'leap of faith'

Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding “innovation zone” experiment

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

A bold experiment in giving non-charter schools near-charter-like levels of autonomy could be expanded if a recommendation by Denver Public Schools becomes reality.

At a school board work session Monday, DPS staff recommended the state’s largest school district solicit applications for more “innovation zones,” as well as applications to expand the district’s first zone, which is made up of four schools and was created earlier this year.

The board and staff did not agree on a timeline for soliciting the applications, opting to revisit the issue in January for further discussion. However, board president Anne Rowe said, “I think what you heard is a sense of urgency to move forward as quickly as can be done as well as we can.”

The first zone was created in April by a unanimous vote of the board. Officially known as the Luminary Learning Network, it’s made up of two schools in northeast Denver — Ashley Elementary School and Cole Arts & Science Academy, also an elementary — and two schools in southeast Denver: Denver Green School, which serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary school known as C3.

The four schools were already innovation schools, which meant they had waivers from certain district and state rules. But forming a zone granted them even more autonomy, especially over their budgets. The schools can now “opt out” of a wider menu of district services, such as some of those provided by an office that helps schools with family engagement, and keep that money.

This year, that amounted to an average of an extra $425 per student.

The schools spent much of that money on personal coaches for the school leaders, training for teachers and hiring more staff. C3 increased its school nurse from one day a week to three. Denver Green School upped its school psychologist to full-time. Ashley hired another part-time special education teacher. And Cole brought on an in-house substitute teacher.

“It causes less disruption for us when we have people who know our scholars,” Cole principal Jennifer Jackson told the school board last month in an update on the zone’s launch.

But the biggest benefit, school leaders said, has been the increased amount of time they’re able to spend in their buildings. No longer are they required to attend budget sessions or meetings with DPS principal supervisors, known as instructional superintendents.

“Those were great opportunities, some of which aligned to what I needed and others not so much,” said Zachary Rahn, principal at Ashley. “But now I feel my coach and I are in charge of my development. It’s much more tailored to what I need as a professional.”

However, launching the zone has presented challenges, as well. Rahn originally planned to step into the role of zone executive director this year but changed his mind when his assistant principal was tapped for an interim principal job at another school.

“Without that person in the building, I did not feel comfortable to be able to leave my position,” Rahn said.

Of the four schools, Ashley has the lowest rating. It dropped this year from “yellow” to “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color-coded scale, partly due to a decline in student academic growth on state tests. Each zone school has pledged to move up one color in three years in exchange for more autonomy.

The zone hired a new executive director, Jessica Roberts, who previously worked for the Texas charter school network YES Prep. But she didn’t officially start until October 1. She has spent much of her time ironing out the logistics of how the zone should work, meeting weekly with DPS officials to ensure the zone schools are complying with district requirements.

From the district’s perspective, one of the biggest issues has been making sure staff understand the services the zone schools have opted out of and those they’re still entitled to.

“When our office gets phone calls from LLN teachers and leaders, we have to make sure those aren’t services they’ve opted out of,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which authorizes new schools and holds them accountable. “We’re used to saying yes. Sometimes we have to say no.”

Some of the decisions to opt out of district services have had unintended consequences. For instance, the zone schools originally opted out of the services the Portfolio Management Team provides to charter and innovation schools to help them navigate the district’s systems, which allowed the schools to retain about $1 per pupil. But school leaders quickly realized that Portfolio Management was their main point of contact with DPS and they ended up buying back those services, Holladay and the leaders said.

Holladay’s office is currently working on a more granular list of services provided by each department — “a menu of services we can all understand,” she said — so the opt-out process and its aftermath will be clearer for both the schools and for district staff.

The district is also wrestling with how and when to expand the zone. Roberts told the school board last month that for the zone to be sustainable, it needs to grow to eight to 10 schools.

