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4 Colo. Districts Join To Run Magnet School

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This article is the 12th in an occasional series.

By Joanna Richardson

DENVER--In the tiny lobby outside her office at the Public Education Coalition, Barbara Volpe leaned over a mail crate, fingering a thick stack of letters.

"Look at this,'' she said. "More applications!'' Ms. Volpe, the director of the coalition's school-renewal project, looked both elated and worried.

More than 2,700 students have already applied for the 215 spaces available at the magnet school that the nonprofit group--which serves as a link between education and business--the Colorado Outward Bound School, and four Denver-area school districts plan to operate here this fall.

"There's a message in this,'' Ms. Volpe said. "People are looking for something for their kids, in their schools, that they're not finding.''

The governance arrangement, under which the school will span the jurisdictions of the four districts, apparently is the only one of its kind for a magnet school, according to Hal Seamon, the deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association.

The new magnet school is also one of five pilot sites to be launched by Outward Bound U.S.A., a Connecticut-based organization known for its rigorous wilderness expeditions, under a contract from the New American Schools Development Corporation. (See related story, page 8.)

Each site will provide mixed-age groups of students with an innovative thematic curriculum organized around three-week "expeditions'' that challenge youngsters to apply what they have learned to real life.

Here in Denver, news of the venture has traveled quickly. Last month, students and parents packed school auditoriums around the city for a series of informational meetings about the program.

Like the other sites involved in the national project--in New York City; Boston; Portland, Me.; and Dubuque, Iowa--the Denver-area coalition is working with a local Outward Bound outfit, the Colorado Outward Bound School, to lay the groundwork for its experiment.

However, only Denver and New York City plan to open new schools, rather than transforming existing ones.

'Different Personalities'

One of the most difficult aspects of the project, said Dale Whyte, who directs the arm of the Colorado Outward Bound School that customizes expeditions for educational and other groups, is "bringing all the different parties to the table and not getting waylaid by the hurdles.''

"We've had to figure things out as we went along. ... You're working with people from all these different organizations, with different personalities,'' added Ms. Whyte, who, with Ms. Volpe, heads the school's interim leadership team of parents, students, administrators, and teachers from the four districts.

Ms. Whyte acted as a facilitator during a meeting last month to introduce the 18-member team to the school's three new lead teachers.

She began by enlisting the group in a "trust-building'' Outward Bound activity. Leading them into the auditorium of the Southmoor School, a vacant building in Denver that will house the as-yet-unnamed magnet, she asked them to turn sideways, forming a tight circle.

Laughing self-consciously, each person gradually leaned into a sitting position, trusting that the individual behind him would remain steady and create a lap to sit on. Although the group's first attempt ended in an unfortunate domino effect, on the second try they succeeded with their tenuous balancing act.

But when they returned to their table for the meeting, the difficulty of having so many people weigh in on the school's future became apparent, as they debated how to set up a lottery system to select students for the school, hire teachers, and collect the signatures needed to launch the governance agreement.

Pooling Resources

To officials from the four participating districts--Denver, Cherry Creek, Littleton, and Douglas County--many of the reasons for a cross-district effort are obvious.

The passage last fall of Amendment 1, a Colorado ballot initiative that curbed government spending and made it harder to raise taxes, and the defeat of Amendment 6, a proposed 1-cent increase in the state sales tax earmarked for schools, have put a stranglehold on school budgets around the state. More than ever, officials said, schools need to pool their resources.

In addition, the novel approach builds a foundation for future cooperation between the districts, members of the leadership team said, and insures that the magnet school will serve a diverse student population. Denver, for example, has a 60 percent minority enrollment.

But pioneering a governance structure has turned out to raise thorny legal issues, dashing some of the group's original plans.

Although the team wanted an independent board to govern the school and serve as its link to the districts, that body would not have had sovereign immunity or the authority to contract for services, said Joy Fitzgerald, a lawyer and a consultant to the project.

"You want to create the maximum legal independence in the school, yet not set it adrift,'' explained Ms. Fitzgerald, a former education-policy adviser to Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado.

"We wanted to keep [the governing body] connected to the districts, so it could learn from them, but we also wanted to make sure we weren't recreating the governance structure that already is,'' she added.

Governing Board

The leadership team and the school districts' lawyers, as well as unofficial advisers in the state education department, struck a deal by creating a Board of Cooperative Educational Services to run the school. The board will include designees from each of the four districts and a fifth member representing the P.E.C. and the Colorado Outward Bound School.

As an established governing entity in Colorado, Ms. Volpe pointed out, the BOCES will provide the school with the necessary legal protections, "so we just decided, why fight it?''

The board will not be able to "micromanage'' the school, added Ms. Fitzgerald, since it only meets quarterly. "It is just there to approve the decisions it legally has to,'' she said.

But others saw it as a small, if necessary, sacrifice for the project.

Sharon Johnson, the director of alternative high school programs in the Denver school district, said she would have preferred a board with more autonomy, whose members did not have to be appointed by the participating districts.

Nonetheless, the school will retain a great deal of authority. Most of the curriculum decisions will be made by the lead teachers, hired last month, and by a site-based council, comprising parents, teachers, students, and community members. A business manager will perform the administrative and financial tasks normally done by a principal.

