Nov. 17, 2015
Michael Kiley: “Isn’t this what the district is supposed to be good at, running a neighborhood school? If the district is saying it cannot run a neighborhood school, then I wonder about our management of the district at this point.” http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/10/29/in-denver-school-board-race-a-telling-divide-over-what-defines-a-neighborhood-school/#.Vj4hD_mrTIU
Julie Williams: "All I am asking for is for a committee to tell us what is in (the AP History curriculum), and then it's up to the board to decide what is appropriate for our kids." http://www.9news.com/story/news/local/2014/09/25/conservative-board-member-speaks-out-after-protests/16245999/
Both school board candidates lost on Nov. 3. They were supported by two opposing groups (Kiley, by the teachers union; Williams, by Americans for Prosperity-Colorado). Perhaps we miss the point when talking about whether “reformers” won or lost, whether the left or the right can claim victory.
Another View is that the vote two weeks ago might be about a new role for school boards in our state. That role is not to have a central office run schools (Kiley), nor is to have a five-person board “decide what is appropriate” for a dozen high schools across a huge district (Williams).
That new role is smaller. More humble. Ironic, I know, in light of the national—even international—attention given to our local races. Ironic in light of the cash raised–and wow, that was a lot of money!--for these candidates. It seems as if we are talking about Really Important Positions of Enormous Influence. That is what I hear in the comment on the new school board in Denver Public Schools by Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association:
… he hopes that the new board “continues to engage in collaboration” with teachers, parents and the community. But he noted that more power also means more responsibility. http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/11/05/in-denver-a-clean-sweep-for-backers-of-district-reforms-and-questions-about-a-united-front/#.Vj0G1fmrTIV
More power? Meaning what? School boards assuming even more “control” over individual schools? Isn’t that what Kiley and Williams suggest was their view as well? We run schools. The board decides.
“Yep, son, we have met the enemy he is us.” Pogo
Consider, if you will, a trend moving in the opposite direction. Evident in three of our lowest-performing school districts—DPS, Aurora, and Pueblo—seeking to improve. Where the boards are willing to admit that “district control” and the central office have been and are, in fact, part of the problem. Boards making use of the 2008 Innovation Schools Act allowing “more autonomy to make decisions at the school-level” (Colorado Department of Education). “The Act provides a formal process that allows schools to petition their local school boards for waivers from district-level policies …” (CDE), and more. In short, boards acknowledging to schools: It looks as if we have stood in your way. OK, guilty as charged. We begin to see that it was presumptuous of us, some might even confess, foolish, to think we could “run” over a hundred schools, in our two largest districts, from the central office in Denver or Jeffco. That’s not what we know how to do, and—let’s make it clear: that’s really not our business.
Three examples, then, of boards that have taken steps (major strides, in the case of DPS) towards a system with less regulation from the top, with greater freedom and authority at the school level.
Greater autonomy — if schools want it
In a major shift, DPS offered principals the chance to opt their schools out of centrally approved curriculum, teacher training and assessments this school year and go their own way. About one-fifth of principals seized the opportunity.
A more decentralized district is a significant turning point for a district with a historically strong central administration.
1. Denver Public Schools: With 54 charter schools, 36 innovation schools (http://portfolio.dpsk12.org/ ) and, beginning this fall, additional site-control and decision-making available for many principals (see box), the school board has made it clear that, no, we do not want to “run schools.” The more each school has the authority and flexibility to make key decisions, the better. (More detail on DPS plans in Addendum A. One new member elected to board Nov. 3.)
2. Aurora Public Schools, in Year 4 on “Priority Improvement” with the Colorado Department of Education, recently proposed developing “up to three ACTION Zones” in which the schools will apply for Colorado Innovation School Status. “Superintendent Rico Munn wants to free several of the city’s academically struggling schools from district and state red tape as well as the district’s collective bargaining agreement with its teachers union in an effort to improve student achievement.” (http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/03/18/aurora-chief-pitches-broad-reform-plan-to-save-central-high-from-state-sanctions/#.VjjoLfmrTIU
"Innovation Zone" coming to Pueblo City Schools (KOAA – by Lena Howland)
As part of their plan to turn around the district, the Superintendent is hoping to turn 6-10 of their schools into an "Innovation Zone," just like they did with Pueblo Academy of Arts.
