a 'third way'

Denver wants to expand its ‘innovation zone’ even as big money questions remain

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Aliyah Biggs, 6, second from left and Ashli Ramos-Rosales, 8, raise their hands to take part in an after-school talent show at Ashley Elementary in Denver.

The Denver school district is soliciting more schools to join its first “innovation zone,” a bold experiment that grants broad autonomy to public schools, even as the district is once again negotiating with the zone over how its schools should be funded.

A key element of the zone is that its schools can opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs. But less than two years after the zone was created, its leaders are asking for even more financial freedom.

Figuring out how the zone should work has been as messy and tension-filled as it has been inspiring, said school board President Anne Rowe, who spoke last week at a panel discussion following the release of a case study about the zone.

“It has been a journey,” Rowe said. “Where we are now is we have a model that is incredibly intriguing within a ‘portfolio’ district. It truly is an innovation driver.”

Which schools are part of the Luminary Learning Network innovation zone?
Cole Arts and Science Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Ashley Elementary, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Denver Green School, a K-8 school in southeast Denver

Denver Public Schools is known nationwide for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types, and educators around the country are watching its innovation zone.

The zone is a hybrid of sorts, often described as a “third way” of governing public schools. The four schools in the zone don’t have as much autonomy as charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. But they have much more freedom than traditional district-run schools.

The idea is that giving principals more control over their budgets and time allows them to better serve their students, or, in their words, to take their schools “from good to great.”

The zone is overseen by a nonprofit organization called the Luminary Learning Network. The teachers in the zone schools are still Denver Public Schools employees, but the nonprofit’s board of directors has the authority to hire and fire the principals.

Those principals can opt out of district meetings, trainings, and other requirements, which allows them to spend more time in their schools. Principals said it has been invaluable.

“When I’m there, I know what’s happening,” said Jennifer Jackson, the principal of Cole Arts and Science Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver that is part of the zone. “I know if my fourth-grade teacher planned today. I know if she’s following through on the feedback we had about pausing.”

The zone schools can also opt out of paying for some district services. That puts money back into their budgets to pay for programs and staff tailored to their school’s needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher.

But zone principals want to flip the financial model to one in which they get nearly all of their per-pupil state dollars up front and then opt into paying for just the district services they want. That’s how charter schools are funded, and it’s what the principals originally suggested to the district.

District officials have several concerns with that model. Zone schools are not fully independent from the district, and officials said they want to make sure they’re funded in accordance with district values. That includes pooling resources to pay for programs like high school athletics and full-day kindergarten, and spending more money on traditionally underserved students, such as students from low-income families.

Jessica Roberts, the executive director of the nonprofit that oversees the zone, said zone leaders agree with those priorities. But she said they would like more predictability in their budgets.

Under the current model, the amount of money the schools get back when they opt out of paying for some services can change each year if the department that provides those services grows or shrinks.

For example, say a school opted out this year of the services provided by Department X and got back $50 per student, which it used to hire a nurse. But Department X is making cuts next year, which means its services will only be worth $30 per student. The school can still opt out, but it’ll get less money in return, which means it may no longer be able to afford its nurse.

Roberts said she’s hopeful the district and zone can negotiate a flat fee its schools would pay to cover essential and important services, and then the schools could keep the rest. “It’s not about getting more dollars per student,” she said. “It’s about having control of those dollars.”

Before joining together in a zone, all four schools were “innovation schools,” which meant they could do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving state and district rules. But the principals still had to attend district meetings and report to district supervisors, and they did not have the financial flexibility the zone provides.

Both innovation schools and innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law that Denver Public Schools helped write. The district has 58 innovation schools, which is far more than anywhere else in Colorado. Other districts, such as neighboring Aurora Public Schools, have innovation zones, but Denver’s is the only one overseen by a nonprofit board.

Denver officials had said they were planning to extend the same financial model this fall to all district innovation schools, regardless of whether they were in a zone or not, which advocates took as a sign the zone was having a greater impact. But officials recently announced they’d abandoned that plan in part because it was too complex.

Which schools are part of Denver’s innovation management organizations?

They did, however, extend the same flexibility to what the district calls “innovation management organizations,” which are networks of innovation schools. This year, there are two networks with two schools each. The district will add a third network this fall when leaders of an innovation school in Montbello take over a neighboring district-run school being shuttered for low performance.

The leaders of the innovation networks will also be involved in the negotiations over what the financial structure will look like going forward, said Jennifer Holladay, associate chief of the district department that oversees charter and innovation schools.

The district also plans to include in the discussions the leaders of any innovation schools interested in joining the Luminary Learning Network and the leaders of any innovation schools that want to form their own zone, Holladay said. The district recently posted applications for schools interested in doing either.

Schools have until Friday to submit letters of intent. Applications are due in April. The seven-member Denver school board, which has the final say, is set to vote in May.

The applications are the first of their kind. Even though the process of creating the zone has been tense and difficult at times, district officials said outside-the-box ideas are essential if Denver is going to accelerate students’ academic achievement – what the school board president Rowe called “the very good but incremental improvement we’re seeing.”

“I believe very strongly in a ‘both/and’ world where we can embrace really strong district-run schools, where we can embrace terrific innovative models like the Luminary Learning Network, where we can embrace terrific charter schools,” said Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who was on the panel about the zone last week with Rowe.

“Often, the dialogue in the public is an ‘either/or,’” he said. “I think, frankly, that’s very harmful.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.