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Innovation law doesn’t spark major change

Colorado’s first schools granted more autonomy under the Innovation Schools Act don’t look a lot different today than they did before – particularly in terms of curriculum and instruction.

Denver Public Schools' students mug for the camera in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.
Denver Public Schools students mug for the camera in this EdNews' file photo.

That’s because principals have chosen to move slowly and have focused so far on changes in budgeting, scheduling and managing their staffs, according to an initial report released Wednesday.

The 95-page document, titled Crafting an Innovation School, was completed by researchers at CU-Denver for Denver Public Schools, A+ Denver, the Colorado Education Association and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

It’s the final report for the first year, 2010-11, of a three-year study of innovation schools. Included in the first study are eight Denver schools – seven innovation schools and Bruce Randolph School, which did not seek formal innovation status after securing greater autonomy prior to the 2008 law.

To date, Colorado has 21 innovation schools – 18 in Denver, two in the rural Kit Carson district and one in Colorado Springs. Most of those gained innovation status after May 2011.

“Principals and schools didn’t seek innovation status to make wholesale changes,” lead researcher Kelci Price told a crowded room of lawmakers, education policy wonks and others during a legislative briefing Wednesday at CEA headquarters. “Innovation schools look very similar in a lot of ways to how they did before.”

But a series of interviews with seven principals, 13 teachers and six parents, coupled with climate surveys of 347 teachers, showed innovation status led all three groups to express a sense of greater ownership of their schools.

“There’s just a sense of ownership and of more empowerment of our teachers and of our parents,” one principal told interviewers.

In particular, according to the report, principals, teachers and parents cited as positives greater control over how and when they hire, the ability to opt out of direct teacher placements by the district and the use of one-year contracts to ensure new hires are a good fit with the school’s mission.

Still, the findings on innovation schools’ staff were acknowledged as a concern by some, including Carolyn Crowder, executive director of the Denver teachers’ union. The report noted teachers at the eight schools were less experienced – by about three years – and less likely to have master’s degrees than teachers in five comparison schools.

The report also found higher teacher turnover, about 20 percent, and higher principal turnover, with three of eight principals leaving.

Concern about “fuzzy boundaries” to schools’ autonomy

A key issue raised in the report is Denver Public Schools’ support of innovation schools and uncertainty about the boundaries of the schools’ autonomy.

A common frustration among innovation schools was a sense of “fuzzy boundaries” about exactly what they could do and what they could not.Price said a common frustration among innovation schools was a sense of “fuzzy boundaries” about exactly what they could do and what they could not.

An example cited in the report revolved around the departure of a principal at one school – Manual High School, though the school is unnamed in the report – and the school community’s desire to name a successor.

“The staff selected a new principal candidate after a wide search, believing that through their Innovation status they had autonomy to choose their principal. However, the district did not agree with the school’s chosen candidate,” the report notes.

“Because the school and district were unable to come to any agreement, the school requested the appointment of an interim principal for a year. This situation resulted in concern and uncertainties among staff …”

It’s not a new issue for DPS. In May 2010, frustrated principals at three innovation schools obtained a legal opinion declaring the district in violation of the innovation law because district leaders refused to cede control of budget and staffing.

More recently, Price said, principals say the situation has improved and there’s a “changing attitude of service” from the district’s central office.

She noted all seven principals interviewed cited similar reasons for seeking innovation status – greater autonomy over budget, scheduling, workforce and school operations.

“Interestingly, these were also the most salient concepts brought up across respondent groups (principals, teachers and parents) when they described the changes which had occurred in their schools since Innovation,” the report states.

“Respondents were quite clear that without Innovation status their school would not have been able to make the changes it did in each of these areas.”

One example of a change came in scheduling, though not necessarily in increasing instructional time for students. More commonly, schools added collaboration, planning and training time for teachers.

One year not enough to gauge impact on achievement

Some audience members at Wednesday’s briefing questioned the need for the innovation law if schools weren’t using it to make more dramatic changes, particularly in curriculum and instruction.

And Price admitted that she was surprised by the lack of variation from the district curriculum.

But Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’ innovation and reform chief, said later innovation schools do include greater instructional diversity, such as an arts school and international studies programs.

It’s unclear whether later schools will be added to the study – researchers will meet in January with DPS, A+ Denver, CEA and DCTA to map out the next research questions.

Student achievement at the innovation schools was little discussed at the briefing, largely because the collaborators agreed it was too soon to draw conclusions, said Van Schoales, A+ executive director.

In the report, researchers note the innovation schools are experiencing growth in state test scores but that many were experiencing growth exceeding state averages prior to innovation status.

DPS officials on Wednesday released a statement highlighting the report’s findings on school culture, noting innovation schools had higher average ratings in areas such as community engagement and trust in principals.

The report notes four schools with particularly high marks, where teachers and parents expressed “considerable trust” in principals they described as motivators with a clear vision.

In two schools with recent leadership changes, however, the feedback was less positive and teachers expressed concern about “unilateral” decision-making.

Some DPS board members have expressed concern about principal leadership at innovation schools, fearing what happens when a leader given so much more autonomy exits a school.

Whitehead-Bust said DPS has adopted a policy requiring innovation school applications include a succession plan and that teachers and community members are interviewed, along with the principal, to ensure there’s a shared vision – so one person’s departure doesn’t derail the innovation plan.

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