Part of the reason is financial and part is philosophical, she said. While the zone only has one employee — her — it has incurred the same startup costs many nonprofits face: legal fees, the expense of setting up accounting and human resources systems and the like. And though it has benefited from the support of philanthropic foundations, she and others acknowledged those dollars won’t last forever.

Going forward, 100 percent of the money to pay her salary and keep the zone going will have to come from the schools, Roberts said. Running it with just four schools wouldn’t be impossible, she said, but it wouldn’t be ideal; the zone could do much more if there were eight to 10.

Roberts and the school leaders said having additional schools in the zone would allow for even greater collaboration and economies of scale.

“It would be great to have a bigger and more diverse learning community,” said Frank Coyne, lead partner at Denver Green School. “Our four schools are all so different. There’s key things we can learn from each other, which we’re doing now, but we’d like to deepen that.”

And they’d rather not wait, even though the zone hasn’t existed long enough to see if the increased autonomy is trickling down to students and accelerating their learning.

“In our mind, we don’t need to wait to see if student achievement accelerates,” Roberts said. With an innovation zone, “you’re really empowering leaders.”

Several school board members at Monday’s work session expressed interest in taking what one described as a “leap of faith” and betting that the innovation zones will work — despite the fact that the rollout of the first zone hasn’t been smooth.

“This hasn’t been done before,” school board member Mike Johnson, who also serves as the school board representative on the zone’s board of directors, said before the meeting.

“From my perspective, what’s really important isn’t whether I think or the (DPS) board thinks there have been successes,” he added. “It’s what the school leaders think. … Everything I’ve heard is it’s very positive. … That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing is empowering school leaders and people in the building to really focus on their kids.”

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

teacher training

The first year of teaching is notoriously tough. Denver is experimenting with a new approach

First-year teacher Krista Trofka fills in her class calendar at Denver’s North High School in 2007. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A teacher’s first year in the classroom is often a sink-or-swim experience.

That was true for Kyle Jordan. A history major in college, Jordan underwent six weeks of training through an alternative teacher licensure program in Texas before being handed the keys to his own classroom at an alternative high school in Houston.

Being in his early 20s made it easy for him to form strong bonds with his teenage students, but he struggled with lesson planning. He was instructed in how to break up fights but not how to get his students to refocus after the skirmish was over.

The help and mentoring he’d been promised when he was hired never materialized, he said.

“The other teachers had a running bet: ‘What month is he going to bail?’” Jordan said.

He made it to the end of the year. But he realized that to stay in teaching, he needed more support. This fall, after moving to Colorado and completing a master’s degree in education, he’ll be one of six new “associate teachers” in Denver Public Schools who will teach part-time in a high-poverty school and spend the rest of their time planning, observing, and learning.

The small pilot is part of a new district strategy to better prepare new teachers to work in Denver’s many high-poverty schools, which tend to hire more novices. The students in those schools are more likely to be behind academically and in need of top-notch teachers.

Nationally, one in 10 new teachers quits after their first year, according to research by the U.S. Department of Education. Districts across the country are trying different ways to stem the tide. Denver officials hope that investing in novice teachers will allow the teachers to hone their craft faster and to stay at high-needs schools for longer.

“We know how challenging that first year can be for a new teacher, even when they’ve had high-quality training,” said Laney Shaler, the district’s director of new teacher pathways and development. “We want to extend that developmental runway.”

The teachers aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. Some research shows high teacher turnover is detrimental to student learning, especially in high-poverty schools. For districts, it can be time-consuming and costly to hire more and more teachers each year.

Shaler said the district’s long-term vision is that all novice teachers hired to work in Denver Public Schools will first spend time training in one of its high-poverty schools as an associate teacher, a teacher resident, a student teacher, or in some other role. The difference between an associate teacher and a teacher resident or student teacher is that associate teachers are already licensed and able to teach on their own, or they’re part of a program like Teach for America, which has participants teach full-time while earning their certification.

