Memo from the Boss

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg’s vision for giving more power to schools, annotated

PHOTO: Wesley Wright
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg visits a district summer camp in 2016.

Denver Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado, is striving to be more decentralized and less top-down. More than a year after the school board granted school leaders more autonomy, Superintendent Tom Boasberg has penned a document detailing how he envisions the district should function under that philosophy.

“The purpose of this document is to try to make clear in one coherent framework how all these pieces fit together,” he said. “We’ve been saying that the school is the unit of change. We wanted to take the time to say, ‘What do we mean by that?’”

What follows is the full text of the document. We’ve annotated it with comments and explanations from Boasberg, and links to our previous coverage and other sources. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.

EQUITY AND EMPOWERMENT:
THE SCHOOL AS THE UNIT OF CHANGE
October 2016

In order to meet our goals of student growth and achievement under the Denver Plan, we believe it is essential that we empower our educators at all levels to act and lead under a theory in which the school is the key unit of change. School leaders and their teams, working with their communities, should have a strong ownership of all that happens within their buildings, encouraging innovation, flexibility and differentiation at our schools to meet the needs of the students and close gaps in student achievement in each school. To complement this, the district should play a leading role in establishing performance expectations, leading research and development, sharing best practices, coaching and support of school leaders, and ensuring that in all respects our actions and practices promote greater equity among our students.

A. SCHOOL EMPOWERMENT

We believe that effective teaching drives student achievement and that effective leadership is critical to attracting, retaining, and developing great teachers. We believe that empowering our school leaders will help us attract and retain the most talented leaders and teachers who will drive growth among our students. Our school leaders, working collaboratively with their parents, teachers and leadership teams, should have ownership of what goes in their schools – a sense of efficacy and urgency, a conviction that they have the opportunity to set vision, strategy, and priorities for their school. In so doing, they should be encouraged to re-imagine and innovate to challenge the status quo.

In order to set and implement the vision, strategy and priorities for their school, our school leaders should have the authority to:

  • Define the unique vision and mission of each school, working with the school’s community;
  • Lead engagement with parents and the broader school community;
  • Establish the critical priorities for the school based on their root cause analysis of the challenges facing the school, with a particular focus on equity and closing gaps within the school;
  • Make personnel decisions about school staff (hiring/non-renewal);
  • Choose and develop the instructional expectations, practices and systems within the school, consistent with overarching district vision and Colorado Academic Standards. This would include choice of curriculum, implementation of professional learning for teachers and school staff, and use of data and progress monitoring systems to ensure all students access grade level material and are on track to meet graduation requirements;
  • Establish the culture and behavioral norms and expectations for adults and students in the school, with a focus on inclusion, respect, and equity and consistent with district-wide expectations and shared core values;
  • Establish systems for supporting social, emotional, mental and physical health of students;
  • Define the use of time in the school;
  • Align school budgets to the above choices on school priorities through our student based budgeting system.

B. ROLE OF THE DISTRICT

In this construct, what then is the role of the district and the principal’s supervisor, the instructional superintendent?

The starting point of the discussion is that the default is that decisions are made at the school level. When a decision or policy is not reserved for the school level, there needs to be a compelling reason why not.

In short, the main role of the district is to recruit and develop talent at every level and in particular to ensure that school leaders have the skills, knowledge and support they need to lead their schools successfully.

In addition, it is the role of the district to:

Ensure Equity. The district has a vital role in establishing expectations and practices to ensure equity for all students, especially those with the greatest needs and least privilege — our students of color, those from lower-income families, English-language learners, and students with special needs. Experience has painfully shown us the need for clarity in such expectations and practices and the cost to students of their absence. We live in a society where differences in privilege and social capital often work to perpetuate in our schools the inequities in our society, and the district has a fundamental leadership role in driving and ensuring equity in all we do.

Equity issues can involve both inter-school issues such as resource allocation, boundaries, enrollment systems, and transportation and intra-school issues such as personnel decisions, discipline, culturally responsive education, and access to rigorous classes. Where practices or actions at the school or district level exacerbate inequities, the district must ensure changes are made.

