improvement efforts

After years of stagnation, Colorado’s innovation schools see breakthrough in improvement, data show

A student takes part in an after-school program at Ashley Elementary School in Denver last spring. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

A year ago, as the State Board of Education began to consider fixes for Colorado’s lowest-performing schools, there was scant evidence that giving schools freedom from some state laws and local policies would significantly boost learning.

Since 2010, only three low-performing schools that had been awarded “innovation status” had succeeded in jumping off the state’s academic watch list for poor performance. Many more innovation schools continued to lag. Gaining innovation status gave the schools flexibility to develop their own calendars, curricula and budgets, and hire and train teachers outside union contracts.

A Chalkbeat analysis of a state report on innovation schools relying on more recent data shows a shift in a short time period: Ten schools with innovation status improved enough between 2014 and 2016 to avoid state-ordered improvements.

The near quadrupling of schools that improved — most of them run by Denver Public Schools — could bolster backers of giving schools greater decision-making authority, an experiment playing out at school districts across the nation.

Some Colorado schools with innovation status continue to struggle. Seven innovation schools continue to rank among the lowest-performing in the state after multiple years of increased autonomy. And four innovation schools that had one of the state’s highest ratings in 2014 dropped to one of the lowest in 2016.

The state report did not provide any possible reasons for the sudden spike in improvement at low-performing innovation schools.

Colorado began issuing quality ratings shortly after the state established innovation schools. The state rates schools each year based on standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rates. Schools that receive the lowest two ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention. That could include granting schools innovation status to try to turn things around — an option that was among those favored by state officials this year.

Any school — not just those with poor quality ratings — can apply for innovation status. Colorado has has 86 innovation schools in 13 school districts. Some schools, like those in the Falcon 49 school district near Colorado Springs, have used innovation to carve out niche programs.

The state has approved more than 30 new innovation schools during the last two years. Concerned about whether the state’s innovation law was working as intended, the state board asked state lawmakers this year to grant them additional oversight of innovation schools, including the possibility of revoking some waivers.

The legislature did not go that far, but did give the board more leeway to reject requests it considers to be poorly designed.

Marci Imes, principal of Roncalli STEM Academy, a Pueblo middle school that was one of the innovation schools that improved enough to get off the watch list, said time, focus and years of hard work were necessary to raise her school’s quality rating.

“We can’t change instruction without changing the climate and culture first,” she said last fall after learning her school’s fate. “We had get the kids to believe in themselves, staff who believed in the kids, and supports to make sure things were happening.”

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said innovation status grants teachers and school leaders the flexibility they need to meet student needs.

But “innovation is not a magic wand,” he said. “The reason our innovation schools have driven improvements and progress is because we have a very talented leader, a talented faculty and a strong culture of teamwork among all the educators in the building.”

Boasberg said it’s likely that innovation schools that have not improved are lacking one of those components.

Last year, the DPS school board approved the formation of a new innovation “zone” of four schools granting them even more freedoms, including much more control over how they spend the state funding attached to their students.

“The zone helped drive some important changes through real dialogue about how we unbundle and allocate funds,” Boasberg said.

Starting next year, DPS will extend the same flexibilities to all innovation schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect number of innovation schools that improved in 2016 — it was 10. 

Colorado’s 2017 innovation report

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.