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.