After more than a year of tension between Denver district leaders and the leaders of autonomous school innovation zones, the director of one of the zones — who is also a candidate for school board — announced this week that he is leaving his job on Friday.
Vernon Jones Jr. will step down as executive director of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. His announcement comes two months after the district notified the zone’s board of directors of concerns about the zone’s operations.
The notice outlines several issues, including that the zone wasn’t providing school principals with regular coaching or conducting biannual site reviews. Given the concerns, the district offered the six schools an opportunity to sever ties with the zone organization midyear — an unusual step, happening at a time when state lawmakers have prohibited revisions to innovation zone plans.
In a letter Tuesday announcing his resignation, Jones alluded to the zone moving in a different direction. He said his decision was not related to him seeking an at-large school board seat.
“The uniqueness about innovation zones is that the people closest to the work really do get to shape the work,” he wrote. “The work is taking on a different shape, at the direction of the leaders of each school, and in fairness to them, this decision had to be made sooner than later.”
A statement from the zone board of directors Wednesday references the zone “transitioning to a new vision.” The zone schools will begin a redesign process later this month that will end in January, the statement says. The Denver school board election is Nov. 2, and a conflict of interest policy would have required Jones to resign if he won. In an interview, Jones said he didn’t want his possible departure to disrupt the zone’s ability to plan for the future.
“I need to be sensitive to the organization I care about, the students I care about, and the principals I care about,” Jones said. “The school board needs me, and the best thing I could do for NDIZ was give them some sense of, ‘OK, we know this. We don’t have to wait until Nov. 2.’”
State law in 2008 created innovation zones — groups of district schools overseen by nonprofit organizations. The nonprofits’ boards of directors hire an executive director to carry out some functions that would normally be done by the district. The idea is that giving schools autonomy from the district allows them to set their own vision and better serve students.
The zones are controversial because they often require teachers to waive their union contract rights. Critics also say the zones create redundant management systems, and question the cost of the district office that oversees zones and charter schools.
Differences about innovation reached a boiling point last year, resulting in the Denver school board instituting an eight-month pause on expanding innovation zones. When two new schools applied to join zones anyway, the board voted them down. The following month, in May, state lawmakers approved their own suspension, which prohibits school boards from reviewing or revising innovation zone plans in the current school year.
Mary Seawell, a former Denver school board president whose job now includes supporting innovation zones, said she believes the district’s offer for schools to exit the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone violates the state suspension. (Seawell’s position is supported by the Gates Family Foundation, which provides funding to Chalkbeat. See our funders and our ethics policy here.)
Denver Public Schools said it disagrees that its offer violates the state suspension. The district is not asking schools if they want to exit the zone but rather if they want to end their relationship with the nonprofit organization that provides services to the zone, a district spokesperson said.
The six schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone are:
Northfield High School
McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Willow Elementary School
Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
Swigert International School
The Denver district has three innovation zones. The Northeast Denver Innovation Zone was created in 2018. It contains one high school, two middle schools, and three elementary schools (see box). Jones is the second executive director.
Memorandums of understanding between the zones and the district lay out the services the zone is contracted to provide the schools within it. The district’s August notice to the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone lists six concerns related to the zone’s agreement.
In addition to the lack of regular coaching for principals and biannual site reviews, the district’s notice says zone leaders were not facilitating the sharing of best practices between principals, not creating regular opportunities for teachers to observe each other’s classrooms, not providing opportunities for schools to give input on strategic planning, and not providing a grievance process for school staff and others to share concerns with the zone board.
“It is our responsibility as a district to ensure that any contracted third party provides adequate services for schools and students,” says the notice, which is addressed to the zone board and signed by Grant Guyer, the district’s chief of strategy and portfolio services.
The district’s notice of concern “pointed to commitments made before the pandemic,” the zone board said in a statement. But the zone board said that instead of “explaining away those problems,” it will “use the start of the school year as an opportunity to reorganize and redesign supports to the schools.”
A school’s staff must vote to join — or leave — a zone. Guyer’s notice offers the six zone schools an opportunity to hold a vote among their staff on whether to sever ties. It asks the school principals to notify the district by Friday if they’d like to hold a vote during the week of Oct. 25.
Denver Public Schools declined to say if any schools had taken the district up on its offer yet. So did the six schools. Instead, the district sent a statement.
“School leaders in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone brought some concerns to the attention of DPS leadership, and we’re in the process of addressing those concerns,” it says.
“We remain committed to ensuring that our schools receive the supports they need. District leaders are currently working with the leadership of the NDIZ and discussing the issues raised. We won’t be sharing additional details while those conversations are ongoing.”
Anne Rowe, a former president of the Denver school board who now sits on the zone’s board, said the zone would support the six schools “in whatever decision they make.” Asked about the reason for the redesign, Rowe said that in any organization there are times when some people want to go in one direction and others, including the leader, prefer another.
“It became clear to us that with regard to NDIZ, a rethinking of what NDIZ is currently and what it can be seemed like the path to take,” she said.