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.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

new use

These seven Denver schools are competing to use a building vacated by a shuttered elementary

The former Gilpin Montessori School. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Seven Denver schools have applied to locate their programs in the northeast Denver school building that until this spring housed Gilpin Montessori elementary school.

They include six charter schools and one district-run school. Four of the seven are already operating in other buildings. The other three programs are not yet open.

In a gentrifying city where real estate is at a premium and the number of existing school buildings is limited, securing a suitable location that affords enough room to grow is one of the biggest hurdles new schools face.

Every year, Denver Public Schools solicits applications from schools seeking to use its available buildings. The process for the former Gilpin building is separate; the school board is expected to vote in December on a program or programs to take up residence in fall 2018.

The seven applicants are:

Compassion Road Academy, a district-run alternative high school currently located near West 10th Avenue and Speer Boulevard that had 172 students last school year.

The Boys School, an all-boys charter middle school that opened this year with 87 sixth-graders in rented space in a northwest Denver church and plans to add more grades.

Denver Language School Middle School, a K-8 charter school that served 715 students — 101 in middle school — last year and is currently split between two campuses in east Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, a charter alternative high school that opened this year in west Denver. It is the charter’s second campus in the district.

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Middle School, a charter school that served 402 kindergarten through fifth-graders last year in the building that houses DPS headquarters. It is approved to serve grades 6, 7 and 8, as well, but has not yet opened a middle school program.

5280 High School, a charter high school approved but not yet open that plans to emphasize hands-on learning and would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school approved but not yet open.

The district is currently reviewing the applications to make sure they meet the initial criteria it set, said DPS spokeswoman Alex Renteria: The schools must be currently operating or previously approved secondary schools with enrollments of 600 students or fewer.

Community meetings scheduled for Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 will provide an opportunity for community members to meet the applicants and “provide feedback on their alignment with the community priorities,” according to a district presentation. Community priorities are one of the measures by which the applicants will be judged, the presentation says. The others are academic performance, facility need and enrollment demand, it says.

A facility placement committee will review the applications and make a recommendation to Superintendent Tom Boasberg the week of Dec. 11, Renteria said. Boasberg is expected to make his recommendation Dec. 18 to the school board, which will vote Dec. 21.

The committee will include five district staff members and four community members, including two from the neighborhood, Renteria said. Applications from community members to serve on the committee are due Tuesday, and members will be selected by Friday, she said.

The Gilpin building is available because the elementary school that previously occupied it closed at the end of last school year. Using a district policy to close schools with low test scores and lagging academic growth, the school board voted last December to permanently shutter Gilpin Montessori and restart two other elementary schools: John Amesse and Greenlee.

The district’s rationale for closing Gilpin rather than restarting it with a new elementary program was based on enrollment: With just 202 students last year, it was the district’s second-smallest elementary school — and DPS enrollment projections showed further declines in the number of elementary-school-aged children in the neighborhood, which is gentrifying.

A recent analysis by the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab showed a similar trend: rising home prices and rents, and a building boom that resulted in thousands of new housing units from 2012 to 2016 but just 23 new students.

Gilpin Montessori parents and community members rallied to save the school and have lobbied the district to keep an elementary school there.

Three programs serving students with special needs are temporarily using the building this year.