Denver Lightens Regulations on Two Schools

Published June 1, 2009

Two Denver public schools have been given more freedom to search for education reforms tailored to their students’ specific needs.

In mid-March the Denver School Board voted 4-3 and the Colorado State Board voted unanimously to grant Manual High School and Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment freedoms resembling those of charter schools. The schools are among the first to take advantage of a law passed in 2008, the Innovation Schools Act, enabling public schools to petition for more autonomy.

“Schools know what their students need,” said former state Sen. Peter Groff (D-Denver), who sponsored the bill during his tenure as Colorado Senate president before being appointed to a post in the Obama administration in April 2009. “They know what challenges the kids face. They know what ability they’re bringing to the table. So the ability to craft school curriculum and policy around that is extremely valuable.”

Personnel Flexibility

Van Schoales, program officer at the Piton Foundation, an education reform group in Denver, said the two schools likely will change most in their relationship with the school district and in their hiring processes. He said these changes will allow the schools to craft their curricula and policies to better fit the needs of their students.

“The relationship with the school district will become more focused around whether or not the school is delivering results rather than how the school is doing those things,” Schoales said. As a result, he said, the schools will have to be especially skillful at creating smooth transitions and succession when leadership eventually changes.

Ben DeGrow, an education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a think tank based in Golden, said the schools will have more say in hiring, firing, rewarding, and paying teachers.

“I’d be hopeful that Manual and Montclair can show the value of strong local school leadership, of putting teacher professionalism over teacher union policy,” DeGrow said. “We’ll have to wait and see what they do.”

Leading the Way

Schoales said because schools will have more input in the selection and management of their faculty, they will be able to find teachers who are committed to the objectives of the school and the culture it aims to promote.

“You really need to have people that believe in what the other adults at the school believe in,” Schoales said.

Groff said Montclair and Manual are important because they will set an example for other schools and inspire them to innovate.

“It’s always scary to be the first one to be in the pool, but once some people jump in and say the water’s OK, I think you’ll see more people jump in and do it,” Groff said.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.