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DPS board briefed on latest innovation plan

Denver Public Schools are the biggest users of the innovation schools law but more are on the way, and school board members were briefed Monday on the latest district proposal.

Board members are considering a request for innovation status from Creativity Challenge Community, a new elementary school that was approved late last year to be co-located at Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver.

The innovation application, reviewed at a Monday night board work session, is supported by DPS staff. It will be voted upon at the board’s meeting Thursday evening.

Known as C3, the new school is designed as a choice K-5 program with an emphasis on hands-on learning. It will be open to anyone in the district, but with a preference for students in the Cory, Ellis, Steele, Bromwell and Steck neighborhoods.

The C3 focus is on adding creative thinking skills to the curriculum, mastering 21st Century critical and readiness skills and using community partners including the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Center Theatre Academy and the Young Americans Center for Financial Education.

Like most other innovation schools in the district, C3 is proposing a longer school day. It will also feature half days on Fridays so students can have learning experiences on-site with community partners.

Placing C3 at Merrill was opposed by some in the surrounding neighborhood, but the move was approved by the board Nov. 17 on a 4-3 vote.

“Our mission was always about innovation. I felt it was a natural for us,” said Julia Shepherd, currently the principal of Cory Elementary, who will be principal at C3.

Shepherd said C3 so far has secured 127 statements of intention to enroll from families who want to send their children to the school, and that some open positions there had attracted more than 100 applications.

C3 plans to open this fall with about 50 first and 50 second graders, with kindergartners sent to the nearby Stephen Knight Center for Early Education. The school eventually will serve grades K-5.

DPS is the state’s innovation school leader, having had 19 approved since the passage of the 2008 Innovation Schools Act.

The district is currently embroiled in a 2011 lawsuit filed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which challenged DPS’s approval of innovation status for schools that did not yet have staffs in place. State law requires that at least 60 percent of a school’s faculty vote to approve a waiver of personnel rules under the district-union collective bargaining agreement.

Lawyers for the district are seeking dismissal of that suit, and oral arguments on that motion will be heard in Denver District Court on Feb. 22.

Board member Andrea Merida alluded to that in questioning Shepherd on the innovation application.

“So, you’re bringing forward an innovation proposal before you have a staff,” said Merida. “That’s not really consistent with the Innovation Schools Act. Okay, well, that’s another issue; that’s being dealt with.”

Board member Arturo Jimenez also referred to that controversy, asking Shepherd if a vote in support of innovation status was planned for her faculty when it is in place. She said that it is.

The district has three more innovation applications awaiting approval by the State Board of Education. They are McAuliffe International School, West Generations Academy and West Leadership Academy. The latter two are scheduled to open this fall on the campus of West High School.

And Grant Middle School is expected to file an innovation proposal next month.

See the C3 innovation application here.

Also Monday night, the board discussed its unified improvement plan in the wake of being accredited with “priority improvement plan” status by the Colorado Department of Education for the second year in a row. DPS is one of 18 districts in the state tagged with that label, the fourth lowest out of five performance categories that CDE uses.

“The question becomes at what point do we say we really need to do things significantly differently,” said board member Jeannie Kaplan, a frequent critic of the district’s reform policies.“The short answer,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg, “is, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Every day, in every meeting, we talk about the extensive ways we need to do things better.”

“There’s no magic answer,” Boasberg added. “Everything is on the table – and should be on the table, and it is our job as the leadership team to question every assumption.”

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