Joining Forces

In Denver, four schools want to push the boundaries of innovation

PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley Elementary is one of four Denver schools in the innovation zone.

The four schools appear to have little in common. One, housed in a building topped with solar panels, is all about sustainability. Another partners with art museums to nurture kids’ creativity. Still another is in the midst of a reinvention to increase test scores while keeping school fun.

All these Denver schools share one important trait. As “innovation schools,” a designation made possible by a 2008 Colorado law, they’re free from certain state and district rules.

They can set their own school hours, choose their own textbooks and hire and fire their own teachers. In terms of sovereignty, innovation schools fall between charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, and traditional district-run schools.

Now, Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community want even more autonomy, banding together to propose a radical new way to oversee and fund their schools in a district known as a hotbed of reform.

The schools want to form an “innovation zone” that would be overseen not by Denver Public Schools administrators but by a new nonprofit organization that would give the school principals more say in how they spend the state funding attached to their students.

Unlike other innovation zones throughout the country, the Denver zone wasn’t dreamt up by the district as a way to improve low-performing schools and stave off state intervention.

Instead, the idea came from the leaders of the four schools. They claim they’ve pushed their autonomy as far as it can go under the current structure. While they say students have benefitted from the freedoms the schools have exercised thus far, the leaders aspire to do even more.

“It’s all about going from good to great,” said Zachary Rahn, the principal at Ashley.

District officials seem excited about the idea, but it’s not a done deal yet. The players are still negotiating exactly how the zone would work if it were to be approved to operate next year.

Pushing further

There are currently 62 innovation schools statewide. Forty of them are in DPS, a district that prizes entrepreneurship and has embraced alternative school models to what critics say is the detriment of traditional district-run schools.

Each innovation school writes an “innovation plan” requesting waivers from certain state education laws and district policies. Some of the most common — and controversial — waivers deal with teacher employment, salaries and evaluation systems.

Josh Gay prepares to plant pumpkin seeds as part of the Earth Day celebration at the Denver Green School in 2012.
PHOTO: John Leyba/Denver Post
Josh Gay plants pumpkin seeds at Denver Green School in 2012.

Results have been mixed. A 2013 study of several DPS innovation schools found that while teachers reported feeling more empowered, they were also more likely to have less experience and education. Teacher turnover was high, and student academic growth varied widely from school to school.

The 2008 innovation law also allows for the creation of innovation zones by groups of schools with “common interests.” The law requires a group to submit a plan to the local school board and to the State Board of Education describing how a zone would allow the schools “to achieve results that would be less likely to be accomplished by each public school working alone.”

That’s the motivation behind the proposed Denver zone, the school leaders said.

“There’s an incredible value for schools to go through the innovation process,” said Rahn, of Ashley Elementary. But, he added, “there also comes a point where you almost hit a ceiling, where the constraints of the public education system don’t allow you to actualize your plan.”

For example, the leaders said, the district mandates innovation school teachers attend some training that isn’t as relevant to their school’s unique program. DPS also requires innovation schools pay to support certain central-office departments whose services the leaders said they don’t use. And on occasion, the leaders said, they’ve gotten pushback when they’ve tried to carry out initiatives included in their approved innovation plans.

Frank Coyne, who helps lead the Denver Green School, remembers that when his school was opening its garden — a key component of its curriculum — seven DPS department heads showed up with questions. One asked what would happen if a preschooler escaped the fence surrounding the playground, got into the garden, picked a piece of fruit and choked on it.

“They said, ‘You can’t do this,’” Coyne said. “We were like, ‘We’re the Green School!’”

DPS eventually came around, he said. And today, gardens on school grounds are not uncommon. Part of the impetus for the zone, Coyne said, is that “what was innovative five years ago is no longer innovative — and how do we push the envelope?”

Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.
PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado reads on his iPad at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

The leaders believe that more separation from DPS is key. They want to create an innovation zone that would operate under a nonprofit they’ve named the Luminary Learning Network.

