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.”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.