Establish a Vision of Excellence and Performance Expectations. In order to drive improvement across all schools, the district has the responsibility for defining excellence – both in terms of what excellence in classroom instruction looks like as well as what student performance goals we are setting for ourselves. While under our approach the district is generally loose on inputs, the district is tight on outputs – what the performance expectations are for schools, educators, and students. Setting clear performance expectations and a system of performance accountability aligned to such expectations is an important role of the district, as is offering the supports that help schools, educators and students meet and exceed such performance expectations.

Drive R&D and Differentiated Professional Learning. To provide such supports, the district should be responsible for researching and spreading effective practices and promising innovations (including best- in-class curricula and assessment and instructional methods). The district also should provide professional learning to enable educators to master these practices, generally by supporting the delivery of professional learning at the school level and at times on a direct basis to teachers.

At times, when leading a major change management effort, the district may require all schools to participate in a particular initiative in order to establish a common base of learning or practice across schools (e.g., full-day preschool and kindergarten, ELA training, early literacy, teacher leadership and collaboration). Generally, however, schools have the opportunity to opt-in to district-provided professional learning.

There is a critical difference here between our approach and that seen in most successful charter management organizations (as well as private sector entities of similar scale). In those successful CMO’s, schools and school leaders generally have little flexibility or choice regarding instructional strategies, assessments, professional learning, or progress monitoring tools. In our system, school leaders do have the choice to accept district-recommended offerings in these areas or choose alternative offerings.

We believe that giving school leaders such choice will stimulate competition among support alternatives both inside and outside the district, and such competition will improve the quality of both district and third-party offerings. Giving school leaders these choices is also designed to address long-held concerns in both schools and the public about the quality of the district’s supports. It also furthers school-level empowerment and ownership of critical decisions. In order for the district to offer high-quality supports, the district does not expect to have the ability to support more than its recommended offering in matters such as curriculum and assessment. Schools choosing alternative offerings, therefore, will generally have to obtain supports from third parties or through their own internal capacity and will be provided with funds to do so, in an amount equal to the school’s pro rata share of the per-pupil cost of the district’s offering.

Stimulate Innovation. As part of its R&D role, the district should also seek to stimulate innovation by researching, resourcing and supporting innovative change efforts. While a critical part of supporting innovation is the freedom to innovate at the school level, equally important is the district’s role in researching innovative practices and supporting schools through approaches like investments in innovative practices and cohorts who work together to develop, refine, and implement such practices.

Lead Talent Development and Mapping. In order to develop the best leaders across schools and to ensure our best leaders are working with our students who have the greatest needs, the district has a role in both recruiting and developing leaders over a long-term horizon and mapping leadership talent across schools. This is one of the most important jobs of the instructional superintendents, both individually and collectively, and includes the shaping of leadership growth paths, evaluations of principals, planning for succession, and recommendations on hiring and non-renewal of principals.

Manage Economies of Scale and Inter-School Issues. The district also can supply economies of scale or assistance to principals in operational matters (like student safety, purchasing, recruiting or transportation), where expecting each school to perform the function for itself could lead to significant additional expenses or decreases in quality. Nevertheless, the power of school leaders to seek alternative providers for many support services provides an important check on assumptions by the district about the quality or cost-effectiveness of its supports. Likewise, where issues necessarily involve multiple schools (e.g. enrollment, transfers, and feeder patterns), the district plays a leading role.

Meet Legal Obligations. Education like medicine is one of the most heavily legislated and regulated areas of our economy with significant risks and penalties for failure to fulfill legal obligations. The district has a responsibility to be aware of its legal, contractual and regulatory obligations and to ensure that those obligations are fulfilled at the district and school levels.

C. ROLE OF INSTRUCTIONAL SUPERINTENDENT/NETWORKS

Role of IS. As is clear from the above list of what we are empowering and expecting our principals to take on, the diversity and level of skills a principal needs is extremely high. No principal, and especially a new principal, is likely to have all such tools in their toolkit from day one and will be constantly learning and strengthening this wide range of skills. And our data is clear that, in order to close our achievement gaps, our principals and teachers must perform with a very high level of professional skill.

