DENVER - Improved culture within schools and better connections to the outside community are just two of the positives found in an initial study into Denver's first eight innovation schools.
The Evaluation Center in the School of Education & Human Development on Dec. 14 summarized its findings in the first year of a three-year evaluation of the schools. The Colorado Legislature in 2008 granted the formation of "innovation schools," a law giving schools greater autonomy, such as in matters of budgeting as well as teacher hiring and scheduling.
Of the 21 schools in the state applying for innovation status, 19 are in Denver Public Schools. The Evaluation Center study, which includes the stakeholder groups of DPS, Colorado Education Association, A+ Denver and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, thus far focuses on information gleaned from interviews with principals, teachers and parents at eight schools already given innovation status.
"What all the partners want to know is, in this kind of model of granting autonomy to schools, how do schools leverage those autonomies to be successful," said Kelci Price, senior evaluator at the Evaluation Center. "Also, in what challenges faced by the schools can the district step in and help."
The schools report benefits in autonomous workforce management and budget decisions. In the past, school administrators said, they had to wait for decisions to come out of the central district office. Or they had to abide by certain burdensome union guidelines, such as inflexible teacher planning hours.
"It really enhanced their agility and decision-making at the school. They're much better positioned now to identify an issue in the school and then be able to respond to that issue," Price said. "By having autonomy, they've been able to align the budget, hiring and decision-making around whatever their school's vision is."
And that greater focused vision is paying dividends in the wider community. Parents also feel they have more say in what their child's school does, Price said.
The next step in the study is to meet with members of the four partner groups and work toward answering all the questions they have about innovation schools. Summary briefings will take place regularly as the study progresses, Price said.
"I think it's very impressive that the four of them, including the union, have come together to co-fund the study," Price said. "They all have an interest in the innovation study even though they're coming at it from different angles."
Questions remain on how innovation schools integrate with the school district. The schools, for example, need greater clarity on how the district defines innovation schools and just what is expected from them.
The results of the study will be of great statewide interest as more schools seek innovation status. The study will shed light on how effectively the innovation schools advance student achievement, according to Bonnie Walters, executive director of The Evaluation Center.
"The hope is that there will be a shift in how schools are run, how instruction is delivered, and what practices are implemented that look different from a traditional classroom setting administered by people at a centralized office," Walters said.
Links to the study documents:
Executive summary: http://www.the-evaluation-center.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IS-handout_final_Nov_2011.pdf