Denver has welcomed school autonomy, but some teachers are now saying no thanks

For the first time ever, teachers at two Denver schools voted this year against renewing “innovation plans” that allowed the schools to set their own calendars, choose their own textbooks, and in the case of one school, waive parts of the teachers union contract.

Teachers at a third Denver school voted to shed the school’s unique “autonomous” status, which allowed similar freedoms. That status, first put in place more than a decade ago, paved the way for the state law that permits district-run schools to adopt innovation plans.

The votes at Bruce Randolph School, Place Bridge Academy, and Legacy Options High School are anomalies in a school district nationally known for its “portfolio strategy.” That strategy involves giving schools more autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. The theory is that freeing schools from bureaucracy will make it easier for them to improve.

The votes against autonomy come at a time when national portfolio proponents have questioned whether Denver Public Schools is backing away from its more aggressive school improvement strategies. But Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said she doesn’t see the votes as a harbinger of change in either district policy or public opinion.

“I don’t see this as a rejection of an approach,” Cordova said. “I think it’s another manifestation of that. School teams, it’s important for them to have buy-in on where we’re going – and if not, to make shifts and changes so we can be unified.”

The votes also come as the Denver teachers union, which sued the district for approving innovation plans it argued eroded teachers’ rights, is gaining political power. In November, two union-backed candidates won seats on the school board for the first time in years.

Kathryn Fleegal, a science teacher at Bruce Randolph middle and high school, said it was partly the union’s bullish stance in re-negotiating the district teacher contract last year that inspired Bruce Randolph teachers to repeal the school’s autonomy status, which was adopted in 2007.

Lots of Bruce Randolph teachers paid close attention to the in-public negotiations and were pleased the final result, Fleegal said. When teachers compared the new contract to their old autonomy agreement, she said many liked the contract more.

For instance, she said many prefer that the contract spells out specific ways for teachers to have a voice in school decision-making.

It also provides more job security. Under the autonomy agreement, teachers were hired on a year-to-year basis and could be fired mid-year under “extraordinary circumstances.” (Fleegal, who’s been at Bruce Randolph seven years, said that never happened during her tenure.)

Corey Kern, the deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said teachers at Bruce Randolph and elsewhere aren’t opposed to trying innovative things. But he said they don’t want to sacrifice their voice to do it.

“The main thing we hear from teachers in innovation schools is, ‘How are students served better by teachers losing their rights?’” Kern said.

Deputy Superintendent Cordova said innovation plans are meant to amplify teachers’ voices, not quash them. She also pointed out that the vast majority of schools whose plans are expiring this year renewed them with the support of their teachers. The Denver school board approved in February the renewals of innovation plans at 12 other schools.

“It’s probably equally important to learn from the cases where schools are renewing, as well as from these few schools that aren’t, as to how we create the most supportive, aligned teams where teachers’ voice has a place in helping guide their school,” she said.

“That is what innovation does: creates a space for teachers to have a seat at the table to design, support, and implement a school’s strategic plan.”

Innovation schools were created by a 2008 state law. The aim was to give district-run schools the same types of financial, instructional, and schedule-related freedoms enjoyed by charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The law allows district-run schools to adopt innovation plans that waive certain state, district, and union contract rules.

The bill that created it was co-sponsored by former state House speaker Terrance Carroll, who was recently hired by Denver Public Schools for a senior leadership role. He was inspired partly by what had happened at Bruce Randolph the year before.

Bruce Randolph had been labeled one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado and was under threat of a state takeover, according to news reports. Then-principal Kristin Waters came up with an aggressive improvement plan that included a first-of-its-kind autonomy agreement.

The agreement would give Bruce Randolph the flexibility to do things like recruit teachers outside the official district hiring cycle, and budget based on teachers’ actual salaries rather than a district average, which Waters figured would save money she could spend on other needs.

Two-thirds of Bruce Randolph teachers voted in favor of adopting the agreement, and the Denver school board unanimously approved it in December 2007. The board president said at the time she hoped the show of support would prompt a flood of similar requests.

In a way, that’s happened. This year, 58 Denver public schools have innovation plans. That’s roughly a third of all district-run schools in Denver and by far the most in the state. Denver Public Schools also has an “innovation zone” that affords the four schools in it even more autonomy – an experiment the district is looking to expand.

Colorado law requires a majority of teachers approve a school’s innovation plan. Waiving any part of the union contract requires the approval of at least 60 percent of union members who work at the school, and the law says the vote must be conducted by secret ballot. The plans must be reviewed for renewal every three years.

District records obtained in an open records request show that on Feb. 8, only 5 of the 10 teachers at Legacy Options High School voted in favor of a proposed innovation plan. Legacy Options is an alternative high school in far northeast Denver.

On Feb. 9, records show that just 38 of the 84 staff members at Place Bridge Academy approved a plan proposed for that school. Place Bridge serves students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver and is home to a “newcomer center” for refugee students.

The votes at both schools were to renew innovation plans that are set to expire at the end of this school year. Place Bridge first adopted an innovation plan in 2014. Legacy Options, a newer school that opened its doors in 2015, had an innovation plan from the start.

The Bruce Randolph teachers voted on March 5 to rescind the school’s autonomy agreement. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association ran the election, in which 43 teachers voted to revoke the agreement, 16 voted to keep it, and 4 didn’t vote because they were absent.

The agreement was vague on how to repeal it. It said simply that it would remain in effect unless the Denver school board and the teachers union decided to rescind it, or “50 percent plus one” of the Bruce Randolph faculty recommended it be repealed.

Unlike an innovation plan, the autonomy agreement did not require a review every three years. The vote last month was the first time teachers had taken action on it in 11 years.

Fleegal said teachers and leaders are now working to set up the school’s new decision-making team. Not on the table at the moment, she said, is the idea of adopting an innovation plan.

“We are looking to not waive any rights of the contract,” Fleegal said. “But I think people are open to creative problem-solving, whatever that looks like.”

It’s not clear yet whether Place Bridge Academy and Legacy Options High School will have innovation plans next year. The district said in a statement that both schools “are currently working to gather feedback and determine potential plan revisions.”

Brenda Kazin, principal at Place Bridge, said in an email last month that the school surveyed its teachers about the proposed plan and planned to hold teacher-led focus groups to discuss the results. She said the school’s staff would take another vote this month.

Anthony McWright, principal at Legacy Options, did not return emails asking for comment.

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