Which Denver schools have been designated “teaching academies?”
  • North High School*
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College
  • McAuliffe Manual Middle School*
  • Greenlee Elementary School
  • Goldrick Elementary School*
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Trevista at Horace Mann Elementary School
  • * These schools will have “associate teachers”

The district has designated seven high-poverty schools as “teaching academies” that will specialize in serving as training grounds for new teachers the way teaching hospitals do for new doctors (see box). (Because the district hires about 250 first-year teachers every year, Shaler said it’s likely that non-designated schools will train new teachers, too.)

That’s different than the way it works now, which is that various universities and teacher preparation programs have informal partnerships with individual schools to train aspiring teachers. Some of those schools serve low-income students, but others do not – despite the fact that first-year teachers are more likely to get hired to work in high-poverty schools.

Three of the teaching academies – North High School, McAuliffe Manual Middle School, and Goldrick Elementary School – will have associate teachers this fall. They will be paid slightly less than regular first-year teachers: $38,000 as opposed to $41,689. The cost will be split between the schools and the district. In all, the district will spend $325,000 in 2018-19 to get the teaching academies up and running, with $150,000 going to associate teacher salaries.

Emily McNeil will be an associate math teacher at North. She’s already familiar with the school, having done her residency there while earning her teaching license. As an associate teacher, she’ll be teaching on her own for the first time, but for three periods a day rather than five. She and the other associate teachers will spend the rest of their time planning, observing other teachers, attending training sessions, and getting advice and feedback from mentors.

McNeil hopes the role will allow her to ease into a profession she knows can be tough.

“Teaching is such an art,” she said. “It’s not something you can learn overnight.”

North Principal Scott Wolf sees the associate teacher role as one more way to authentically prepare new teachers to work at a school where 76 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, and 87 percent are students of color.

If a teacher trains at a predominantly white or wealthy school, “they are not going to be able to come into North and be successful right away,” he said. It takes a different mentality, and a willingness to build relationships with students, to teach in a high-poverty school, Wolf said.

“We need teachers who want to do the work not just as job but as a vocation,” he said.

Jessica Long, principal at McAuliffe Manual, said she hopes the associate teacher role will allow first-year teachers to get out of “day-to-day survival mode” and into a frame of mind that’s healthier, more sustainable, and more conducive to learning on the job.

“If you were up all night crying, and you’re exhausted and frustrated, I don’t think you’re showing up as your best self,” she said. “In a lot of ways, the education field has accepted that, and you just have to go through that. I appreciate getting this push to say, ‘Can we change that?’”

Experts said the approach seems promising. Having a gradual on-ramp for new hires is a common-sense approach used in many other professions, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who has studied teacher preparation and remembers his own sparse training as a first-year teacher.

“Would a law firm give their newest lawyers their toughest cases?” he said. “No, they wouldn’t. That was precisely the practice in American schools.”

But the experts warned that not all high-poverty schools are fertile training grounds, especially since such schools tend to have higher turnover of teachers and principals.

“If it’s a high-poverty school with a top-notch principal, and the staff has got it together, that’s so different from a high-poverty school where half the staff has left,” said Barbara Seidl, the associate dean of teacher education at the University of Colorado Denver.

Five of the seven schools Denver has designated as teaching academies are highly rated, earning “green” last year on the district’s color-coded ratings scale, which is largely based on test scores. The other two earned a “yellow” rating, one notch below green.

North is one of the yellow schools, but Wolf notes it had a 90 percent teacher retention rate this past school year, which is higher than the district rate of about 80 percent. The school has been nationally recognized for its approach to student discipline, and its enrollment is growing, a sign of popularity in a district where students can easily choose to attend any school they want.

Jordan, the teacher from Texas, will be an associate geography teacher there this fall. He’s hopeful that after such an unsupportive experience his first time in the classroom, this new role will make his second go-round more manageable and successful.

“It’s less, ‘Oh there’s a new teacher. Let’s see if they’ll make it to the end of the year,’” he said. “It’s more, ‘You’re part of this. We’re going to help you. Your success is our success.’”