Aye for Innovation

Denver school board approves innovation zone, granting schools new freedoms

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students, parents and teachers made their case for the innovation zone.

Four Denver public schools will enjoy unprecedented autonomy next year after the school board Thursday unanimously approved a new “innovation zone.”

Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community will be part of the zone, dubbed the Luminary Learning Network.

The four are already innovation schools, which means they have waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools but not as much as charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. The zone will allow the four to act more like charters without separating from the district.

“This is one of the most exciting things we’ve done since I’ve been on the board,” said board member Mike Johnson. “I fundamentally believe those who are closest to the students should be making more decisions about how to educate the students.”

“I’m trying to think of a time I’ve been more excited, more proud, more optimistic about what we can achieve for kids,” said board president Anne Rowe.

The schools will be overseen by a new nonprofit organization, and they’ll be exempt from “district meetings, initiatives, practices and requirements,” according to an agreement between the zone schools, the nonprofit and Denver Public Schools.

Just as revolutionary is that zone schools will have more control over how they spend the state funding attached to their students. That funding is expected to amount to $7,682 per student next year, according to the district’s proposed budget.

This year, the district held back about $2,000 per student from each of the four schools to pay for things like curriculum, teacher training and administrator salaries.

Next year, the zone schools can choose to opt out of centralized district services other district-run schools must pay for, such as help with website design, reorganization of school libraries and advice on staffing decisions.

If the zone schools turn down all the optional services, they’ll receive about $350 more per student, according to the district. The schools can use that money to either buy those services back from the district or purchase their own.

DPS is predicting an estimated $600,000 funding loss because of that flexibility, although it may get some money back if the zone schools buy district services.

The nonprofit can also raise money for the schools.

Students, parents and teachers from the four schools made their case to the school board Thursday. They wore light blue T-shirts with the Luminary Learning Network logo, a yellow star, in the center. To each board member, they handed a T-shirt and a paper bag luminary.

“The move of forming the (Luminary Learning Network) puts us as school leaders and teachers in the driver’s seat of what we believe to be best for our students,” said Frank Coyne, a leader at Denver Green School. “I’m really proud of that. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something big.”

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law that also created innovation schools. While there are 40 innovation schools in DPS, and more than 20 others elsewhere in Colorado, the state only has three other innovation zones. Several school districts, including Aurora and Pueblo, are considering them as a strategy to improve low-performing schools.

What’s unique about the Denver zone is that the four schools aren’t in trouble. Instead, the school leaders said they banded together to form the Luminary Learning Network after encountering pushback and mandates from the district they felt hindered their autonomy.

The board’s vote authorized the zone for three years. Existing innovation schools are allowed to join it if the zone schools think they are a “good fit.”

In exchange for more autonomy, the zone schools will be subject to higher achievement goals. Per the agreement, the schools must seek to move up one tier on the district’s color-coded school rating system by the end of three years.

Ashley and Cole are currently rated yellow, the third-highest tier out of five, while Creativity Challenge Community and the Denver Green School are rated green, the second highest. The agreement notes that since the green tier is so wide and getting to the highest level might not be plausible, the district and the zone will work together to figure out what is.

Other action the DPS school board took Thursday:

— The board voted unanimously to delay the openings of two schools: the Near Northeast Community Engagement School and a new STRIVE Prep elementary in the far northeast.

The schools were supposed to open this fall but will now open in the fall of 2017. Both schools had lower than expected enrollment, according to school officials. Chris Gibbons, the CEO and founder of the STRIVE charter school network, said his school’s leader also unexpectedly stepped down.

“We believe students and families deserve a strong start,” Gibbons said.

This is the second delay for both schools, which were originally slated to open in the fall of 2015.

— The board unanimously approved the contracts of four charter schools it renewed in December 2015: Odyssey School, STRIVE Prep – Lake, Venture Prep High School and Denver Justice High School. It also amended several other charter contracts.

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.