Pol­icy gives flex­i­bil­ity

In­no­va­tion sta­tus schools im­prove in some cases, but it’s “not a magic wand.”

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Nicholas Gar­cia

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 dra­matic shift in a short time pe­riod: A dozen schools with in­no­va­tion sta­tus im­proved enough be­tween 2014 and 2016 to avoid state-or­dered im­prove­ments.

The 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 low­per­form­ing 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 can ap­ply for in­no­va­tion sta­tus. Colorado 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.

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 in-

no­va­tion 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.

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

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