These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Setting the Bar for Innovation

Aurora Public Schools will be approaching the State Board of Education in May with a proposed Innovation Zone to implement next year. Five* schools in the Aurora Central High School feeder pattern will make up the zone that will be organized around a theme of global leadership. We’ve been monitoring the process closely, and provided feedback to the APS Board of Education on the quality of the school plans.

Our take: APS has doubled down and produced stronger plans at the elementary level that address cultural and instructional changes taking place; however, the Aurora Central innovation plan is still left wanting. It leaves significant parts of the instructional model, staffing plan, and teaching supports undefined; and, with the district still looking to hire a principal and the entire leadership team of the newly formed Office of Autonomous Schools to oversee the innovation schools, the district simply does not yet have the capacity to execute. Regardless, the APS Board approved all four plans, meaning they now head to the State Board.

But what does it mean for APS to propose these innovation plans to the State Board? The Innovation Schools Act of 2008 created an avenue for districts and school leaders to petition their local school boards for flexibility, in the form of waivers, from district and state level policies and regulations, and collective bargaining agreements. The State Board can only deny the plans if a) they believe it will lead to a decrease in student achievement in the schools or zone; or b) they believe the plans to be financially infeasible. A low bar indeed. So low in fact that the State Board has never denied a school or zone innovation status.

But there is an opportunity here for the State Board to clarify the implementation guidelines of this law. The Innovation Act is about giving schools and districts the ability to tailor educational programs and practices to meet the needs of a school community. This may or may not be in service of school turnaround. Yes, innovation status is one path (of several) the State Board can recommend to schools and districts on the accountability clock as part of a turnaround strategy. However, innovation status is not necessarily a turnaround strategy. In fact, fifty-one schools in seven districts have been granted innovation status by the Colorado Department of Education. Of these schools, fourteen are using innovation status as a turnaround strategy. So, not all innovation schools are turnarounds. And not all turnarounds are innovation schools. The point here is that innovation status can be (but isn’t necessarily) a means to an end. In the case of Aurora’s Innovation Zone, we are not confident that the plans presented to the School Board represent a roadmap for school turnaround: they may be a step in the right direction, but they are not turnaround plans.

We need to continue to enable schools that are not on the accountability clock (see McAuliffe International, Denver Green School, the schools within Falcon 49’s Innovation Zone) to seek the flexibilities they need to create new instructional models and experiment with organizational structures. We also need to ensure schools that need to drastically improve student achievement can waive regulations that prevent them from thoughtfully addressing the root causes of poor performance (see improvements at McGlone Elementary, and Ashley Elementary). The Innovation Act enables schools the opportunity to use flexibilities for a variety of reasons which is undoubtedly important. It bears repeating, however, that the Innovation Act is not an act that details the decision-making process for using innovation status for individual school turnaround.

We hope the Colorado Department of Education takes Aurora’s Innovation Zone, and in particular the innovation plan at Aurora Central, as an opportunity to expand its review process of Innovation plans for turnaround schools specifically. Aurora Central is one of the lowest performing high schools in the state and is about to enter Year 5 on the state accountability clock, at the end of which the State Board will be required to recommend intervention at the school. Other state statute (see the Colorado Education Accountability Act) not only enables, but requires, the State Board to intervene in a school that has been on the clock for five years. While the approval of policy waivers under the Innovation Act may be formulaic, the approval of a turnaround plan need not be. Turning around a school is arguably the hardest challenge in education, and requires serious thought by our state’s education leaders. The State Board should be setting a bar for high-quality turnaround strategies.

Innovation status is not a panacea. We’ve made this point before; our research shows that the mere presence of site-based flexibility in a school is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure success. Innovation status isn’t a substitute for quality turnaround planning which includes strong principals, a solid school design, and a committed staff. We frankly don’t see this in Aurora Central’s Plan. Let’s hope the State Board pushes for a thoughtful turnaround strategy at Aurora Central, that may or may not involve innovation status.
*Four schools’ plans have been approved by the Aurora Board of Education. Aurora West Collegiate Prep Academy, which was initially included in the Innovation Zone, but did not garner the necessary majority of teacher support in an initial staff vote on the plan in February, now hopes to re-join the Zone. The APS Board of Education will vote to approve on Tuesday, April 19th.