of having to invent them as we go.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”