Denver: A 21st Century School System

We’ve talked a lot in this space about 21st century schools and strategies. Rarely do we get to talk about 21st century school systems.   Yet some of the most dramatic gains in urban education have come from school districts that use a “portfolio strategy,” “reinvention,” or “21st century approach.” Usually these districts negotiate performance agreements with some mix of traditional, charter, and hybrid public schools, allowing them great autonomy.

Can this be done with an elected school board?  It is difficult, because closing schools and laying off teachers triggers fierce resistance.  Most cities that have pursued these strategies, such as New Orleans, Washington DC and Camden, New Jersey, have done so with “insulation” from local politics.  In each of these cases, the state, Congress, or a special school district (ie Recovery School District in New Orleans) stepped in to make necessary changes.

That’s why Denver Public Schools (DPS), an elected school board, stands out.   DPS has embraced charter schools and created “innovation schools,” which it treats somewhat like charters.  Since 2005, DPS has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters.  By 2010, DPS signed a Collaboration Compact with charter leaders committing to equitable funding and a common enrollment system for charters and traditional schools, plus replication of the most effective schools, whethercharter or traditional.

The story of the DPS transition into a 21st century school system is reported by David Osborne in a recent Progressive Policy Institute report:  A 21st Century School System in the Mile-High City. This fascinating report follows chronicles the journey from a floundering school district in 2005.  At that time in Denver, out of 98,000 seats, 31,000 were empty, and many school buildings were half full.  Almost 16,000 students chose private or suburban schools.  A financial crisis loomed.  New Superintendent Michael Bennet, formerly chief of staff for the Denver mayor, was entrusted to turn things around, even though he had no background in public education.

Today, of the 223 schools of DPS, 55 are charter schools, which educate 18.3% of its students.  38 are innovation schools, which educate 19.3%.  A major expansion of successful charter schools is underway.  In April, 2016, the DPS board approved an Innovation Zone with an independent, nonprofit board and3-year performance contract with the district.  The zone should, for the first time, give district schools the autonomy charters enjoy.

This wasn’t done without great controversy.  Find out more Thursday.