The four schools would remain DPS schools and their teachers would remain DPS employees. But the nonprofit’s board of directors would hire the school leaders. A memorandum between the network and the district would list the schools’ responsibilities and flexibilities.

One of the leaders’ most revolutionary ideas has to do with money. Currently, the state pays school districts about $7,600 per student. But the four schools only get about $5,600, according to Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer for DPS. The district keeps the other $2,000 to pay for things like transportation, building needs, curriculum, teacher training and administrator salaries.

Originally, the schools floated a proposal to receive the entire $7,600 and then buy back certain services from the district, much like charter schools do. But they’re currently working on a compromise that would give them more than $5,600 per student but less than $7,600.

Mary Seawell, senior vice president for education with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation (which also provides funding to Chalkbeat) and the former chairwoman of the DPS school board, is working with the schools to develop their plan and negotiate with the district. Former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Terrance Carroll, a prime sponsor of the 2008 innovation law, is a founding member of the Luminary Learning Network board.

Students at Creativity Challenge Community build with blocks.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students at Creativity Challenge Community build with blocks.

The school leaders envision that other innovation schools would eventually be able to join the zone. One or two staff members would be responsible for advocating and fundraising for the zone, as well as helping the schools share innovative practices and grow their programs.

If the schools aren’t measuring up, the district would retain the right to intervene. In fact, the leaders are discussing adding even more accountability measures for zone schools.

“We want to serve as a model for what highly autonomous schools and organizations can look like,” Rahn said. “It’s super hard to create systematic change that happens rapidly when you’re talking about hundreds of schools.” But with just four schools, “you can incubate ideas.”

Different schools, same goal

“Innovation” in schools means different things across the country, said Robin Lake, director of the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education. But for the most part, she said, grouping together schools with more autonomy has been a strategy to improve a district’s worst performers, which she noted hasn’t always been successful. Innovation stands a better chance when it’s not forced, she said.

Two Colorado districts — in Aurora and Pueblo — are currently crafting plans for innovation zones to reverse the course of some of their most chronically low-scoring schools.

Colorado already has three official zones in Kit Carson, Holyoke and the Colorado Springs area. The zone in El Paso County’s Falcon School District 49 is comprised of three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school that work together to create a cohesive experience for students from kindergarten through graduation.

But cohesion isn’t the goal in Denver.

“Each school needs really different things,” said Jennifer Jackson, the principal at Cole.

While the four schools score similarly on the district’s performance scale and have many of the same budget, calendar and employment waivers, the similarities mostly end there.

Kindergarten students, at Cole Arts & Science Academy receive wait to receive holiday gifts from a local philanthropist in 2010.
PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Kindergarten students at Cole Arts & Science Academy wait to receive holiday gifts from a local philanthropist in 2010.

Cole serves more than 530 kids in preschool through fifth grade in northeast Denver in part of a cavernous middle school building whose hallways are lined with hissing radiators and metal lockers. Ninety-five percent of students are minorities and 93 percent receive free- and reduced-price lunches, a proxy for poverty. More than a third are English-language learners.

For Cole, the journey to innovation was tumultuous. After several attempts to improve the perpetually struggling school, including an ill-fated state takeover, the staff voted in 2009 to become the third-ever innovation school in Colorado. (The first two are also DPS schools.)

Today, Cole kids wear uniforms: forest green polo shirts tucked in to belted khakis. In one quiet and orderly second-grade classroom earlier this month, students were split into three groups. One watched individualized math lessons on their own computers. Another group solved a word problem involving hamburgers and fractions, while a pair of students worked with the teacher.

When a boy stumbled over the word “grill,” he asked for help. In Spanish, the teacher explained that a grill is like an outdoor stove that might be used to cook carne asada.

