School Design District Story: Denver

Denver Public Schools Takes Action on Strategic School Design

Education Resource Strategies, March 2013


To improve student performance, Denver Public Schools (DPS) took an innovative look at how they could support individual school efforts to restructure and align their resources–people, time, and money–to drive student achievement. With a dedicated “Strategic School Design” office, DPS is pioneering the strategic school design concept–initially as a pilot, but ultimately in each of its 165 schools. It’s still early, but radical changes are being made. Instead of one-size-fits-all learning environments, DPS is seeing instructional collaboration, dynamic grouping strategies in response to learning needs, and restructured school schedules–all for the benefit of its students.


District Snapshot

  • Urban setting
  • 165 schools (40 charter, 27 innovation and 2 contract schools)
  • 85,000 K-12 students
  • 70% of students live in poverty
  • 40% speak a language other than English in their homes
  • 2–3% performance gains each year

Challenge

While the world has radically evolved over the past century, the nation’s schools have not. In fact, schools today look surprisingly similar to the way they did 100 years ago, but students need to be learning much more. “Leaders need to think differently about how they can restructure their resources to increase student achievement,” says Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Chief of Innovation and Reform for Denver Public Schools (DPS) since 2011. “Principals need more autonomy to make the big changes that need to be made. They need to develop technical and adaptive skills. They need to shorten assessment cycles, and they need to use their time more efficiently.”

Despite the fact that DPS is making the highest proficiency gains of any urban district in the country today, those gains are modest, just two to three percent. The reality is that only 60% of DPS students graduate from high school, and the district averages about 50% proficiency in reading, writing, and math, with a large achievement gap.

“When I came on board, the district was in the middle of a reform effort. We soon realized that one solution wasn’t going to solve all the problems in each of our schools. We needed to think more strategically about how to use our resources,” explains Whitehead-Bust.

Strategy

District Level Strategic School Design DPS is the only district that is explicitly integrating “Strategic School Design”—restructuring and aligning resources for the goal of student achievement–on a district level. As part of their effort, they have created a dedicated Strategic School Design office to retrain school leaders and provide the support, tools, and guidance to make them successful.

“The goal of strategic school design is to rearrange available resources so they better align with the instructional vision to ultimately stimulate gains in achievement.”

Principal Training and Support

Traditionally, the central office makes most of a school’s resource decisions, and principals have little control. But DPS’ Strategic School Design initiative is changing all that. Whitehead-Bust and her team are working with principals to help them reallocate their resources to change the way their schools work. “It sounds intuitive when you come from a business background, but it’s not how we’ve traditionally trained our principals,” says Whitehead-Bust. Principals need to reimagine the school day and think differently.

To further support principals, DPS is using “Instructional Superintendents” who are trained in Strategic School Design to coach their principals. DPS’ goal is to have all of their school leaders and teachers trained on strategic school design so they can make the radical changes needed to impact student achievement. While some schools are open to the idea of change conceptually, they have no idea how to implement it. “Without implementation, we’re not going to create the rate of progress we need,” says Whitehead-Bust. So DPS is getting teachers, paraprofessionals, lunch ladies, front office staff, students, families, and the entire school community engaged in reimagining the school day.

Transformative Changes

Reimagining the school day can take many forms. One school needed more teacher collaboration time but couldn’t pay their teachers more or extend their workday. By staggering teacher schedules, they could find more collaboration time, without requiring longer workdays for teachers.

Another school needed to find more time for individual student attention. They created a bank of computers in the classroom so half the class worked on computers while the other half worked with a teacher.

Still another school hired four lead teachers and a cadre of tutors so that each student could spend the majority of his or her day with a tutor in a 7:1 environment under a lead teacher.

Portrait of Strategic School Design: Martin Luther King Early College

“MLK School predominantly serves students who live in poverty and it has struggled over time. Its school leaders wanted to use their time and people more effectively, and we helped them think about what their school could look like. They ultimately decided to increase their teacher collaboration time from an hour a day to 2.5 hours, and evolve from a middle school to an early college,” explains Whitehead-Bust.

Today, MLK is a highly focused learning center with a college-prep curriculum and extensive academic support. Students are grouped into smaller “academies,” 100 students to four teachers, who travel together in core content areas—from 6th through 12th grade. The new schedule clusters all student electives around lunch, which creates a 2.5-hour block for core content teacher planning. They also integrated shorter cycle data assessments so they could be more in tune with student progress. Today, during those 2.5 hours, teachers look at real-time data and regroup kids accordingly. “Teachers can say ‘I need these students for two hours on this day because I’m doing a deep dive in literacy.’ Those same teachers can shift their schedules fluidly to do the kind of remediation that’s necessary to achieve their instructional vision,” explains Whitehead-Bust.

“When you operate in a resource-limited environment it’s important to think differently about how you use your people, time, money, technology, and space, because you can’t always find more.”

Results

DPS’ leaders and central office staff didn’t always agree on how to allocate their resources. But now they’re working toward the same goal. “When a school’s resources are being utilized as accelerants towards the same end, they can produce dramatic change,” says Whitehead-Bust. “Today, you’ll see a variety of schools partnering with one another as well as principals and teachers learning about promising models in different schools within our district.” DPS is ensuring that teachers are working together, getting the help they need, and providing individual attention for every student.

“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re excited about the early leading indicators we’ve seen, particularly in our charter and innovation schools. Leaders are coming to us proactively soliciting ideas. They are networking with one another, collaborating on instruction, and taking new ideas and experimenting with them in their classrooms. They are integrating blended learning, using dynamic grouping strategies to respond to learning needs, and reworking schedules. We’ve seen significant change and we’re really excited.”


“In education we sometimes get so insular that we don’t have the opportunity to learn what our partners are doing. ERS brings a national perspective on best practices since they have the opportunity to work with districts around the country. They’ve helped us think differently about how we use our resources, and they’ve been a great conceptual and problem-solving partner.” 

-Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Chief of Innovation and Reform for Denver Public Schools (DPS)