Joining Forces

In Denver, four schools want to push the boundaries of innovation

PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley Elementary is one of four Denver schools in the innovation zone.

The four schools appear to have little in common. One, housed in a building topped with solar panels, is all about sustainability. Another partners with art museums to nurture kids’ creativity. Still another is in the midst of a reinvention to increase test scores while keeping school fun.

All these Denver schools share one important trait. As “innovation schools,” a designation made possible by a 2008 Colorado law, they’re free from certain state and district rules.

They can set their own school hours, choose their own textbooks and hire and fire their own teachers. In terms of sovereignty, innovation schools fall between charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, and traditional district-run schools.

Now, Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community want even more autonomy, banding together to propose a radical new way to oversee and fund their schools in a district known as a hotbed of reform.

The schools want to form an “innovation zone” that would be overseen not by Denver Public Schools administrators but by a new nonprofit organization that would give the school principals more say in how they spend the state funding attached to their students.

Unlike other innovation zones throughout the country, the Denver zone wasn’t dreamt up by the district as a way to improve low-performing schools and stave off state intervention.

Instead, the idea came from the leaders of the four schools. They claim they’ve pushed their autonomy as far as it can go under the current structure. While they say students have benefitted from the freedoms the schools have exercised thus far, the leaders aspire to do even more.

“It’s all about going from good to great,” said Zachary Rahn, the principal at Ashley.

District officials seem excited about the idea, but it’s not a done deal yet. The players are still negotiating exactly how the zone would work if it were to be approved to operate next year.

Pushing further

There are currently 62 innovation schools statewide. Forty of them are in DPS, a district that prizes entrepreneurship and has embraced alternative school models to what critics say is the detriment of traditional district-run schools.

Each innovation school writes an “innovation plan” requesting waivers from certain state education laws and district policies. Some of the most common — and controversial — waivers deal with teacher employment, salaries and evaluation systems.

Josh Gay prepares to plant pumpkin seeds as part of the Earth Day celebration at the Denver Green School in 2012.
PHOTO: John Leyba/Denver Post
Josh Gay plants pumpkin seeds at Denver Green School in 2012.

Results have been mixed. A 2013 study of several DPS innovation schools found that while teachers reported feeling more empowered, they were also more likely to have less experience and education. Teacher turnover was high, and student academic growth varied widely from school to school.

The 2008 innovation law also allows for the creation of innovation zones by groups of schools with “common interests.” The law requires a group to submit a plan to the local school board and to the State Board of Education describing how a zone would allow the schools “to achieve results that would be less likely to be accomplished by each public school working alone.”

That’s the motivation behind the proposed Denver zone, the school leaders said.

“There’s an incredible value for schools to go through the innovation process,” said Rahn, of Ashley Elementary. But, he added, “there also comes a point where you almost hit a ceiling, where the constraints of the public education system don’t allow you to actualize your plan.”

For example, the leaders said, the district mandates innovation school teachers attend some training that isn’t as relevant to their school’s unique program. DPS also requires innovation schools pay to support certain central-office departments whose services the leaders said they don’t use. And on occasion, the leaders said, they’ve gotten pushback when they’ve tried to carry out initiatives included in their approved innovation plans.

Frank Coyne, who helps lead the Denver Green School, remembers that when his school was opening its garden — a key component of its curriculum — seven DPS department heads showed up with questions. One asked what would happen if a preschooler escaped the fence surrounding the playground, got into the garden, picked a piece of fruit and choked on it.

“They said, ‘You can’t do this,’” Coyne said. “We were like, ‘We’re the Green School!’”

DPS eventually came around, he said. And today, gardens on school grounds are not uncommon. Part of the impetus for the zone, Coyne said, is that “what was innovative five years ago is no longer innovative — and how do we push the envelope?”

Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.
PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado reads on his iPad at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

The leaders believe that more separation from DPS is key. They want to create an innovation zone that would operate under a nonprofit they’ve named the Luminary Learning Network.

The four schools would remain DPS schools and their teachers would remain DPS employees. But the nonprofit’s board of directors would hire the school leaders. A memorandum between the network and the district would list the schools’ responsibilities and flexibilities.

One of the leaders’ most revolutionary ideas has to do with money. Currently, the state pays school districts about $7,600 per student. But the four schools only get about $5,600, according to Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer for DPS. The district keeps the other $2,000 to pay for things like transportation, building needs, curriculum, teacher training and administrator salaries.

Originally, the schools floated a proposal to receive the entire $7,600 and then buy back certain services from the district, much like charter schools do. But they’re currently working on a compromise that would give them more than $5,600 per student but less than $7,600.