Cole’s scores on state tests measuring the proficiency of its third-, fourth- and fifth-graders last year were lower than district averages. But Jackson said the school’s kindergarten through third-graders rank among the top in Colorado for reading growth due to an intense focus on early literacy — promising progress she hopes will show up on future state tests.

Ashley students and staff at one of the school's morning assemblies.
PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley students and staff give props at a morning assembly.

Ashley Elementary in east Denver also became an innovation school out of a demand to boost achievement. In 2012, after years of low test scores, DPS got rid of the principal as part of a turnaround effort. Rahn was hired to reinvent the school, which won innovation status the following year. In addition to focusing on academics, he’s worked to inject joy into each day.

The kids started a recent Monday by gathering in the gymnasium of the squat, blond brick elementary school building. Dressed in bright red, blue, green, yellow and orange shirts stamped with the school name, they cheered the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl win and gave each other shout-outs and awards before heading to class in neat lines.

Ninety-one percent of Ashley’s 400 students are minorities and 88 percent are living in poverty. On state tests last year, they scored below DPS averages but showed high growth in literacy.

One first-grade class spent part of the morning singing words tacked to a “word wall” to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” “Is, in, IIIIIII,” they sang, reading in unison. “It, into, its. If, I’ll, juuust.” When they got to the word “very,” the chorus of six-year-old voices pronounced it “vewwwwy.”

“Way to go me! Way to go you! Way to go us!” they shouted when they finished.

Working within the system

The Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community are newer than Ashley and Cole. Both schools had innovation status from the start.

The Denver Green School opened in 2010 with a focus on integrating sustainability into its curriculum. The school serves 535 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, 61 percent of whom are minorities and 60 percent of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. On state tests last year, their scores were about equal to district averages.

The younger kids attend classes in a decades-old DPS elementary school building, while the middle schoolers occupy a funky “cottage” built behind the playground. Each class has its own plot in the school’s one-acre garden.

On a recent afternoon, fourth graders worked to write newspaper articles about their field trip to the roof, where they learned about the school’s solar panels.

“It’s kind of a good thing,” said one boy dressed in an orange Denver Broncos jersey and blue jeans. “It’s good because it’s clean. It doesn’t pollute the air.”

Students at C3 participate in a Zumba class.
PHOTO: Creativity Challenge Community
C3 students participate in a Zumba class.

C3, as it’s known, is the newest of the four schools. It opened in 2012 in a wing of the Merrill Middle School building, in a southeast neighborhood Denver where many parents historically eschewed the local schools because they perceived them to be subpar.

The goal of founding principal Julia Shepherd was to lure some of those families back with an arts-based school that offers hands-on learning opportunities at local institutions like the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Colorado Ballet.

With just 280 students, C3 is the smallest of the four schools. It has the lowest percentage of minority and low-income students and the highest test scores, far exceeding district averages.

One class of second-graders spent the last part of a recent afternoon engaged in what the school calls “creativity choice.” Some drew with markers, while others built a castle out of wooden blocks. One girl curled up with a book and a group played Apples to Apples with their teacher. When the bell rang, rambunctious kids dressed in sparkly gold leggings and fluffy blue tutus spilled into a messy hallway decorated with quotes from Henri Matisse and Lewis Carroll.

The four leaders recognize the differences between their schools.

“There is no way Cole and C3 have the same needs,” said Jackson, the principal at Cole, where quotes from Maya Angelou and Tupac Shakur hang in the hallways.

And they don’t have to. While the leaders plan to share strategies and resources, their aim is to band together to create a system that allows them to be even more individualized, all the while remaining part of DPS rather than striking out on their own as charter schools.

The leaders hope to present their proposal to the DPS school board for a vote this spring. At a meeting in December, the board unanimously passed a resolution supporting the “promising new innovation” — a move that bodes well for its future approval.

“We’re deeply committed to the district,” Jackson adds. “This is in response to the direction we see them going and the innovation we’re already experiencing. We don’t want to leave the district in order to find a better way to serve kids. We believe we can do that within the system.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”