Starting next school year, all principals in Denver will have the option to select and buy their own curriculum, school-based testing programs, professional development plans, and potentially to choose more of the programs and employees in their buildings.

Those are some early steps in a plan to decentralize decision-making and significantly change how Denver Public Schools works with its schools. They were laid out Monday at a day-long retreat for the district’s board and senior leadership.

The idea is to create more independent schools and turn principals into “chief strategists” — a move that will have ripple effects both for teachers and students and for the central office staff who have traditionally worked with schools.

This is the first time all district schools, not just charters and those that specifically request it, would have this degree of control over their programs.

DPS board members and staff said they will begin to flesh out the details of the changes and what more flexibility for budgets, hiring, transportation, scheduling, accountability, and more might look like in coming weeks.

Board members say the changes are an attempt to execute the vision they laid out last year in the updated Denver Plan, a set of goals for improving student achievement and school quality by 2020. The Denver Plan describes more flexibility for schools as one of the district’s key strategies.

“How do we make sure we’re walking the walk and not saying you have flexibility with one hand and taking it away with the other?” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Board members Barbara O’Brien and Anne Rowe described visits to schools where they said school staff currently felt stymied by supposed supports from district offices.

“Part of the culture shift has to be more respect for the autonomy of the school and their ability to control their days,” O’Brien said.

There was no outright opposition to the idea of shifting more decision-making power to school leaders. Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, was not present for the retreat. Jimenez has been the board’s lone consistently-dissenting vote since the 2013 school board elections.

National trend, local changes

The idea of decentralizing power and changing the roles of bureaucracies has gained traction in many urban school systems in recent years, partly in tandem with the growing school choice movement and particularly charter schools, which have control over most aspects of their operations and programming.

The strategy is often tied to an approach to governance known as “portfolio management.” The name comes from the idea of an investment portfolio: Rather than managing and directly running programs at schools, a district’s central office is responsible for approving, monitoring, evaluating, and providing services to a portfolio of more-independent schools and “investing” in those that work. Budgeting is shifted so that schools can select and pay for certain services or staffing arrangement rather than having services paid for and distributed at the district level.

The state-run Recovery School District in Louisiana and Achievement School District in Tennessee are often cited as models of portfolio management, though they both work mostly with charter schools.

The idea is not new in Denver. DPS already has dozens of charter schools and more than 30 innovation schools, which can request flexibility from certain district policies, such as the length of a school day. It also has an elaborate accountability system that proponents of portfolio management recommend for gauging how schools are doing.

District officials also framed a recent set of staff cuts in the central office as an effort to move more functions out of the district office and to schools.

“We’re well on the path toward an opt-in district,” said O’Brien. She was referring to schools’ ability to “opt in” to services or programs traditionally required by the district’s central office, such as a common curriculum.

O’Brien said that even though many details need to be worked out, “I think we need to rattle the system a little bit if we’re ever going to do what we talked about at our first retreat, which is work for bold change.”

Devilish details

But the shift is not without complications.

Boasberg said said district would need to “per-pupil-ize” some costs for curriculum, assessments, and trainings — break down the costs of programs that are currently offered to the whole district by student so schools can decide how much money to spend on what.

Chief Academic and Innovation Officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust said that the district had made similar efforts to price out its offerings for charter and innovation schools and that it had been difficult.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, bristled when several board members mentioned that giving schools more freedom means some will likely fail. “Failing means something very real to my schools,” said Rodriguez. She said the district and board members need to take responsibility for problems.

Chief of Schools Susana Cordova warned that decisions made by a principal might not be supported by every staff member at a given school. She said she hoped the district would improve its methods of gauging staff satisfaction with school leadership and how that ties to school quality.

DPS has also struggled to retain principals in an already-challenging job. How ongoing principal churn might mesh or clash with a move to give schools more autonomy is an open question. Boasberg said he thought more independence for school leaders would help attract and retain talented principals.

Curriculum flexibility

DPS recently announced plans to adopt a new program for some of its grade levels to replace the current curricular materials, which are not aligned to the Common Core State Standards in literacy and math. Some schools, including the district’s Montessori and some innovation schools, already use individualized programs.

Board members debated whether schools should be able to opt out of or opt into the district’s new curriculum. They eventually decided it would be best if schools could actively opt in to using the new curriculum, and then select appropriate assessments and training for teachers. School leaders could share promising alternatives with the district or stick with the programs they currently have in place next school year 2015-16.

Boasberg cautioned that schools looking to use alternative programs would still have to meet state, federal, and district’s legal requirements, including complying with a federal consent decree that governs how the district works with English language learners.

Staff said that the district might not initially be able to support all of the different programs schools might be interested in. The curriculum flexibility might eventually include a list of vetted programs and trainings that schools could choose between, but next year, leaders opting for a new curriculum will also be accepting less direct support from the district.

Denver school board members discuss school autonomy.
Denver school board members discuss school autonomy.

“If we have far larger numbers of people opting out, it takes different skills to support people in that environment,” Cordova said.

Board members also discussed potentially changing the responsibilities and roles of instructional superintendents or changing how schools are organized into networks.

Boasberg said the district will also have to decide how or if it will intervene if a school is floundering with new freedoms. “Those are some of the hardest conflicts—if, when, and how to be directive when schools are struggling.”

The retreat was attended by Cordova, Boasberg, Whitehead-Bust, chief of staff Will Lee-Ashley, deputy chief of staff John Albright, and six of the seven board members.