Commentary: DPS Attacks on Innovation Schools Hurt Students and Educators | Westword
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Commentary: DPS Attacks on Innovation Schools Hurt Students and Educators

A longtime educator warns that the Denver Board of Education and superintendent have lost sight of what’s most important: the needs of students.
McCauliffe Manual Middle School is part of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone
McCauliffe Manual Middle School is part of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone McAuliffe Manual Facebook
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I worked as a professional educator in Aurora, Cherry Creek and Denver for nearly thirty years, and I’ve never been more frustrated or disappointed by a school district’s leaders as I am now with Denver Public Schools.

During the last year, the Denver Board of Education and the superintendent have lost sight of what’s most important: the needs of our students. 

I started my career in education as a paraprofessional, and then taught first through third grade. I’ve worked as a literacy coach, a dean of students, an assistant principal, principal, and as an instructional superintendent working with middle and high schools. I retired in January from my role as principal at McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a public innovation school that is part of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

I’ve stayed involved as an executive coach for the interim principal, and I’m increasingly concerned about the board of education’s and the superintendent’s attitudes and actions toward Innovation Zones and innovation schools.

For example, last year the board of education passed a far-reaching executive limitation that eliminates important flexibilities that innovation schools use to serve students. Then the superintendent opposed Senate Bill 22-197, which provides a fair process for innovation schools with alternative governance to resolve disputes with local school districts. The district also warned school leaders against publicly advocating for the bill or contradicting the superintendent’s position. (The bill passed.)

Now, the district and the superintendent are in the process of reviewing Innovation Zone and innovation school plans, which tell how zones and schools will improve student outcomes by waiving some district policies, state statutes and provisions in collective bargaining agreements.

Many innovation schools use these waivers to develop their own school-year calendars, pursue their own relevant professional development opportunities or create their own curriculum. Plans are developed in partnership with innovation school teachers and families, all in the service of students.

During the plan review process this year, the district has made unilateral revisions to those plans and has demonstrated an alarming disregard for state law. The district has forced zones and schools into making further revisions, eroding their ability to use innovation to better serve students.

I care so deeply about the McAuliffe Manual community, and I’m afraid that the district’s actions during plan review are going to limit the school’s ability to best serve its students and families. I’m also worried for the school’s leaders and teachers, who put so much time, thought and care into delivering the best learning environment for their students.

I am proud of the work the McAuliffe Manual team has done to deliver high-quality learning opportunities and enrichment experiences that are responsive to our students’ needs.

While I was principal, I opted out of district services and professional development. I reallocated those funds to contract with neighboring businesses and organizations that provided opportunities and experiences that students in our communities don’t typically have access to, including access to creative arts spaces and dance lessons. McAuliffe Manual serves a population of students who are highly trauma-impacted, so these activities were more than simple fun; they helped us counter our students’ trauma with moments of pure joy.

As an innovation school, I was also able to reallocate dollars to provide students with access to more robust social-emotional support from school and community counselors, social workers and psychologists. All of this was needed in our community, particularly when students returned to classrooms after schools had been closed during the pandemic.

There are so many tremendous opportunities and services innovation schools are able to provide for their students, and they can only do this because of their autonomy and flexibility.

When I served as an instructional superintendent in Denver Public Schools, my goal was to empower school leaders and educators. I provided feedback and worked with them to navigate challenges when needed; otherwise, I respected their experience and expertise and trusted them to excel in their roles. Their development and growth were important to me, and I knew that they couldn’t succeed if I micromanaged them. 

Sadly, the district’s actions during the last year have stifled innovation school leaders and teachers. As a longtime professional educator, the district’s attitude and tone toward innovation leaders and teachers feel offensive; as a person, they're hurtful. Despite my years of service, I didn’t feel respected or trusted to do what was best for our team and our students.

The attempts to limit or eliminate our autonomy and flexibility undermine our ability to do what’s best for our kids. Innovation school leaders and teachers know that innovation works.

At McAuliffe Manual, our innovation status helped my team make rapid improvements in student academic achievement. In 2022, we earned a “green” rating — the highest rating — on the state’s school performance framework. In doing so, we climbed two ratings over our 2021 performance.

It’s disheartening that the Denver Board of Education and superintendent refuse to celebrate or acknowledge the value of our Innovation Zones and innovation schools, particularly the leaders and teachers who are deeply engaged with their students and families.

If the district was acting in the best interest of students, it would be actively identifying ways it could replicate the success we see in our Innovation Zones and innovation schools. Instead, the district’s board and superintendent continue to chip away at flexibility and autonomy in innovation schools. It’s hard to say what the superintendent and board are hoping to achieve by doing this, but it’s abundantly clear: They’re not acting in the best interest of students.

Suzanne Morris-Sherer is the former principal of McAuliffe Manual Middle School and a former instructional superintendent with Denver Public Schools. She retired in January after nearly thirty years of working in public education.

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