"What we're hoping that our students will see and our families will recognize, the opportunities that are going to be a higher quality educational opportunities that might be specific to needs of individual students," Sheryl Clarke, Assistant Superintendent at Pueblo City Schools said.
3. Pueblo City Schools is in Year 5 on “Priority Improvement” with CDE. In 2013 the district enabled three of its lowest-performing schools “to become schools of innovation… (giving) each school community greater autonomy and flexibility in implementing innovative programs in their buildings to better meet the needs of their students.” Last spring the school board, apparently seeing enough success at these three schools, committed to an Innovation Zone for several more schools (see box).
School districts to schools: mea culpa
Yes, our fault. We have been the helicopter parent overseeing our children. Mum and Dad unwilling to let go. We forgot you were adults able to manage on your own. We now recognize—if grudgingly—the number of good charter schools in Colorado benefiting from the freedom to commit to a mission, arrange a longer school day, find a distinct curriculum, and hire individuals without the district bureaucracy involved—in ways that best suit their mission and the needs of their students. (See Beyond Averages: School Quality in Denver Public Schools (2014), the most well-documented report showing significantly different outcomes—especially for low-income students—in schools “operated by the district” versus new charters.)
I hear you saying: I think you’re dreaming … building a case based on a few examples. Only DPS shows this is a deliberate strategy, not just an attempt to fend off state intervention. Surely you know that most of the “big” 15 districts (over 17,000 students) are not ready to surrender control. They have been doing business the old way for so long…. It is naïve to suggest K-12 public education is making such a transformation.
Of course you would be right. But let’s see what works, and where this goes. Yes, my interpretation may be wishful thinking …. And yet, for all the fury over the power of our school boards of late, a few are taking steps to let go—ensuring that real control belongs where teachers teach and students learn: in the schools.
Addendum A – Denver Public Schools
“Denver school board sets course toward more decentralized district,” by Jaclyn Zubrzycki
“Starting next school year, all principals in Denver will have the option to select and buy their own curriculum, school-based testing programs, professional development plans, and potentially to choose more of the programs and employees in their buildings.
“Those are some early steps in a plan to decentralize decision-making and significantly change how Denver Public Schools works with its schools. ….
“The idea is to create more independent schools and turn principals into ‘chief strategists’ — a move that will have ripple effects both for teachers and students and for the central office staff who have traditionally worked with schools.
“This is the first time all district schools, not just charters and those that specifically request it, would have this degree of control over their programs.
“DPS board members and staff said they will begin to flesh out the details of the changes and what more flexibility for budgets, hiring, transportation, scheduling, accountability, and more might look like in coming weeks.
“Board members say the changes are an attempt to execute the vision they laid out last year in the updated , a set of goals for improving student achievement and school quality by 2020. “The describes more flexibility for schools as one of the district’s key strategies.
“‘How do we make sure we’re walking the walk and not saying you have flexibility with one hand and taking it away with the other?’ said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.
Board members Barbara O’Brien and Anne Rowe described visits to schools where they said school staff currently felt stymied by supposed supports from district offices. ‘Part of the culture shift has to be more respect for the autonomy of the school and their ability to control their days,’ O’Brien said….”
National trend, local changes
“The idea of decentralizing power and changing the roles of bureaucracies in recent years, partly in tandem with the growing school choice movement and particularly charter schools, which have control over most aspects of their operations and programming.
"The strategy is often tied to an approach to governance known as ‘ … Rather than managing and directly running programs at schools, a district’s central office is responsible for approving, monitoring, evaluating, and providing services to a portfolio of more-independent schools and ‘investing’ in those that work. Budgeting is shifted so that schools can select and pay for certain services or staffing arrangement rather than having services paid for and distributed at the district level.
"The idea is not new in Denver. DPS already has dozens of charter schools and more than 30 innovation schools, which can request flexibility from certain district policies, such as the length of a school day.”
