Nearly one-fifth of Denver principals are taking the district up on an offer to opt their schools out of centrally-provided curriculum or professional development programs next school year and instead choose their own.

This is the first year principals have that option, after the Denver school board told district officials at a meeting in May that school leaders should have the flexibility to set their own programs.

Since that meeting, district staff have been scrambling to make the board’s vision for a more decentralized district — a marked departure from the current arrangement, in which most schools’ academic programs are automatically set by the district office — a reality.

The principals’ decisions to opt in and out are the first firm evidence of whether they are actually interested in the decision-making power they are being granted.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer, said on Tuesday that about 81 percent had chosen to keep district services so far. A final list of which schools are opting in or out will be available later this week.

“I think this [rate of principals opting in] is about what we expected. We thought [the new district-selected curriculum] would meet the needs of the majority of schools,” said Whitehead-Bust. “It’s the first time that we’ve done this, so there’s no baseline data.”

She said many of the school leaders who are opting out of either professional development or curriculum work at innovation schools, which already have some flexibility over their academic programs. The district’s charter schools also have complete control over their academic programs.

But some are principals at the district’s traditional schools, for whom the ability to choose academic programs is a new development.

Responding to the change

The board’s instructions to the district to give school leaders control over academic programs, effective immediately, came as a surprise to DPS staff. Several staffers told Chalkbeat they anticipated an eventual move toward more school-based decision-making, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

A nearly-completed new academic strategic plan, for instance, had to be significantly revised to reflect the accelerated introduction of flexibility.

Well after school budgets had been set for the upcoming year, principals were suddenly tasked with deciding whether to change programs.

The district’s finance department, which had also already set the district’s 2015-16 budget, had to rework how funds for curriculum and professional development would be distributed to schools that chose not to participate in district programs.

And the process for helping principals pick their own materials had to be developed from scratch. A new website — flexibility.dpsk12.org — was created to host resources and timelines. District staff held webinars and consulted with principals, who were reassured that the same flexibility would be available in 2016-17.

Given the short timeline, “I’m excited about how much the team’s been able to develop and deliver,” Whitehead-Bust said. “With time they’ll be able to revise and refine the processes.”

Still, among some teachers and even some principals, “it’s created a great deal of confusion,” said Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “You can’t just make a decision that’s going to impact an entire year in just a couple weeks, without having enough time to plan, think, bring people on board.”

He said that while the idea of giving school leaders more freedom to choose academic programs in their schools is interesting, it’s not yet clear what the results will be. “I hope whatever decisions they make are driven by strong data on instruction.”

Practical changes

In the meantime, the change has brought up numerous practical concerns.

Since the district adopts curricular resources in chunks in order to pace spending — purchasing, for instance, new middle school math books one year and new elementary school literacy books in another — there is simply not enough money for all schools to buy new books every year.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, said the solution is that schools that would receive new materials next year anyway will receive $104 per student for curriculum. Schools will be eligible for those funds on a cycle.

“So if we’re rolling out fourth grade curriculum and a high school says they’re not opting in, they don’t necessarily get money for curriculum because we weren’t rolling out curriculum for high school,” he said.

Schools that choose their own professional development will receive approximately $22 per hour per teacher to cover teachers’ extra time on the job during that schools’ new programs.

Ferrandino said the approach to budgeting for flexibility might change as soon as 2016-17, depending on how the coming school year goes.

Whitehead-Bust said most principals were interested in how to make sure their school is serving English language learners. Very few academic materials currently on the market are both aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English and math and meet Denver’s requirements under a federal court order to offer programs in Spanish for Spanish-speaking students.

Putting so much decision-making power in the hands of principals in a district where principals’ tenures are, on average, just three years and where students often move between schools also raises the specter of schools where academic programs are changed frequently or where students get lost in the shuffle.

Whitehead-Bust said a combination of consultations with district staff and budget constraints should help prevent rapid swings or inconsistencies.

Nick Dawkins, who will be the principal at Manual High School next year, said that he is planning to opt out of district-offered professional development for teachers next year. He said the flexibility allows him to tailor his resources to his teachers’ needs, rather than have to adapt the district’s programs to suit the school.

“That’s big. A lot of teachers have talked about being crushed by the weight of initiatives, so this has really changed the conversations,” he said. “Even people who are delivering services went from, ‘next year you’re going to be doing this’ to ‘next year, this is what we can offer.'”

Dawkins said he thinks the changes will require principals to work together differently, perhaps pooling together to purchase resources or working together to make sure feeder patterns of schools in a given geographic area have academic programs that mesh together.

“It will be interesting to watch,” he said.