By transforming its central office from a compliance watchdog to a service and strategic partner, Denver Public Schools (DPS) was able to leverage data, technology, and training to increase efficiency and accountability and better support schools. The result? A new culture of openness and proactivity and a willingness to look at what each central office staff member can do differently to make a difference in the lives of his or her students.
While DPS’ Central Office System has done its best to serve schools and students in its care, it’s a giant organization with a deeply entrenched culture. “Traditionally, the central office has had a tight reign on principals, not giving them a lot of freedom to make their own decisions,” explains Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Chief of Innovation and Reform at DPS since 2011. But DPS wanted to transform the central office to support schools in doing what they need to do. “Research has told us time and time again that teachers have the highest impact on student achievement. We knew we needed to create systems and structures that cleared the pathway for principals and teachers to respond in relevant ways to needs of students,” says Whitehead-Bust. While the notion of evolving their central office was challenging, “Our job is to promote and accelerate change. If we’re asking schools to better personalize learning for students to accelerate achievement, we need to understand how to better personalize support for the schools within our care.”
Bring Many to the Table: DPS created a steering committee composed of central office staff from school reform and innovation, human resources, and finance in order to implement the change process. Having a variety of perspectives at the table helps the steering committee problem solve points of resistance. “We come together and say, ‘Okay, we tried this and it didn’t work. What are we going to try next?’” explains Whitehead-Bust. “We’re trying to evolve a very large system that’s used to doing business the way it’s always done business. To make changes, we need to bring people to the table early, provide space for them to express their fears, frustrations and anxieties, and ask the same of ourselves as we do of our central office leaders.”
Retrain Staff: As part of their reform effort, DPS retrained their staff to think beyond the job description. “We needed to develop that creative skill set within each of our staff members so that they could think differently about their jobs,” explains Whitehead-Bust. 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 we’re making incremental changes in our schools, we have the opportunity to personalize education for a wider range of students through more flexible classrooms. If principals have a vision, but their teachers don’t have the practical skill set to implement that vision, we’re not going to create the rate of progress we need.”
Decentralize Decision Making
DPS is holding schools accountable for the same metrics, but they are giving the schools the autonomy and budget flexibility to make the necessary changes. “We have a comprehensive school performance framework that shares how schools are doing on a variety of indicators. We’re not being flexible on expectations and outcomes. That’s a nonnegotiable. But different schools are going to be able to achieve those high-stakes expectations in different ways, and it’s our job to support them in getting there,” says Whitehead-Bust.
“Our vision for central office transformation doesn’t make central office leaders irrelevant. It asks them to do their job differently. We’re not trying to dissolve the central office, we’re trying to evolve it.”
Differentiate Support: Instead of selling “one product” to 160 schools, which DPS had done in the past, the district realized that the central office needed to think about differentiating the way they support their schools. “We had to think about flexible product design,” says Whitehead-Bust, “because each school has different needs.”
Raise the Bar: “By asking our people to do a better job at what they’ve been doing versus eliminating their jobs, we’ve raised the bar,” adds Whitehead-Bust. A number of years ago the charter school movement asked Revolutionary Foods, a third-party food provider, to come into the Denver market because they were not satisfied with the food quality or the service they were getting from DPS. As a result DPS’ food department said, “We need to do something differently or our department will dissolve,” so they stepped up. DPS has now become a forerunner in the nation in scratch cooking. They have gardens and farms on many of their school campuses and are feeding students healthy snacks and lunch during the day.
In the past few years the DPS Central Office has been transformed. “People are more willing to come to the table and think about how we get to a ‘yes’ versus a ‘no.’ We now have a culture of proactivity and a willingness to look at what we could do differently.” There are still more opportunities to be flexible and improve support and efficiency, but Whitehead-Bust is hopeful. “I want 100 percent of our students to get what they need to be college and career ready – to not only meet the expectations of our state assessment but also have a variety of other skills including 21st-century collaboration skills and critical thinking that prepares them for the future. And I want race and income to no longer be predictors of achievement. If we start meeting the needs of individual schools, who then in turn start meeting the needs of individual students, we have the capacity to be one of the first urban districts in the country to eliminate our achievement gap.”
“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.”
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