Chalkbeat Colorado, (http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/05/12/denver-school-board-sets-course-toward-more-decentralized-district/#.VjuGOPmrTIU
From Denver Public School website: “The Portfolio Management Team cultivates, authorizes, launches, and oversees high-quality autonomous schools (i.e., District-run, Innovation and, Charter) in the Denver Public School (DPS) system. Empowered by the Denver Plan, the Portfolio Management Team embraces school autonomy, high performance standards, clear accountability, parent/guardian choice, and broad stakeholder engagement.” (http://portfolio.dpsk12.org/
Addendum B – Aurora Public Schools
“Aurora’s school improvement plan earns blessing from state board…,” by Susan Gonzalez and Nic Garcia
“The State Board of Education has given Aurora Public Schools the green light to move ahead with in order to improve student learning.” Chalkbeat Colorado, http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/06/10/auroras-school-improvement-plan-earns-blessing-from-state-board-with-some-reservations/#.VkjLOvmrTIV
“Aurora chief pitches broad reform plan to save Central high from state sanctions,” by Nic Garcia
“The proposal to create three “innovation zones” comes as the district is beginning preliminary conversations with the Colorado Department of Education about the future of the struggling
“Based mostly on test scores and graduation rates, Aurora Central has been rated by the state as a chronically underperforming school for five years. If there isn’t drastic improvement by the end of the school year, Aurora Central will likely face state sanctions.
Innovation zones are clusters of school that are given innovation status under a 2008 state law. Similar to charter schools, those schools are granted waivers from school district and state policies and regulations and usually any collective bargaining agreement the district has with its teacher and classified unions. Waivers usually lead to different school programs, calendars, and one-year contracts with teachers.
“School leaders at innovation schools also usually have greater flexibility with their budget and professional development for staff.”
Chalkbeat Colorado, http://co.chalkbeat.org/2015/03/18/aurora-chief-pitches-broad-reform-plan-to-save-central-high-from-state-sanctions/#.VjjoLfmrTIU
Addendum C – Pueblo City Schools
“Innovation born of student need,” by Gayle Perez (11/24/15)
“With a vision of education reform through ingenious ideas and freedom from traditional policies, the Colorado State Legislature agreed seven years ago to institute the concept of innovation schools.
Passed in 2008, the Innovation School Act allowed for flexibility for schools and districts as a way to better meet the needs of students.
“The law was born out of a request from school leaders who wanted the same flexibility that charter schools have with finances, particularly in using them to implement programs and ideas that best meet the needs of their students.
“The law allows for directors of the innovation schools to seek waivers from certain policies and rules if they prohibit the schools from implementing innovative ideas and different approaches to education….”
Pueblo Chieftain, http://www.chieftain.com/news/education/4026361-120/innovation-schools-born-risley#sthash.GXUQwCPb.dpuf
“District ponders innovation zone,” by Gayle Perez (11/26/15)
“Based on the positive cultural changes already experienced at the Roncalli STEM Academy, Risley International School of Innovation and Pueblo Academy of Arts (formerly Pitts), district leaders are moving forward with a plan to make three additional schools of innovation at Irving, Minnequa and Ben Franklin elementary schools. “There’s a real need for improvement, we can’t just continue on the same path when you’re not seeing evidence of improvement. That’s when you look at other avenues,” said Gina Gallegos, director of continuous improvement and innovation. ‘Just the term innovation, what does that mean? It means thinking differently and that’s what we’re doing, we’re thinking differently,’ she said. ‘It can’t continue that our kids aren’t achieving at the levels that they need to.’” Pueblo Chieftain, http://www.chieftain.com/news/education/4037050-120/innovation-schools-zone-improvement#sthash.G1TPtXWr.dpuf
Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the
view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 / email@example.com
October email from my niece in Thailand: “What’s going on here Pete?” – with link to a NY Times article on Jeffco.
 The Washington Post, Nov 1, 2015: “In Denver suburb, a school board race morphs into $1 million ‘proxy war’”
 Throughout this newsletter, to highlight terms related to autonomy and flexibility, all bold mine.