Therefore, the most important role of the instructional superintendent (each of whom has been a successful principal) is to coach and grow principals to master the diverse skills they need. This comes generally in the form of strategic planning guidance, school visits, joint observations of instructional practices and systems, analysis of student data, and reflective coaching conversations. Just as we expect our principals to be empowered to lead their schools and be accountable for the growth of their students, so our IS’s need to be empowered to lead their networks and be accountable for the performance of students in their networks.

In their leadership of networks, the IS is responsible for facilitating peer-to-peer learning among principals. Networks play an important role in the sharing of successful practices, as well as professional and personal supports for principals.

As discussed above, the IS also has the primary duty of assessing and growing the level of leadership talent in the school among all the school’s leaders.

Finally, an IS can help principals navigate district support systems, as needs for supports (such as IT, HR, facilities) generally cut across multiple schools. In this role, the IS plays an important policy role at the district level in influencing how support systems are designed and how services are provided.

Direction. In a system of empowerment where schools are the unit of change, an important issue to address head-on is where should a principal’s supervisor, the IS, go beyond coaching and advice to direct or order a principal to take or not take a particular action. Direction by an IS should not be the norm; coaching and empowerment of principals should be the norm. Nevertheless, if coaching does not produce changes in actions/behaviors, there are times where an IS should be directive.

Two important guidelines should be a central part of this conversation. First, only an IS should give direction to a principal so there are clear lines of authority and accountability. While coaching resources from the district such as network partners are vital, these resources are strictly coaching resources. They should not be directive. Second, it would be expected that direction from an IS should be more infrequent with veteran principals or with principals leading higher performing schools.

So, when, if coaching fails to produce changes, should an IS be directive? Several situations come to mind:

  • When school practices are causing or perpetuating significant inequities for students – e.g., disproportionalities in discipline, lack of culturally responsive educational approaches, lack of access to rigorous course opportunities, high numbers of students referred to center programs, failure to provide services and accommodations to students with disabilities;
  • When a school is demonstrating significant deficiencies in critical practices or systems that are leading to poor student outcomes, especially over a sustained period of time – e.g., instruction of English language learners, lack of observation and feedback or use of progress monitoring data, lack of student-centered instructional practices;
  • When schools are not fulfilling legal obligations or are otherwise at risk of breaching public trust (e.g., IDEA or ELL obligations, breakdowns in financial management, or poor parent and community relations);
  • When school-level decisions are materially inconsistent with high-priority district-wide systems such as student discipline, diversity in hiring, or personnel evaluation;
  • When a school-level decision creates significant health and safety risks.

D. TWO FINAL FACTORS

Finally, in looking at the distribution of decision-making authority between schools and the district, two additional factors are important to consider:

o Clarity. As important as determining the balance between school and district decision- making authority is the paramount importance of clarity. A theoretically better-balanced system that does not provide clarity to its participants will almost certainly perform worse than a system with greater clarity of decision-making rights. Therefore, it is very important that we seek to make decision-making rights and responsibilities as clear and as straightforward as possible.

o Transaction Costs. Any system should strive to minimize transaction costs. For example, a system that gives school leaders flexibility to opt in or out of district supports at a very granular level (e.g., pay-per-use of district supports) or to require significant customization of district-provided services is likely to impose significant transaction costs. While some transaction costs are certainly going to be part of our growth and implementation of greater school-level decision-making authority, we should be very conscious of the resources we invest in such transaction costs that might be better spent in direct provision of services to students.

move it

First girls, now boys: A look inside Denver’s newest single-gender, athletic-focused charter school

PHOTO: Travis Bartlett Photography
Students at The Boys School of Denver play a game with a teacher on the first day of school in August 2017.

One of the first things the new sixth-graders at Denver’s new all-boys public school learned last week was the school cheer. And unlike what you might expect on the first day of a school that drew kids from 31 different elementary schools from all corners of the city — kids who were, for the most part, strangers in matching T-shirts — they were not at all timid.

The first time they tried the cheer, their voices boomed as loudly as tween boys’ voices can.

