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As Northeast Denver Innovation Zone folds, DPS takes a parting shot

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Central Park EdNews

After six years of frequent struggles with district opposition, the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone – which includes two Central Park schools – folds at the end of June.

“It is with mixed emotions that we announce the decision to sunset operations . . .” the NDIZ board says in an April 30 statement.

“Despite our collective efforts and dedication, challenges in renewing both the zone and school plans have presented significant hurdles; the DPS philosophy on innovation zones has changed significantly in the last three years creating an uncertain environment to operate NDIZ.”

Denver Public Schools had no kind words for NDIZ as it exited the local education arena.

In a statement issued Monday to Central Park Education News, the district says it did not influence what the zone decided to do.

“That said, the district did have significant concerns that NDIZ was being poorly managed and had serious doubts about NDIZ’s ability to operate effectively,’’ the district says. “These concerns arose after years of the district’s attempts to collaborate with NDIZ leadership about holding school leaders accountable, the discovery of improper seclusion, and acts of discrimination that were in direct conflict with district policy and the values and standards we uphold in Denver Public Schools.”

The district did not elaborate on any of its issues with the zone.

NDIZ Board Chair Anne Bye Rowe says the NDIZ board wants the zone’s schools to move ahead. She declined further comment. (Achievement data for NDIZ schools can be found at the end of this story.)

This coming fall, two of the three zone schools, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual Middle School will revert to district-run schools but operate under their individual innovation plans. The third member, Swigert International, is seeking to join the Luminary Learning Network (LLN),  the last of the original three DPS innovation zones. More than 50 of the district’s 207 schools are innovation schools.

Ashley Elementary, located at Montview Boulevard and Syracuse Street adjacent to Central Park, is a member of the LLN. Northfield High School was a member of NDIZ until a year ago when the staff voted to leave citing fears that their contract rights were at risk.

Innovation schools were created in 2008 during a period of ambitious school reform in Colorado. The reform movement in Denver has lost momentum in the past several years as teacher union-backed candidates have been elected to the DPS board.

Innovation schools operate much like charter schools with autonomy to control their budgets, staffing, programming, scheduling, training and other operations. They gain those abilities through waivers from local and state policies and collective bargaining agreements. The basic idea is that local educators know how to best serve their community’s students.

“Through our unique model, which emphasizes flexibility in curriculum, assessment, and budgeting, we have consistently fostered an environment where students of all backgrounds thrive academically and personally,’’ the NDIZ board says.

Many of the district’s concerns stemmed from the dismissal of Kurt Dennis, the founding principal of McAuliffe International, who was also the driving force behind the formation of NDIZ in 2018. Issues included:

  • Dennis, a highly respected and popular school leader, was fired after 12 years in July 2023 after he spoke out in a television interview in March 2023 against district policy requiring him to conduct a daily weapons search of a student who had been charged with a violent crime while attending a school in another district.
  • DPS claimed Dennis was dismissed for violating district and student confidentiality policies in his interview. A review of that interview shows no revelation of student information or policy violations.
  • School principals are recruited and selected by a zone board but the final hiring decision rests with the superintendent. DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero excluded NDIZ from the Dennis episode, reinforcing his disapproval with the concept of innovation schools that he has exhibited since 2022 when he tried to eliminate most freedoms innovation schools enjoy.
  • Then in August 2023, the district accused Dennis of improperly using a room in the school for “seclusion,’’ which is defined as locking disruptive students in a room by themselves which is against district policy.
  • In actuality, the room at McAuliffe was used for de-escalation of unruly or emotionally charged behavior with the permission of parents and students.
  • Assistant McAuliffe Principal Micah Klaver was also put on administrative leave at the same time in relation to the investigation into the use of the de-escalation room. Klaver was considered a favorite to succeed Dennis, but he never returned from leave and left DPS in January. He now works for Mapleton Public Schools.
  • In November 2023 Denver Public Schools banned the NDIZ executive director, Colleen O’Brien, from entering district buildings, working or communicating with school leaders and staffs, or to have access to student records. The district’s actions against O’Brien was related to the investigation into the Dennis situation.
  • For all practical purposes, the action meant that O’Brien could no longer do her job. 
  • In its statement, DPS says: “Due to years of mismanagement and the failure of the NDIZ board to act on the district’s concerns, the district determined it lacked confidence in the zone’s executive director and acted to limit their access to our buildings, staff, students, and data.”
  • In spring 2022, Marrero tried to take away nearly all freedoms innovation schools enjoy. That effort was tabled.
  • But since then, the district has drawn out the process for innovation schools to renew their innovation plans. McAuliffe only recently reached an agreement with DPS on its updated plan after more than a year and a half of discussions. The delays have created much uncertainty for schools about what they can and can not do.
  • In spring 2023, DPS dissolved another of its innovation zones, the Beacon Network Schools that consisted of Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools in southwest Denver. Marrero blamed the revocation on low test scores at Kepner Beacon and concerns about the zone’s organizational health, including what he says was inadequate financial oversight by the zone board, according to Chalkbeat, a national online education news organization.

From the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone board:

We are proud of what the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone (NDIZ) accomplished on behalf of students and families. For example:

  • According to data from the annual Colorado Measures of Academic Success exams (CMAS):
    • NDIZ students outperformed DPS traditional school students by 28% when evaluating Media Growth Percentile (MGP) in Math.
    • In English Language Arts (ELA), the NDIZ advantage is 17%.
    • The median rating for the NDIZ schools was 83.2 (“Green”), compared to the DPS average of 51.7% (“Yellow”).
  • McAuliffe International School was ranked as the third best performing middle school in DPS and the 11th best performing middle school in the state, based on school performance data.
  • Swigert International received the 2023 John Irwin School of Excellence award given to schools that demonstrate exceptional academic achievement over time, and McAuliffe International received the honor in 2019.