21st century schools

Five takeaways from a panel with author David Osborne, champion of giving schools autonomy and holding them accountable

Jennifer Holladay of Denver Public Schools, school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and author David Osborne

When David Osborne was considering cities to spotlight in a book about reinventing American public schools, he started with the drastic overhaul of schools in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, moved on to Michelle Rhee’s controversial changes in Washington, D.C., and found his way to Denver.

Osborne, an author and consultant who specializes in documenting public sector reforms, is an advocate of charter schools and giving schools greater autonomy.

He was sold on Denver Public Schools, he told Chalkbeat, because of the district’s unusually long and strong track record of embracing charters — and by “performance improving going back a decade.”

DPS can point to successes: Enrollment and graduation rates are up, and state test scores are creeping closer to state averages. But the district also has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, and teacher turnover is high.

Osborne was in Denver this week to discuss his book, “Reinventing Public Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” and take part in a panel with Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass; Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez; and Jennifer Holladay, DPS’s executive director of portfolio management.

The Tuesday discussion at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs was hosted by A-Plus Colorado, Democrats for Education Reform, the Donnell-Kay Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute (where Osborne works) and The 74. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation are funders of Chalkbeat).

Here are five themes that emerged from Osborne’s remarks and the panel discussion that followed:

Autonomy, accountability, choice … and districts getting out of the business of operating schools altogether

In his book and his Denver talk, Osborne laid out the ingredients he believes will improve America’s public school system. It starts with autonomy: giving school leaders the freedom to do whatever it takes to help kids. This is why Osborne is a steadfast believer in charter schools, which are operated independently and can make their own decisions about school calendars, hiring and firing, and curriculum, among other things. Next is accountability: schools that succeed grow and replicate, and those that fail are closed. Then you give parents a choice among schools. Finally, the most politically difficult piece: Osborne thinks school districts should get out of the school operating business altogether. All schools would be independently operated, with districts doing the “steering” and school operators doing the “rowing,” he said. “Denver has done a pretty good job of doing both, but it’s really unusual,” Osborne said. Not everyone is pleased with how DPS is doing both. As Chalkbeat reported last spring, charter school operators complained that they were not getting a fair shot in the competition to replace two schools being closed for poor performance.

Denver’s “family” of schools is sometimes in need of counseling

Denver is known nationally for its “portfolio” system that includes traditional district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, which enjoy many of the same freedoms as charters. Holladay, who oversees that portfolio, has a different term for it. “I sometimes think of it more like a family of schools, because we fight a lot,” she said. “… There are periods where the family of schools has to go to marital counseling, and there are periods where we do extraordinary work for children with each other.” Holladay suggested that collaborative work could be improved and expanded. “If you look at the portfolio of schools, the ones that struggle the most are single-site charters because they operate in isolation,” she said. Holladay cited new models of collaboration popping up around the country, including innovation network schools in Memphis and Indianapolis, as well as Denver’s own Luminary Learning Network. That network of four schools is part of an innovation zone, which gives schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools. So far, the effort has shown mixed results, with two of the four schools posting low growth and slipping scores on the latest state tests.

Indianapolis could prove to be a model for Denver and other cities

Osborne had plenty of praise for Indianapolis, the only city in the country where the mayor authorizes charter schools. Much like in Denver earlier, education reform advocates in Indianapolis poured money and energy into winning control of the school board. When that paid off, the board coaxed the superintendent into retirement, brought in a new leader, and the district successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass what’s called the Innovation Network Schools Act. In Colorado, innovation schools enjoy many of the freedoms afforded charters, but they’re still run by school districts. Not so in Indiana, where nonprofit organizations and outside charter operators operate innovation schools that are still considered to be district schools. To Osborne, a true believer in as much autonomy as possible, this is the way to go. He said both Denver and Washington, D.C., should look to the Hoosier state for inspiration. On the most recent Indiana state tests, innovation schools’ scores were still pretty dismal, but showed the most improvement in English and math tests compared to other school models (schools taken over by the state made the second-most progress). Note: Critics say innovation schools had an easy road to higher grades under Indiana’s system. “Within the district framework,” Osborne said, “it gives you the dynamics that can lead to higher performance.”

Segregation and quality school authorization are challenges to choice

Glass, the Jeffco Public Schools superintendent, clearly was meant to be a contrast to Osborne and the DPS folks who are all-in on charter schools and autonomy with accountability. On the job since July, Glass is a sort of reformed reformer. He’s had a change of heart on strategies such as tying teacher pay to student performance (used to champion it, is now against it) and he came strongly endorsed by the Jeffco teachers union. Glass on Tuesday praised Denver for its nationally recognized centralized admissions system and for taking “courageous stands” on school authorization and closing schools that need closing. He also took issue with aspects of Osborne’s book. Glass said Osborne overlooked “some of the segregation issues that come with school choice — that are a problem every place you implement school choice.” Osborne’s book “also glosses over some of the difficulty” of being a quality school authorizer, Glass said. Charters often “come with low quality applications, and if they keep fighting, they get the state board or some other entity to roll over and approve them,” he said. “That’s a problem.” (Glass is not alone in this sentiment). Osborne conceded that some charter school authorizers are “awful” and advocated that less is more: one strong authorizer in each city and an “escape valve” at the state level if charter applicants are “somehow treated unfairly.” That’s essentially the Colorado model.

Denver is not getting out of the business of running schools any time soon — maybe ever — but is likely to loosen the reins

DPS has shown no indication of backing away from operating schools altogether. If anything, it has invested greater energy into replicating promising district-run models, including opening spinoffs of Grant Beacon Middle School and McAuliffe International School. The district in 2018-19 is planning on giving all innovation schools more freedom over their budgets, allowing them to opt out of district services (like, say, help from the district’s family engagement office), and spend that money on something else. Osborne’s advice to DPS: “Be bold. You have gone partway down this path, but there are other steps you can take.” Among his suggestions: giving schools even more autonomy, recruiting charter networks from outside the city, adding stand-alone charter preschools (some charters in Denver run preschools as part of elementary schools) and adult schools, and improving its school rating system, known as the School Performance Framework. That system, which is adjusted and tweaked frequently, is a common target of criticism, in part because it gives much more weight to how much students are improving than it does to whether they are proficient in a subject.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how state-run schools in Indianapolis performed on state tests. 

reaction

Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” the email said. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.