Mary Seawell, senior vice president for education with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation (which also provides funding to Chalkbeat) and the former chairwoman of the DPS school board, is working with the schools to develop their plan and negotiate with the district. Former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Terrance Carroll, a prime sponsor of the 2008 innovation law, is a founding member of the Luminary Learning Network board.

Students at Creativity Challenge Community build with blocks.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students at Creativity Challenge Community build with blocks.

The school leaders envision that other innovation schools would eventually be able to join the zone. One or two staff members would be responsible for advocating and fundraising for the zone, as well as helping the schools share innovative practices and grow their programs.

If the schools aren’t measuring up, the district would retain the right to intervene. In fact, the leaders are discussing adding even more accountability measures for zone schools.

“We want to serve as a model for what highly autonomous schools and organizations can look like,” Rahn said. “It’s super hard to create systematic change that happens rapidly when you’re talking about hundreds of schools.” But with just four schools, “you can incubate ideas.”

Different schools, same goal

“Innovation” in schools means different things across the country, said Robin Lake, director of the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education. But for the most part, she said, grouping together schools with more autonomy has been a strategy to improve a district’s worst performers, which she noted hasn’t always been successful. Innovation stands a better chance when it’s not forced, she said.

Two Colorado districts — in Aurora and Pueblo — are currently crafting plans for innovation zones to reverse the course of some of their most chronically low-scoring schools.

Colorado already has three official zones in Kit Carson, Holyoke and the Colorado Springs area. The zone in El Paso County’s Falcon School District 49 is comprised of three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school that work together to create a cohesive experience for students from kindergarten through graduation.

But cohesion isn’t the goal in Denver.

“Each school needs really different things,” said Jennifer Jackson, the principal at Cole.

While the four schools score similarly on the district’s performance scale and have many of the same budget, calendar and employment waivers, the similarities mostly end there.

Kindergarten students, at Cole Arts & Science Academy receive wait to receive holiday gifts from a local philanthropist in 2010.
PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Kindergarten students at Cole Arts & Science Academy wait to receive holiday gifts from a local philanthropist in 2010.

Cole serves more than 530 kids in preschool through fifth grade in northeast Denver in part of a cavernous middle school building whose hallways are lined with hissing radiators and metal lockers. Ninety-five percent of students are minorities and 93 percent receive free- and reduced-price lunches, a proxy for poverty. More than a third are English-language learners.

For Cole, the journey to innovation was tumultuous. After several attempts to improve the perpetually struggling school, including an ill-fated state takeover, the staff voted in 2009 to become the third-ever innovation school in Colorado. (The first two are also DPS schools.)

Today, Cole kids wear uniforms: forest green polo shirts tucked in to belted khakis. In one quiet and orderly second-grade classroom earlier this month, students were split into three groups. One watched individualized math lessons on their own computers. Another group solved a word problem involving hamburgers and fractions, while a pair of students worked with the teacher.

When a boy stumbled over the word “grill,” he asked for help. In Spanish, the teacher explained that a grill is like an outdoor stove that might be used to cook carne asada.

Cole’s scores on state tests measuring the proficiency of its third-, fourth- and fifth-graders last year were lower than district averages. But Jackson said the school’s kindergarten through third-graders rank among the top in Colorado for reading growth due to an intense focus on early literacy — promising progress she hopes will show up on future state tests.

Ashley students and staff at one of the school's morning assemblies.
PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley students and staff give props at a morning assembly.

Ashley Elementary in east Denver also became an innovation school out of a demand to boost achievement. In 2012, after years of low test scores, DPS got rid of the principal as part of a turnaround effort. Rahn was hired to reinvent the school, which won innovation status the following year. In addition to focusing on academics, he’s worked to inject joy into each day.

The kids started a recent Monday by gathering in the gymnasium of the squat, blond brick elementary school building. Dressed in bright red, blue, green, yellow and orange shirts stamped with the school name, they cheered the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl win and gave each other shout-outs and awards before heading to class in neat lines.

Ninety-one percent of Ashley’s 400 students are minorities and 88 percent are living in poverty. On state tests last year, they scored below DPS averages but showed high growth in literacy.

One first-grade class spent part of the morning singing words tacked to a “word wall” to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” “Is, in, IIIIIII,” they sang, reading in unison. “It, into, its. If, I’ll, juuust.” When they got to the word “very,” the chorus of six-year-old voices pronounced it “vewwwwy.”

“Way to go me! Way to go you! Way to go us!” they shouted when they finished.

Working within the system

The Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community are newer than Ashley and Cole. Both schools had innovation status from the start.

The Denver Green School opened in 2010 with a focus on integrating sustainability into its curriculum. The school serves 535 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, 61 percent of whom are minorities and 60 percent of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. On state tests last year, their scores were about equal to district averages.

