Denver joins movement to decentralize urban schools

Principals of traditional public schools getting the flexibility of charters
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 23, 2015

Principals in Denver Public Schools will soon have the power to purchase their own curriculum, professional development plans and testing programs.

Denver schools announced in May its move to a decentralized model for 2015-16, joining a growing urban district movement to give traditional public schools the flexibility of charters.

“Creating school leaders as decision makers and drivers of change has the potential to increase student outcomes, attract talent and create alignment throughout the system,” says Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver’s chief academic and innovation officer.

Details of Denver’s program are unclear because it’s still in the works, but the decentralized approach overall gives principals the ability to tailor academic programs to the specific needs of their schools, Whitehead-Bust says. Historically, all schools have followed the district’s core curriculum. But this year, principals in all 185 schools can opt outÑa choice available previously only to Denver’s charters or the Department of Education-approved “innovation schools,” which allow flexibility from state requirements.

Principals can consult with teachers to determine the right curriculum for the school, and tie assessments directly to that curriculum.

The district will provide guidance and develop a system for principal support in the coming school year. School department leaders will ensure principals adhere to federal, state and local laws, such as the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act, and the city decree to provide ELL services in all Denver schools.

The changes come as a response to last year’s updated Denver Plan, a set of goals for closing achievement gaps and improving school quality by 2020.

A growing approach

Decentralization has gained traction in some large urban districts in recent years, in part due to the rise of charter schools. Many districts using this strategy subscribe to a “portfolio management” approach to school leadership, in which principals control budgets, hire their own teachers and school administrators, and purchase or develop curriculum materials to raise student achievement.

The nonprofit Center on Reinventing Public Education created the portfolio model. Some 45 cities, including Baltimore, Chicago and New York, are now implementing this strategy, according to the center.

The most oft-cited example of decentralization is post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, where the state of Louisiana took over and chartered most schools in 2005, giving principals more autonomy.

Decentralization makes sense for Denver Public Schools because the district already allows school leaders to do site-based hiring and budgeting, Whitehead-Bust says. Denver also has 30 innovation schools that can request waivers from certain district policies, such as the length of a school day.

“We decided to think about how we can offer additional flexibilities related to curriculum, assessment and professional learning,” Whitehead-Bust says. “With unique circumstances, student populations and various teacher populations, we really need to give school leaders the opportunity to wrestle with those decisions.”