In order to hand over so many decisions to the school site--and to be exempted from other state mandates--the districts petitioned the state board of education for a waiver of the entire state education code, except for provisions that involve the health and safety of students and special education, Ms. Fitzgerald said.

Ms. Fitzgerald said the state has never had such an "aggressive'' waiver request, but she still expected it to be granted this summer.

"I feel like it's a good risk,'' she said."I think the board wants to help the school with its intent to innovate. And we have built in the assurance of accountability.''

'Undercapitalized'

Although most governance issues have been resolved, the team has had trouble creating a working budget for the school, since the districts "are still operating on last year's funding stream,'' said Ms. Johnson.

The Denver team's share of the five-year NASDC grant has provided about $120,000 in start-up and staff- development money, but "right now the school is undercapitalized,'' according to Jim Brickey, the head of the leadership team's finance committee and the principal of Highline Community School in Cherry Creek.

The per-pupil operating revenue, as well as Chapter 1 money or other federal funds, will follow each student from his or her district to the school, Mr. Brickey said.

While that will provide, on average, $4,500 per student, an additional $1,000 per child will probably be needed to cover transportation and other costs in the first few years, he said.

Ms. Fitzgerald has drafted several grant proposals for additional money from the state and federal governments. The school probably will pursue additional funding from local businesses as well, she said.

But Ms. Whyte of the Colorado Outward Bound School insisted that the team does not want to raise money in excess of what most public schools spend. "The whole concept is that this is money put into planning and development for something that can be run in an existing public structure,'' she said.

Most of the districts involved in the venture have undergone a round of budget cuts this year, added Ms. Fitzgerald. And "all of them have had to reduce administration and face tough issues with the public, which supports the need for the school to say it's going to have operating costs within the same range'' as public schools in the state.

Otherwise, Ms. Fitzgerald continued, "you really hamper your ability to help other schools, because you're just perceived as resource rich.''

Student Slots

Due to a restricted budget, and the desire to keep the student-teacher ratio close to 20 to 1, the leadership team decided to hire a staff of only 12 teachers and to admit 215 students from the four districts.

In the lottery, expected to be completed this month, 100 students will be drawn from Denver, 50 from Cherry Creek, 40 from Douglas County, and 25 from Littleton. Minority applicants will be slotted first to reach the team's target of a 25 percent minority enrollment.

While the decision to stagger the number of slots allocated to the districts was based on what districts said they could afford and their enrollment figures, Ms. Johnson of Denver's central office said, the expectation was that "Denver would bring all of the diversity to the table.''

With roughly 60,000 students and a majority minority enrollment, Denver is considerably larger and more diverse than the other three districts, located south of the city.

Leigh Berryman, a parent from the Littleton school district who regularly attends the leadership team's weekly meetings, which are open to the public, said her "main gripe at this point'' is the student apportionment.

"They're going to have parents in Littleton furious if they find out that Douglas County says they can afford more'' spots, she said.

Claire Averill, a parent from Cherry Creek who also attends the meetings, said not enough parents have shown an interest in the school-planning process.

"This is going to be a parent-involved school,'' she said. "Then, where are they?''

Ms. Johnson also said there have been some disagreements between parents and school officials regarding the design of the school.

"A problem that I've seen most is the expectation from parents that we can do anything, just absolutely anything, as long as we say it,'' Ms. Johnson said. "The idealism and the realism are going to have to square off.''

For instance, some parents wanted the school to serve students in grades K-12. But Ms. Johnson advocated making the school K-9 for the first year, which the team has agreed to do.

Ms. Johnson feared that the school would be too constrained if it had to meet the graduation requirements for high school students applying to college. "I was against opening a high school for the first year for that reason,'' she said. "It all can't happen on day one.''

'Keepers of the Vision'

The team is also easing into decisions about curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Most of those decisions will be made by the teachers and by the site-based decisionmaking team, which will be convened later this summer, said Phillip Gonring, an English teacher at George Washington High School in Denver who will be one of magnet school's three lead teachers.

"The [lead teachers'] job is to be the keeper of the educational vision of the school and provide leadership for the educational program,'' said Ms. Volpe of the P.E.C.

Mr. Gonring and the other lead teachers--Deborah Graham, a former administrator at Samuels Elementary School in Denver, and Deborah Dodd, a former teacher-trainer at the P.E.C.--are hiring the nine teachers for the school.

"We are looking for renaissance people'' for a school founded on "innovation and risk-taking,'' Mr. Gonring said.

Teachers will have to craft authentic and alternative assessments, write plans for expeditions, and excel in reading and writing, Enid Goldman, a language-arts and speech teacher at Parker Vista Middle School in Douglas County, pointed out.

"They'll need to know how to become facilitators and coaches,'' added Ms. Goldman, the head of the leadership team's curriculum committee. National curriculum groups--such as Project Adventure and Facing History, Facing Ourselves--could serve as consultants for the expeditions.

The teachers will also work with teams of students to help them pose and answer critical questions.

The expeditionary learning model makes "apathetic learners'' obsolete, Ms. Goldman asserted. "Everyone gets intensely involved, which is what a classroom should look like.''

"The learning week could be restructured; the learning hour could be restructured,'' she continued. "We're looking for the 'teachable moment.' This means we'll need a lot of flexibility from the staff and the parents as well as from the students.''

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