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

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.