After a tumultuous year of difficult setbacks, the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone recently benefited from a series of developments, including the reversal of a controversial policy, the passage of a beneficial law, and the hiring of a new leader.
The difficult stretch for the Northeast zone began in September of 2021. First the Denver Public School Board issued the zone a formal “notice of concern” for failing to coach school principals and for neglecting to conduct biannual site reviews. Another blow occurred in October, as the zone’s executive director Vernon Jones Jr. resigned from his position and left the zone without a leader. Then in December, the turmoil encouraged two schools to hold a vote among the staff to decide whether to leave the zone. Willow and Montclair Elementary Schools voted to exit the zone. The departure of Willow and Montclair reduced the zone to its current size of four schools.
“It was the right decision for Montclair to go back to the district at that point,” says Montclair Principal Susan Miller-Curley. “There was a lot of uncertainty, we were in the middle of the pandemic, and we’re one of the most diverse schools in the city. We needed district resources with hiring, training and curriculum, and so we needed that district support to find our way through and to do right by the students of Montclair.”
An especially devastating blow for all Denver innovation schools came in March of 2022. In a controversial decision, the DPS board implemented a policy that removed most freedoms and powers that innovation schools said they needed to operate. The staff, parents, and supporters of innovation schools erupted with outrage that the policy of the board was debilitating for their schools.
Some of that commotion has subsided. In June, many DPS board members said they regretted the unintended consequences of the new restrictions. During a meeting to reconsider the issue, the board voted to restore many freedoms back to the innovation schools.
Also in June, a new state law that added protections for innovation schools was passed by the Colorado Legislature and signed by Governor Polis. Senate Bill 197 was co-sponsored by three Northeast Denver lawmakers, including Sen. Hansen, Sen. Coleman, and Rep. Bacon. Whereas innovation schools previously had no recourse when disagreements emerged with the district, SB 197 established a new policy in which a neutral third-party arbitrator would hear the disputes, evaluate the arguments, and render the decisions.
Perhaps the biggest development involved the hiring of Dr. Colleen O’Brien as the new executive director of the Northeast zone. Dr. O’Brien has been in the educational system for over three decades. As the assistant principal of Manual High School, she developed innovative plans that achieved successful results for the students and that served as models for other schools. Now she is excited to do the same for the Northeast zone.
“Some systems are set up where you just continue to follow everything that’s been going on for a long time,” says O’Brien. “But this is a place where people can have innovative mindsets to see school differently and do things differently. We use research and practice to guide conversations, we show examples of different models, and then we listen to people at the local level to let them co-create the practices or systems that can promote independent learners.”
The most recent tests show that the schools in the innovation zone outperformed traditional schools in the district for many categories, including both English language arts and math for grades 3-8 and grades 9-11. “There’s something to these models in the Northeast Zone,” says O’Brien. “The kids are performing way better than they are in DPS, and it’s all groups of kids from all ethnic backgrounds.”
Although the zone has regained some freedoms, O’Brien is now managing the enrollment problem that confronts most Denver schools. Because school budgets are often determined by student population, reduced enrollments are leading to decreased funds for schools. For instance, this school year McAuliffe International had an 82-student decrease. Since the school receives $7,126 per student from the district, that equated to a loss of $584,332 in its annual budget.
“There’s two things working against schools in Denver,” says McAuliffe International School Principal Kurt Dennis. “The pandemic caused some families to reevaluate their living situations and to put their kids in online or private schools. Then you also have the cost of living in Denver pushing out some young families, and as a result enrollment is decreasing across the district as a whole.”
The budget decreases require schools like McAuliffe to make sacrifices. “We have a budget of roughly $11 million, so losing half a million forced us to make hard decisions,” says Dennis. “We traditionally ran a five-period school day, and kids had four full-year elective courses that they would take. But this year we just could not financially continue to make that happen, so we had to reduce our elective offerings from full-year classes to semester courses.”
O’Brien is also attempting to overcome tighter budgets for the Northeast zone. “Once we get the financial details settled from the district, we will really examine our budgets as four schools and see where we can have budget efficiency,” explains O-Brien. “Some of our schools have lower budgets due to changing enrollment than others. So me, the four school leaders, and our own independent school board will put our heads together and determine the most efficient use of our budget money.”
Another important next step for O’Brien is the need to renew the innovation status of the zone. Every three years innovation zones need to submit plans for their schools and apply for renewal with the district.
“Each school has a point-person working with families, teachers, and students to create their school plan,” says O’Brien. “Then the leaders of the schools come together every other week to share what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s in their new plans. Then they’ll give me their big goals and we’ll work together to ensure the goals of the four schools are represented in the goals of the zone.”
The plans for the schools and zones are due on November 17, and then the board will make its final decisions in March of 2023.