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

Turnarounds, Technology and Tuning the Denver Plan

Hello Members and Friends,

Please make sure you get your Denver ballot in by 7pm tonight. I know I’ll be happy to see this school board election season done.

I want to give a warm congratulations to the three newly-elected DPS members.

A+ members and I look forward to working with each of the new and returning DPS board members as they step up to the challenge of overseeing the district. I know it’s often a fairly thankless job, and yes the pay doesn’t make up for it (I’m kidding). I’m very hopeful that the new board will move beyond the politics and refocus on leading DPS. I think we are all ready to get back to work on creating a great public school system that better meets the needs of all kids.

A few weeks ago we sponsored a fascinating talk on school turnarounds by Alexander Russo from This Week in Education and author of Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors.

It was a great reminder of the importance and difficulty of school turnaround work. As Russo told the group, “School rescues are education’s dirtiest job,” along with it being “brutal work.” You can listen to the talk here. He reminded all of us about the critical importance of leadership when undertaking turnaround work and how getting things right on culture from day one can make or break a new school.

You can also see our latest background brief on Colorado school turnarounds here. We wanted to pull together an overview of the grants and results so far for the latest turnaround efforts around the state. While turnarounds are finally getting the attention they deserve with clear metrics for identifying failing schools and millions of federal dollars, they remain the most difficult (and I would argue the most important) work in education.

We do not have a choice, we have to figure out how best to get our children from failing to effective schools in Denver. Ignoring or glossing over the school turnaround challenge because it is hard to pull off should not be an option for our community. We need to go into this work with our eyes wide open and have a thorough understanding of what has and has not worked in order for us to make progress.

Denver is on the cutting, and sometimes bleeding, edge with the number and types of school turnarounds. DPS has done a better job than it ever has in thinking through a series of plans for turnarounds and bringing in a variety of new school providers. We know that the rubber will meet the road on the implementation of these new or transforming schools in the first months and first year of this hard work. The district and all of us need to pay close attention with an objective eye. Some of the latest DPS turnarounds seem to be on the right path, like the new West Denver Prep at Lake, while others like Trevista or North appear to be in need of another turnaround or replacement. A+ will be following all of these schools closely, issuing periodic briefs and having meetings for our members to discuss in the coming year.

One other really important development related to school turnarounds in Denver is the rollout of the new DPS enrollment and school guide for families. You can read more here. It will provide a much more helpful environment for turnaround schools to succeed with clear honest information on school quality for families and a much easier process for families to make the best choice on schools for their children.

Last Sunday’s New York Times had an excellent front-page story about technology and education that I thought was worth mentioning. The article, A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute (great title) was about a Waldorf School in Los Altos that caters to some of the elite technology designers in the Silicon Valley without a single computer, iPad or smartboard.

Too frequently there is a mindless embrace of new technology by school districts and parents with little thought about what the technology will replace in student learning.

Twenty years ago when I taught at Woodside and Palo Alto high schools just down the road from this school, I could always tell who the Waldorf school graduates were by their commitment to hard work, quality writing and general thoughtfulness about the world. They were typically some of the best students in both of these generally highly-regarded schools.

Somewhat ironically at the time, I happened to be one of the first teachers to try to integrate the use of HyperCard, the precursor to PowerPoint and the Laserdisc, into my earth science and geology courses. In retrospect, these technologies did little to advance my students’ learning and ended up being more of distraction for me when I should have been working harder on improving my teaching craft based upon what students were learning or not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither a Luddite nor do I think Waldorf is the answer to our educational problems (it works great for some kids and families). I think we need to be more thoughtful about how teachers can use technology to advance student learning, knowing full well that there are some great methods some thousands of years old like the Socratic method that work well when executed by thoughtful, caring and effective teachers. Schools need to get much better at rigorously determining whether some new or existing technology is really going to do a better job than an effective teacher with some books, pencils and quality art supplies. Efforts at school improvement are littered with badly thought-through technology integration. Too frequently we try to graft technology onto an already too frenetic set of educational practices instead of stepping back and asking ourselves exactly what we want kids to be able to know and do.

Having said all that, schools like Denver School of Science and Technology are showing that technology can be used well if they are serious about quality implementation with a focus on learning objectives. DSST is a great example of a school that gets the power and limitations of technology, while the Waldorf schools show that a powerful school mission and program can work together to develop knowledgeable, skilled and thoughtful graduates. In most cases in Denver or elsewhere, we don’t need new learning technologies or the perfect school program, but we do need more schools that are focused and reflective about their impact on student learning.

Connecting to my point on learning and reflection, if you missed the October 14 meeting with Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the Denver Plan, here’s a link here and here. A+ Denver has just restarted the conversations with DPS about use of the Denver Plan for dramatically improving achievement in Denver. I like to think about the Denver Plan work as a sort of tuning as we go back and forth with DPS so that we can support the Denver Plan to be an effective strategic tool for the district, board and community for guiding our new school board’s work after the November 1 election. The A+ Denver Plan committee chairs will be convening in the next few weeks to talk about next steps and meeting with new school board in early December.

Thanks for listening and I hope to see you at one of our upcoming meetings. We expect to schedule a few in December once the new school board gets settled.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or feedback on our work, please send me a note.

Van Schoales