The younger kids attend classes in a decades-old DPS elementary school building, while the middle schoolers occupy a funky “cottage” built behind the playground. Each class has its own plot in the school’s one-acre garden.

On a recent afternoon, fourth graders worked to write newspaper articles about their field trip to the roof, where they learned about the school’s solar panels.

“It’s kind of a good thing,” said one boy dressed in an orange Denver Broncos jersey and blue jeans. “It’s good because it’s clean. It doesn’t pollute the air.”

Students at C3 participate in a Zumba class.
PHOTO: Creativity Challenge Community
C3 students participate in a Zumba class.

C3, as it’s known, is the newest of the four schools. It opened in 2012 in a wing of the Merrill Middle School building, in a southeast neighborhood Denver where many parents historically eschewed the local schools because they perceived them to be subpar.

The goal of founding principal Julia Shepherd was to lure some of those families back with an arts-based school that offers hands-on learning opportunities at local institutions like the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Colorado Ballet.

With just 280 students, C3 is the smallest of the four schools. It has the lowest percentage of minority and low-income students and the highest test scores, far exceeding district averages.

One class of second-graders spent the last part of a recent afternoon engaged in what the school calls “creativity choice.” Some drew with markers, while others built a castle out of wooden blocks. One girl curled up with a book and a group played Apples to Apples with their teacher. When the bell rang, rambunctious kids dressed in sparkly gold leggings and fluffy blue tutus spilled into a messy hallway decorated with quotes from Henri Matisse and Lewis Carroll.

The four leaders recognize the differences between their schools.

“There is no way Cole and C3 have the same needs,” said Jackson, the principal at Cole, where quotes from Maya Angelou and Tupac Shakur hang in the hallways.

And they don’t have to. While the leaders plan to share strategies and resources, their aim is to band together to create a system that allows them to be even more individualized, all the while remaining part of DPS rather than striking out on their own as charter schools.

The leaders hope to present their proposal to the DPS school board for a vote this spring. At a meeting in December, the board unanimously passed a resolution supporting the “promising new innovation” — a move that bodes well for its future approval.

“We’re deeply committed to the district,” Jackson adds. “This is in response to the direction we see them going and the innovation we’re already experiencing. We don’t want to leave the district in order to find a better way to serve kids. We believe we can do that within the system.”

Detroit week in review

Week in review: Two schools in Detroit were excited to show off shiny new spaces

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy's new basketball-themed library, courtesy of the Detroit Pistons.

It was a week of big reveals and big donations. A charter middle school unveiled new classrooms and science labs made possible by a $6 million renovation. An area mortgage company made a large contribution to City Year Detroit. And a local sports team’s donation helped build a new library at a Detroit district elementary school.

Unfortunately, more than money is needed to figure out how to reuse the scores of vacant schools that dot Detroit’s landscape and destabilize its neighborhoods. We wrote about the challenges of repurposing those buildings this week.

In other news, watch our own Erin Einhorn on Detroit Public TV’s American Black Journal. She talks about the three days she spent behind the scenes with Detroit schools chief Dr. Nikolai Vitti.

Finally, we are hiring! If someone you know is interested in being a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, contact us.

Have a great week!

— Julie Topping, Chalkbeat Detroit editor

LET’S GET IT TOGETHER: A new report says Detroit’s main district and charters must work together to ensure students get a good education. Vitti, who is openly competitive with charters, says he’s an advocate of choice but not without “guardrails.”

TOUGH JOBS TO FILL: The main Detroit district has hired more teachers, but still needs to fill almost 200 jobs. Most leave teaching because — surprise! — they are dissatisfied with the profession. Union leaders on a listening tour said teachers were concerned most about testing, pay and lack of funding for education.

RENOVATION CITY: University Prep Academy middle school cut the ribbon on nine new classrooms and six new science labs made possible by its $6 million renovation. 

PHOTO: University Prep Academy Middle School
University Prep Academy celebrated its $6 million renovation this week.

And the Detroit Pistons give an elementary school library in Detroit a basketball-themed makeover

NO LOANS HERE: Quicken donated $700,000 to a group that places young adults in schools to support students.

GREEN SCHOOLS: A group of Democratic state lawmakers introduced a package of bills designed to reduce schools’ environmental impact, lower energy costs and teach kids about sustainability.

AT WORK MORE OFTEN: Charter school teachers are less likely to be chronically absent than their peers in traditional district schools.

WHO NEEDS ‘EM: Editorial says get rid of the state board of education.

OPINION: An education advocate notes, during Hispanic Heritage month, that Latino students have lost ground in recent years.

DIGITAL MOVEMENT: Michigan schools are closing the digital divide, report says.

RACIAL SHIFT: A merger flips the demographics at two Ferndale elementary schools.

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”