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.”