“I am!” school leader Nick Jackson shouted with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor.

“We are!” the boys answered in kind.

“I am!” “We are!”

“I am!” “We are!”

Two claps. Loud. “Boys School!”

In the seconds of silence that followed, Jackson held out his arm.

“Feel this! Feel this!” he said. “Those are goosebumps.”

NEW SCHOOLS OPENING 2016-17

The Boys School of Denver is one of five new schools opening this fall in Denver Public Schools (see box). The five schools are opening for a variety of reasons ranging from a need to accommodate a growing number of students in certain neighborhoods to a desire to provide families more high-quality options in a city that prizes school choice.

The school district’s first day was Monday but The Boys School, a charter with autonomy over its schedule as well as other aspects of its program, started a few days early.

On the first morning, 87 sixth-graders showed up to the massive campus of the Riverside Church in northwest Denver, where The Boys School is renting space this year. The school plans to add a grade each year until it eventually serves students in grades 6 through 12.

It’s a replication of sorts of Denver’s successful Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter middle and high school. GALS, as it’s called, opened in 2010 with the aim of building girls’ self-esteem and sharpening their focus through physical movement and positive gender messages. That means starting the day with 45 minutes of movement, taking “brain breaks” during lessons, and requiring classes on deconstructing stereotypes in addition to academics.

The Boys School will follow the same model.

“For boys, they’re being pushed into being competitive or having a more assertive way about them,” said Carol Bowar, who is executive director of the organization. “We’re trying to neutralize that a bit to allow kids to develop and grow as who they are.”

A 2014 analysis of 184 studies from around the world found single-gender schools do not educate girls or boys better than co-ed schools. But Bowar points to other research on adolescent development, sex differences and how exercise can sharpen brain function, as well as GALS’s own results.

Last year, more GALS middle schoolers scored at grade level in English and math on state standardized tests than the districtwide averages. They also showed high academic growth; for instance, GALS middle schoolers scored better, on average, than 63 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math.

Leaders decided to open an all-boys school to offer the same opportunities to boys, Bowar said. Plus, she said, families with both sons and daughters repeatedly asked for one.

“We started hearing from year one, ‘I am so in love with your school for my daughter but I want it for my son,’” said Bowar, who herself has a sixth-grade son in the first class.

In a district where many schools are segregated by race, GALS has a more diverse student population than most. Last year, 55 percent of the 280 students at GALS middle school were students of color; 49 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty; 20 percent were English language learners; and 11 percent received special education.

Not all of those metrics are available yet for The Boys School. But Bowar provided some details: 57 percent of the sixth-graders registered before the first day of school were white, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were black, and 2 percent were Asian.

That’s fewer students of color than in the district as a whole. Overall, about 77 percent of DPS’s 92,000 students last year were students of color. About 23 percent were white.

GALS is also expanding outside Denver. A GALS middle school opened last year in Los Angeles, having been recruited there by a group of educators and community members. Educators in the Bay Area and Tucson are also interested in starting GALS schools, Bowar said. And the Los Angeles group plans to apply for a charter for a boys school, she said.

The Boys School is not Denver’s first-ever all-boys charter school. A previous all-boys charter with a different model, Sims-Fayola International Academy, closed in 2015 due to financial, logistical, and academic challenges.

After the assembly where they learned the school cheer, the inaugural Boys School sixth-grade class walked a couple blocks to a nearby city park blanketed by long grass that was still wet with morning dew. Jackson, who spent the previous three years at GALS, explained to them the rules of a game called Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.

Popular at the girls school, the game is similar to capture the flag. But instead of a single flag, players must steal several objects from the opposing team, including a foam pool noodle.

The boys split into two teams and lined up on opposite sides of a wide open field. When Jackson gave the signal, they ran toward each other with pre-adolescent abandon.

The first day of school was short on academics and packed with activities meant to help build a sense of belonging and brotherhood among the students, Jackson said, and to make the boys feel “well-held, comfortable, safe and like they’re a part of something.”

Too many kids, he said, are quick to abandon who they are in an attempt to fit in.

“We’re trying to change that,” Jackson said.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”