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.”

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.