Case Studies

Learn more about the impact of our work

Support for Rural Colorado Schools

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic threw school districts across the country into a state of turmoil. In rural Colorado, district and charter schools faced a unique set of challenges, pivots, and adaptations to an ever-evolving set of public health guidelines and disruptions to in-person learning. This context required tailored responses from philanthropic organizations serving Colorado’s rural communities.

To understand the needs and opportunities for supporting rural schools, Bellwether Education Partners interviewed 30 educators, nonprofit leaders, and funders and surveyed more than 80 rural district and charter school leaders in Colorado.

Bellwether’s case study, Support for Rural Colorado Schools: How Philanthropy and Districts Came Together to Serve Students in 2020, and report, Support for Rural Colorado Schools Survey: Opportunities for Philanthropy to Address District Needs* identify promising practices from funders’ early responses to the pandemic and pinpoint the most urgent needs of rural districts today, nearly two years after schools first closed their doors.

Read the full report here

The Third Way: A guide to implementing innovation schools

Across the country, urban school districts are moving beyond industrial-era systems by creating “innovation” or “partnership” schools that have the freedom to reinvent the way they educate students. The Progressive Policy Institute released a how-to guide for legislators, district leaders, and advocates who want to create more of these 21st century schools: The Third Way: A Guide to Implementing Innovation Schools.

From Texas to New Jersey, from Colorado to Indiana, about 20 urban public school districts—and a few rural ones—are giving schools real autonomy, so school leaders make the key decisions, such as hiring and firing and controlling the budget. They are promising to hold these schools accountable for their performance and replace them if they fail their students, encouraging them to diversify their learning models, and letting families choose the schools that best fit their children.

The results so far have been impressive. In Indianapolis, “innovation network schools” are the fastest improving group of schools in the district. In Camden, N.J., reading proficiency in the district’s 11 “Renaissance schools” doubled and math proficiency quadrupled in their first four years.

The guide draws lessons from the experience of these and other districts, discusses key “success factors,” lays out implementation steps, and includes model state legislation to allow and encourage districts to create such schools.

Autonomous schools: A new path to growing high-quality, innovative public schools

This report from Public Impact considers how U.S. school districts increasingly create autonomous district schools to give their schools the flexibility afforded to charter schools, in an effort to provide high-quality, innovative, and diverse public schools at scale. Like charter schools, autonomous district schools are exempt from some policies governing state-funded schools, and they have autonomy over some staffing, curriculum, budget, and operational decisions. They may be operated or supported by external school management organizations, but they remain part of the school district, which holds them accountable for their performance through contracts or alternative governance structures. This report, developed with the support of the Walton Family Foundation, examines autonomous district school models, how they differ from traditional district and charter schools, and design and implementation elements that districts should consider when creating autonomous district schools.

Read the full report here

The Springfield empowerment zone partnership

This article is part of a Bridgespan Group research project that focuses on exploring the design features of “Innovation Zones” around the country, including efforts in Springfield and in Denver where Empower served as a design and launch partner.

Read the full report here

Denver’s luminary learning network

In early 2015, a group of principals from Denver Public Schools approached the Gates Family Foundation for technical and strategic guidance in their quest to gain more autonomy over decision-making, finances, and operation of their innovation schools. The Foundation had long been a supporter of independent charter schools as a strategy for improving student outcomes, but hadn’t invested significantly in district schools. Recognizing the opportunity for the Foundation and others to learn from the process of exploring new models for governance and investment, Senior Vice President for Education Mary Seawell asked Colorado-based journalist Alan Gottlieb to cover, in real time, the unfolding events that are chronicled in this case study.

Read the full report here

From innovation schools to an innovation zone

This article is part of a Bridgespan Group research project that focuses on exploring the design features of “Innovation Zones” around the country including efforts in Springfield and in Denver where Empower served as a design and launch partner.

Read the full report here

SEZP, “city of firsts” profiled in new installment of CRPE series

The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership and the people involved in its design and initial implementation take center stage in a new paper by Ashley Jochim of The Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The new installment in CRPE’s Linking State and Local School Improvement series is titled The “City of Firsts” Charts a New Path on Turnaround and provides an in-depth look at the efforts underway in Springfield, MA. Jochim looks at SEZP as a turnaround strategy and a governance model, and discusses the Third Way (referred to in the paper as the “middle way”), highlighting the promise and innovation of the Empowerment Zone approach. Jochim says, “the arrangement offers a new angle on what it means for districts to ‘steer not row.’”

The case study follows the Nov 2016 release of Measures of Last Resort: Assessing Strategies for State-Initiated Turnarounds, a paper on the various approaches that states are using to improve underperforming schools. One of the takeaways from this paper was that in order for states to get the best results in their turnaround efforts, multiple approaches should be tried in a coordinated, strategic way.

Springfield Public Schools is one such example of a district using a ‘portfolio’ of turnaround approaches. The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership operates alongside other Springfield turnaround efforts and is narrowly tailored to a specific challenge facing the district. We continue to learn from the work taking place in Springfield and are excited to see what the future holds.