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.”

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.