One year into an aggressive, expensive school turnaround initiative, some of Denver’s lowest-performing public schools are showing marked academic improvement by providing an education nearly identical to that of the highest-performing charter schools in the country.
All the schools that now make up Denver’s Summit School Network, in an impoverished corner of northeast Denver, are using an approach backed by research from Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer and the university’s Education Innovation Laboratory, or EdLabs. The research identifies five tenets of high-performing charter schools: extended school day and year, strong school leadership, data-driven instruction, increased math tutoring, and a “culture of high expectations.”
Many of the staff members in those schools were reassigned and replaced prior to the 2011-12 school year. Three traditional elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school are now 10 schools, including magnet schools, college-preparatory schools, and a Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter school. With the school year recently ending, one other elementary school is already phased out.
Students arrive for school a week earlier than they do in the district’s other public schools and stay an hour later each day. Within the network of schools, 4th, 6th, and 9th graders receive extensive math tutoring from professional tutors. Central-office administrators dedicated to the network of schools have offices in the neighborhood.
As a result of the changes, state literacy scores and math assessment scores for certain grades increased.
The day-to-day operations at Denver’s Summit Schools are handled by the district but run under a contract with the Blueprint Schools Network, a nonprofit group that is hoping to replicate the EdLabs approach in other districts around the country, almost like an innovation franchise. The same five tenets were applied to a set of schools in Houston beginning in 2010-11. (“Houston Schools Apply Lessons From Charters,” March 7, 2012.)
The approach provides a case study for district leaders who want the same autonomy and ability to change in their schools as charter school operators.
In the spring, all Colorado 3rd graders took the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program test in reading. According to preliminary scores, the three elementary schools in the Summit Schools Network saw signiﬁ cant increases over previous years.
SOURCE: Colorado Department of Education
“It’s not about charter versus traditional public school. This is about good practice,” said Matthew Spengler, the executive director of Blueprint Schools.
The five schools that eventually became the Summit Schools Network—Green Valley, McGlone, and Ford elementary schools, Rachel B. Noel Middle School, and Montbello High School—have enrollments that are almost 100 percent minority, and nearly all their students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“It was the worst part of the city,” said Van Schoales, the chief executive officer of A+ Denver, a nonprofit advocacy and accountability group.
In March 2010, the district decided to overhaul the schools, creating turnaround schools and innovation schools that are allowed to drop some district regulations. Despite opposition from some parents and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the plans were approved by the school board in November 2010.
The 81,000-student district signed a contract with Blueprint Schools to oversee the turnaround efforts, after Superintendent Tom Boasberg had heard about Mr. Fryer’s work in Houston.
Students in 4th, 6th, and 9th grade at Denver’s Summit Schools Network—among the lowestperforming schools in the city—receive daily math tutoring. At ﬁve points throughout the year, those students took the Scholastic Math Inventory assessment. While 218 students still scored “unsatisfactory” in May, that number is down from 554 at the beginning of the school year.
SOURCE: Denver Public Schools
All schools in the group were given extended school days and years. Through a nationwide recruiting effort, 75 math “tutoring fellows"—mostly college students, Teach For America applicants, and retired teachers—were hired to provide personalized instruction for 4th, 6th, and 9th graders.
Early on, schools found it difficult to adjust. At Green Valley Elementary, most teachers have less than three years of experience. If teachers don’t meet certain benchmarks, they are given an improvement plan and 30 days to apply it. If there’s no improvement, the teachers can be removed from the school.
Two of the 34 new teachers at Green Valley were removed from the school, Keith Mills, the school’s principal, said. In November, a 3rd grade teacher resigned and was replaced by a math tutor. The tutor then quit shortly after.
With six weeks until the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program literacy test, Mr. Mills, a math tutoring manager, and an assistant principal, co-taught the class together. Students scoring at the proficient or advanced level jumped from 12 percent on the January practice test to 51 percent on the actual test, Mr. Mills said. (Overall, 63 percent of 3rd graders at Green Valley scored proficient or advanced on the test, up from 46 percent last year. The state average was 74 percent.)
Criticism and Costs
Denver’s turnaround work is not without its bumps, or criticism.
Henry Roman, the president of the district teachers’ union, is quick to point out that the principal at the Center for International Studies magnet school was fired just a few months into the job.
There are also significant costs. The Summit Schools use $6.7 million in federal School Improvement Grant money and have raised $4.2 million in private donations for the three-year turnaround plan. The one-year contract with Blueprint Schools is $863,000, and a second year is being negotiated.
Part-time tutors are paid $21,000 a year plus benefits and a chance at up to $4,000 in bonuses. Teachers are paid on the regular district salary scale but given a $5,000 stipend for the extended school time, which amounts to almost a full month more than the traditional year.
Mr. Roman suggested that model isn’t built for the long run.
“Can you do all the things you are doing now three to five years from now?” Mr. Roman said. “If the answer is no, how sustainable is that process?” Without a long-term funding commitment from outside sources, Mr. Roman said he doubts an expensive tutoring program and extended school time is financially feasible for the district.
But Allen Smith, the executive director of the Summit Schools Network, countered that the positive gains from year one are steps toward sustainability.
Third graders at the three elementary schools each saw gains between 7 percent and 17 percent on a statewide reading test. Students in the tutoring program jumped from 8.8 percent proficient to 29 percent on a periodic math assessment. Attendance and graduation rates at Montbello High are up, and suspensions are down.
Most schools in the network are still far below average, but if those positive trends continue, its goals of having every student on grade level in three years is in sight, Mr. Smith said. At that point, some of the more costly measures can be scaled back, and there will be room for greater flexibility, he said.
“We’re trying to figure out how to make this scalable without having to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Mr. Smith said.
By giving schools autonomy and the types of resources usually provided to charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent, the district is aiming to re-create within its own buildings the innovation seen in top charter schools, and keep the state funding.
“If we had to wait and do things that other schools were doing in the district, as a turnaround network, we wouldn’t be successful,” Mr. Smith said.
To meet demand for that approach, EdLabs decided to spin off the Blueprint Schools Network as a nonprofit organization to help implement the research. Blueprint Schools currently is focusing only on Denver and Houston, Mr. Spengler said.
In Denver’s case, the group helps the district recruit new school leaders, establish the tutoring program, and raise private funds. During the school year, Blueprint staff members visit the schools monthly to conduct focus groups with faculty members and students, observe instruction, and collect data.
Because it doesn’t manage the schools, Blueprint realizes its relationship with districts is a unusual one.
“We are not a [charter management organization], but we’re not just consultants,” said Mr. Spengler. “We are partners in this work.”
In Colorado, outside consultant groups, which received 35 percent of the federal School Improvement Grant funds awarded to the state, according to The Denver Post, have been criticized for not producing academic improvement.
But Mr. Schoales, of A+ Denver, said Blueprint, because it takes a specific approach backed by research from a leading institution, is less of a financial risk.
“I think the way to differentiate them is in their ability to assess what the assets are in the local schools and add value there,” Mr. Schoales said, “instead of coming in and saying ‘Here’s our cookie-cutter approach.’
Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as Denver Turnaround Initiative Showing Achievement Gains