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

Voices: Denver should pursue Race dollars

Originally posted on EdNewsColorado, June 20, 2012. Copyright ©
Written by Jason Callegari.

Jason Callegari, A+ Denver’s policy director, argues Denver Public Schools must update its strategic plan to have the best shot of winning Race to the Top dollars.

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new $400 million Race to the Top competition aimed at pushing districts to innovate, improve, be transparent and hold all parties accountable.

The money will be broken down into awards between $5 million and $40 million with 15 to 25 grants awarded in total. These grants will be split between rural educational agencies and collaboratives and non-rural educational groups.

At A+ Denver, we believe that Denver Public Schools stands a good chance at being awarded some of these dollars and many other Colorado districts should consider applying as well, given the favorable policy environment in Colorado.

Like previous Race to the Top applications, there are strict guidelines for those pursuing these dollars. Districts must enroll more than 2,000 students and have evaluations systems in place for teachers, principals and superintendents.

In the application, districts must address how they will improve personalized teaching and learning. The U.S. Department of Education will give points to districts that have a plan to increase the number of students who receive instruction from highly effective and effective teachers and to districts that offer flexibility in terms of schedules, staffing models and budgets.

Other areas scored in the rubric include: prior academic track record, transparency (including funding levels and decisions), a strategy for continuous improvement, sustainability and a “vision” for reform.

Why Denver should shoot for Race dollars

We believe that DPS is well positioned for these grant dollars. The Great Teachers and Leaders Act (known by many as Senate Bill 191) and the Innovation Schools Act have allowed Colorado school districts to be at the forefront of teacher and principal evaluation and to pursue new staffing and learning models.

Furthermore, the most recent state test scores showed that Denver performed better than most districts in the state, showing commendable improvements in turnaround schools located in Far Northeast and Northwest Denver, even though the district is still far from its own goal of 3.5 percent improvement in growth across all subjects.

Our only uncertainty and concern for DPS is the evidence of sustainability and the vision for reform. Denver has shown slow and steady progress over the past five years with average annual change in scores for DPS at 1.9 percent in reading, 1.9 percent in math and 1.8 percent in writing. Some of that gain is due to a large influx of federal and philanthropic dollars for turnaround efforts at some of Denver’s lowest-achieving schools.

While we certainly hope that the trends of improvement continue at these schools, we are unsure of what DPS’ plan is when the federal dollars are removed and important partnerships with external providers end. A clear plan must be cemented if DPS is to win some of these coveted RTTT dollars and continue improvements for students.

But first, ‘update or redo’ Denver Plan

In order for Denver’s application to be successful, we believe it needs to update or redo the Denver Plan. A+ Denver has been vocal about this over the past year.

We don’t doubt that the administration feels as though it already has a vision for reform, but as we argued in our letter to the school board, DPS leaders should address several areas for improvement. For example, they should include subjects in addition to math and literacy, reflect current priorities, improve accountability measures and address the central issue of school leadership.

This is a great opportunity for the Denver school board to push for a better, stronger vision that incorporates the changes specified above.

In the end, we hope that DPS and other districts take the necessary steps to apply for these funds as they continue to work to accelerate growth and move students towards proficiency.

On Twitter this week, we asked people to comment about what should be pursued through this application and former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff suggested, “continued integration of innovation and increasing access to high-performing schools.” Get Smart Schools tweeted, “DPS should focus on leadership pathways, leadership development and retaining successful teachers and leaders.”

We’d love to hear what others think would be key parts of a district plan to accelerate and sustain these improvements.