What We’ve Learned From Leading Schools in Denver’s Luminary Network — And How We’ve Used Our Financial Freedom

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Denver’s Luminary Learning Network Shows How Innovation Zones Can Work for Teachers, Students, and Families

When we helped four school leaders launch an “innovation zone” in Denver two years ago, we weren’t sure where the journey would take us.

The guiding vision was for radical empowerment of the educators closest to the students. So we began simply by asking fundamental questions about who gets to make key decisions about new hires, schedule, curriculum, culture, and budget.

Springfield Teachers, Empowerment Zone Schools Praised by Gov. Charlie Baker

Two teachers who represented the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership during Gov. Charlie Baker’s State of the Commonwealth speech said it is a testament to the work being done by administrators, teachers, parents and students.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” said Tammy Grimes, chairwoman of the special education department at the High School of Commerce, which was the first high school in the district to join the empowerment zone.

Denver’s First Innovation Zone: How It Got Built & Early Lessons

Education leaders, advocates, and policymakers interested in pushing more decision-making, budget flexibility, and ownership to the school level can hear lessons from Colorado’s first independently run innovation zone of public schools – thanks to a new case study and webcast discussion from Gates Family Foundation.

Innovation Partnership Zones, an educational Third Way

Back in late May, 2016, Empower Schools hosted an event called The Emerging Third Way featuring on-the-ground voices from Lawrence, Springfield, and Denver, as well as MA Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, MA Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester, and US Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

Another featured voice was Representative Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education. In her reaction to the morning’s discussions Rep. Peisch said, “we constantly hear in the legislature from districts about their need to have more access to the kinds of flexibilities and autonomies that they get at the level 4 stage much earlier.” Today, Rep Peisch is leading a third way effort of her own by proposing legislation that would enable districts to access real autonomy and flexibility before schools fall into the underperforming category.

According to Scot Lehigh’s article in the Boston Globe, Innovation Partnership Zones, as they are called in Rep. Peisch’s proposal, share the same general structure as the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership: an independent, interlocking board of directors, a performance contract with the local district, and a pathway to a new, negotiated collective bargaining agreement that allows more teacher voice at the school level. The proposal allows Innovation Partnership Zones to be initiated by a district or by the commissioner in partnership with a district in an effort to improve schools before the require state intervention.

Empower’s CEO, Chris Gabrieli, concluded his comments at the Third Way event with the following statement:

“The Third Way is a broad river with several tributary streams that together can and should see themselves, ourselves, as one movement working to create new ways ahead fusing the best of districts and charters.”

We are excited to follow this third way effort to unlock autonomy for more districts and schools across Massachusetts, to give teachers and leaders more decision making power and resources, to build on promising practices, and to continue Massachusetts’ national educational leadership.

Early learnings, successes, and inspiration from Denver’s LLN

During our most recent visit to Denver we met with school leaders in Denver’s Luminary Learning Network (LLN), Denver’s first Innovation Zone, to catch up on what they were learning, where they were enjoying success, and what challenges they were trying to overcome.  We also heard from school leaders not currently in the zone who were excited about the potential of having more autonomy, a change that they believe will enable them to drive student improvement at their schools. We left feeling more inspired by the people we work with and more confident in the promise of Zones and the ‘schools as the unit of change’ philosophy.

It has also been exciting to see Denver Public Schools leadership so enthusiastic about the promise of the Innovation Zone model that they are considering launching their own call for Zones and re-fashioning the district’s theory of action to reflect a ‘schools as the unit of change’ approach– a central tenet of Zone, and Empower Schools theory.

This article in Chalkbeat Colorado highlights some early successes, as well as how the LLN and DPS staff are learning together as this bold experiment plays out for the first time. It reaffirms for us that the role of the LLN is not to compete with the district, but to complement the district and to push the boundaries of what is commonly expected of school leaders and teachers. The LLN is about believing in the expertise and ability of school leaders and teachers and trusting that they know what is best for their schools and communities. This responsibility includes self-identifying the supports the schools, the leaders, and the teachers need to be successful and working collaboratively to get that support.

In this article, DPS and LLN Board member Mike Johnson might have summed it up best, “From my perspective, what’s really important isn’t whether I think or the (DPS) board thinks there have been successes,” he added. “It’s what the school leaders think. … Everything I’ve heard is it’s very positive. … That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing is empowering school leaders and people in the building to really focus on their kids.”

Two issues to keep an eye on this year include 1) whether or not additional schools will be given a chance to demonstrate their readiness for the more autonomous environment afforded by the Zone, and 2) if additional budgetary flexibility will be granted to Zone schools in order to help them fully realize their existing autonomy.

Read the article in Chalkbeat Colorado:

Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding “innovation zone” experiment

Places We’re Watching: Indianapolis

The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) published a paper on recent developments in Indianapolis. As in Springfield MA, it is inspiring to see the district embrace school autonomy, and empower teachers and leaders to make decisions based on students’ unique needs.

According to PPI, one of the biggest reasons for the shift was the arrival of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. A former school leader himself, Ferebee, was given “carte blanche” as a principal. He says,

“I believe that is why I was successful. Your best teachers are your most innovative and creative teachers, and they know their learners. So when you don’t give them the full opportunity to make informed decisions about what they know, you’re limiting the opportunity for them to be successful.”

Founder and CEO of Indy’s The Mind Trust, David Harris and his team played a key role catalyzing the current environment in Indianapolis, including helping to seed an ecosystem of talent and support organizations, advancing enabling legislation, attracting the right school board to recruit Ferebee, and issuing a report urging that all district schools be treated like charters.

One of the most interesting developments in Indianapolis has been the creation of Innovation Network Schools. These schools are district schools that are exempt from the same laws and regulations as charters and operate outside of union contracts. They are governed by a nonprofit board that hires the principal, sets the budget and pay scale, and chooses the school design. They negotiate arrangements with the district and most get free or reduced-price transportation, utilities, custodial, special education, information technology, meals, and social services.

With support from Ferebee, the Mind Trust incubated one of the first Innovation Network Schools launched in 2015 and has since incubated several more. One of the initial Innovation Network Schools was a persistently failing district school restarted in 2015 by Earl Martin Phalen, a Massachusetts native and proven charter school leader. In the first year of operation, the percent of third graders who passed IREAD (Indiana’s reading test for third graders) at his school doubled from 30-61. Based in part on the school improvement, Phalen has recently taken on a second innovation school.

While it is too early to know if these efforts will be successful, it is exciting to see other cities forge paths that give traditional district schools the same tools and flexibilities that successful charters enjoy, including independently sustained autonomy.


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