Relay race

DPS leaning on non-traditional leadership training program

Jesus Rodriguez, an assistant principal at Trevista at Horace Mann, is participating in Relay's Principal Leadership Academy.

By the end of this summer, more than a third of Denver’s principals and all of its instructional superintendents will have participated in a training run by the nonprofit Relay Graduate School of Education, a nontraditional education leadership program that grew out of a teacher training program started by leaders of several well-known charter school networks.

The district is investing significant time and money in hopes that the program will improve principals’ and instructional superintendents’ skills, job satisfaction, and retention. That, the thinking goes, will improve the quality of and caliber of academics at the schools.

Chief Schools Officer Susana Cordova said that the district wants to tailor the program to Denver Public Schools, which has a more diverse population and set of schools than the charter networks for which it was originally designed.

But Cordova said the program’s building blocks, which include using video recordings to analyze specific practices, strategies for working with data, and giving specific feedback, are useful for most school leaders. She said the program is voluntary and drew more interest than the district had reserved spots for this summer.

“Relay has really given us some common language and common approaches for school leaders, especially in approaching data-driven instruction, thinking about observation and feedback, and looking at school culture,” Cordova said.

Leadership ecosystem

Relay has campuses in Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis, New York, Houston, Delaware, New Orleans, and New York. It was founded by leaders of three urban charter school networks, KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. The initial focus was on training teachers who went on to work in charter schools that worked with low-income students and used the highly structured model sometimes referred to as “No Excuses.”

But DPS’ main focus has been on Relay’s newer leadership program, which Norman Atkins, the organization’s president, said was created to fill a gap in practical offerings aimed at improving principals’ effectiveness.

Last summer, Denver sent 19 instructional superintendents, who manage principals, and 23 principals to New York for training sessions. This year, as many as 85 Denver school leaders will attend a two-week training in Denver. That’s the largest group of principals and instructional superintendents to participate in Relay training from any one district.

DPS has budgeted approximately $400,000 for Relay training this year. The district is using funds from the Wallace Foundation, the Colorado Department of Education, and school budgets to cover the training costs.

The introduction of Relay’s teacher training program in several cities triggered concerns about its content and fears that the program might replace existing, more traditional university-based programs.

Denver is already home to a variety of district and nonprofit leadership programs. Jane Shirley, a vice president at Catapult Leadership, said the programs need not conflict. “I think that they can really effectively build on one another,” she said.

Principals and instructional leaders receive course credits but no degree at the end of this program. Relay does offer a separate masters degree.

How it works

The Relay National Principals Leadership Academy includes a two-week session in the summer and four in-person follow-up sessions over the course of the year.

The program focuses on concrete skills and strategies rather than on theories of leadership. Its website describes the vision: “We believe that becoming a great teacher or principal is much like becoming a great musician or surgeon: It takes relentless practice, feedback and dedication.”

The summer session focuses on a set of topics that include data-driven instruction, school culture, and giving feedback. Over the course of the year, participants practice and receive feedback on specific skills or ideas.

Many of the components a principal might introduce to teachers are very specific, such as starting the day by greeting each student; creating routines to transition between classes; or standing still while teaching to help focus students’ attention.

An instructional superintendent focused on giving feedback might film herself having a conference with a principal and then analyze whether she and her employee had really landed on the same page at the end of a conversation.

There’s also a focus for both principals working with teachers and instructional superintendents working with principals on using “bite-sized” feedback and tackling and improving one skill at a time.

Mixed response

Relay has drawn praise from many participants, who say it offers practical strategies for honing in on the details that matter for improving schools. “It’s difficult to find professional development that’s relevant once you’ve been a principal for a while,” said Ginger Conroy, the principal at DCIS Ford. “But this was.”

“They weren’t things I was unfamiliar with — data-driven culture, focusing on adult culture — but it was very efficient and effective,” Conroy said. She said the Relay training had introduced her to a group of principals from around the country who shared her passion for education and were experiencing many of the same challenges as her.

Tanya Carter, an instructional superintendent in the Denver Summit Schools Network, of which DCIS Ford is a part, said the Relay training had helped focus her conversations with principals. “It helps us not get into some of the other noise.”

Carter said it had been helpful to go to the same trainings as the principals she works with. “We’re talking the same language and have the same goals,” she said, adding that the program has value even for more experienced school leaders.

Conroy said her school had introduced a few new routines due to the training, but that there had not been pressure to change any specific parts of her school.

But in some corners, the program’s approach to school culture and climate and that same attention to detail have drawn some concerns.

Tonda Potts, the principal at Park Hill Elementary School, has not gone through the training, but said she is concerned that the rituals and strategies would disrupt established school cultures at successful schools.

A group of parents in Park Hill Elementary’s Collaborative School Council watched videos based on the Relay training. Some said they were unnerved by the practices they observed, which one parent described as regimented and contrary to the spirit of free inquiry.

Cordova said that the training is voluntary for leaders and that each principal can choose how to tailor the strategies to their schools. “We’re figuring out how we make this make sense for each or our schools given our wide range of schools. We’re not Uncommon,” she said. “We have learned a lot from the trainings, but we don’t feel it has everything we have to learn.”

“But we want to be able to have conversations where all of our leaders have an opportunity to say, this is what I need to work on, as well as to say, this is what I’m seeing in practice,” she said.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.