21st century schools

Five takeaways from a panel with author David Osborne, champion of giving schools autonomy and holding them accountable

Jennifer Holladay of Denver Public Schools, school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and author David Osborne

When David Osborne was considering cities to spotlight in a book about reinventing American public schools, he started with the drastic overhaul of schools in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, moved on to Michelle Rhee’s controversial changes in Washington, D.C., and found his way to Denver.

Osborne, an author and consultant who specializes in documenting public sector reforms, is an advocate of charter schools and giving schools greater autonomy.

He was sold on Denver Public Schools, he told Chalkbeat, because of the district’s unusually long and strong track record of embracing charters — and by “performance improving going back a decade.”

DPS can point to successes: Enrollment and graduation rates are up, and state test scores are creeping closer to state averages. But the district also has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, and teacher turnover is high.

Osborne was in Denver this week to discuss his book, “Reinventing Public Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” and take part in a panel with Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass; Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez; and Jennifer Holladay, DPS’s executive director of portfolio management.

The Tuesday discussion at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs was hosted by A-Plus Colorado, Democrats for Education Reform, the Donnell-Kay Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute (where Osborne works) and The 74. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation are funders of Chalkbeat).

Here are five themes that emerged from Osborne’s remarks and the panel discussion that followed:

Autonomy, accountability, choice … and districts getting out of the business of operating schools altogether

In his book and his Denver talk, Osborne laid out the ingredients he believes will improve America’s public school system. It starts with autonomy: giving school leaders the freedom to do whatever it takes to help kids. This is why Osborne is a steadfast believer in charter schools, which are operated independently and can make their own decisions about school calendars, hiring and firing, and curriculum, among other things. Next is accountability: schools that succeed grow and replicate, and those that fail are closed. Then you give parents a choice among schools. Finally, the most politically difficult piece: Osborne thinks school districts should get out of the school operating business altogether. All schools would be independently operated, with districts doing the “steering” and school operators doing the “rowing,” he said. “Denver has done a pretty good job of doing both, but it’s really unusual,” Osborne said. Not everyone is pleased with how DPS is doing both. As Chalkbeat reported last spring, charter school operators complained that they were not getting a fair shot in the competition to replace two schools being closed for poor performance.

Denver’s “family” of schools is sometimes in need of counseling

Denver is known nationally for its “portfolio” system that includes traditional district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, which enjoy many of the same freedoms as charters. Holladay, who oversees that portfolio, has a different term for it. “I sometimes think of it more like a family of schools, because we fight a lot,” she said. “… There are periods where the family of schools has to go to marital counseling, and there are periods where we do extraordinary work for children with each other.” Holladay suggested that collaborative work could be improved and expanded. “If you look at the portfolio of schools, the ones that struggle the most are single-site charters because they operate in isolation,” she said. Holladay cited new models of collaboration popping up around the country, including innovation network schools in Memphis and Indianapolis, as well as Denver’s own Luminary Learning Network. That network of four schools is part of an innovation zone, which gives schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools. So far, the effort has shown mixed results, with two of the four schools posting low growth and slipping scores on the latest state tests.

Indianapolis could prove to be a model for Denver and other cities

Osborne had plenty of praise for Indianapolis, the only city in the country where the mayor authorizes charter schools. Much like in Denver earlier, education reform advocates in Indianapolis poured money and energy into winning control of the school board. When that paid off, the board coaxed the superintendent into retirement, brought in a new leader, and the district successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass what’s called the Innovation Network Schools Act. In Colorado, innovation schools enjoy many of the freedoms afforded charters, but they’re still run by school districts. Not so in Indiana, where nonprofit organizations and outside charter operators operate innovation schools that are still considered to be district schools. To Osborne, a true believer in as much autonomy as possible, this is the way to go. He said both Denver and Washington, D.C., should look to the Hoosier state for inspiration. On the most recent Indiana state tests, innovation schools’ scores were still pretty dismal, but showed the most improvement in English and math tests compared to other school models (schools taken over by the state made the second-most progress). Note: Critics say innovation schools had an easy road to higher grades under Indiana’s system. “Within the district framework,” Osborne said, “it gives you the dynamics that can lead to higher performance.”

Segregation and quality school authorization are challenges to choice

Glass, the Jeffco Public Schools superintendent, clearly was meant to be a contrast to Osborne and the DPS folks who are all-in on charter schools and autonomy with accountability. On the job since July, Glass is a sort of reformed reformer. He’s had a change of heart on strategies such as tying teacher pay to student performance (used to champion it, is now against it) and he came strongly endorsed by the Jeffco teachers union. Glass on Tuesday praised Denver for its nationally recognized centralized admissions system and for taking “courageous stands” on school authorization and closing schools that need closing. He also took issue with aspects of Osborne’s book. Glass said Osborne overlooked “some of the segregation issues that come with school choice — that are a problem every place you implement school choice.” Osborne’s book “also glosses over some of the difficulty” of being a quality school authorizer, Glass said. Charters often “come with low quality applications, and if they keep fighting, they get the state board or some other entity to roll over and approve them,” he said. “That’s a problem.” (Glass is not alone in this sentiment). Osborne conceded that some charter school authorizers are “awful” and advocated that less is more: one strong authorizer in each city and an “escape valve” at the state level if charter applicants are “somehow treated unfairly.” That’s essentially the Colorado model.

Denver is not getting out of the business of running schools any time soon — maybe ever — but is likely to loosen the reins

DPS has shown no indication of backing away from operating schools altogether. If anything, it has invested greater energy into replicating promising district-run models, including opening spinoffs of Grant Beacon Middle School and McAuliffe International School. The district in 2018-19 is planning on giving all innovation schools more freedom over their budgets, allowing them to opt out of district services (like, say, help from the district’s family engagement office), and spend that money on something else. Osborne’s advice to DPS: “Be bold. You have gone partway down this path, but there are other steps you can take.” Among his suggestions: giving schools even more autonomy, recruiting charter networks from outside the city, adding stand-alone charter preschools (some charters in Denver run preschools as part of elementary schools) and adult schools, and improving its school rating system, known as the School Performance Framework. That system, which is adjusted and tweaked frequently, is a common target of criticism, in part because it gives much more weight to how much students are improving than it does to whether they are proficient in a subject.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how state-run schools in Indianapolis performed on state tests. 

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.