Empowerment and Equity: Schools as the Unit of Change

Board of Education members tonight discussed a draft outline from Superintendent Tom Boasberg entitled “Equity and Empowerment: The School as the Unit of Change.”

The draft sets forward the district’s theory of action under the Denver Plan 2020 and details the roles of principals, instructional superintendents, networks and the district.

“School leaders and their teams, working with their communities, should have a strong ownership of all that happens within their buildings, encouraging innovation, flexibility and differentiation … to meet the needs of the students and close gaps in student achievement in each school.”

Under the draft, examples of school leaders’ authority would include:

  • Define the unique vision and mission of each school, working with community.
  • Lead engagement with parents and the broader community.
  • Establish the critical priorities for the school.
  • Make personnel decisions about school staff, including hiring and non-renewal.
  • Choose and develop instructional expectations, practices and systems, consistent with the district’s overarching vision.
  • Define use of time in the school.

The district’s role complements this, Tom writes, “the district should play a leading role in establishing performance expectations, leading research and development, sharing best practices, coaching and support of school leaders, and ensuring that in all respects our actions and practices promote greater equity among students.”

Default: Decisions are made at the school level

In fact, he states, “The starting point of the discussion should be that the default is that decisions are made at the school level. When a decision or policy is not reserved for the school level, there needs to be a compelling reason as to why not.”

Examples of the district’s role would include:

  • Establish expectations and practices to ensure equity for all students.
  • Establish a vision of excellence and performance expectations.
  • Recruit and develop talent at every level.
  • Ensure school leaders have the skills, knowledge and support they need to lead their schools successfully.
  • Drive research and development, and differentiated professional learning.
  • Stimulate innovation by researching, resourcing and supporting innovative change.
  • Meet legal obligations such as the current consent decree for English language learners.

So where do instructional superintendents, who supervise principals, fit in? Their most important role is “to coach and grow principals to master the diverse skills they need.” This generally means strategic planning guidance, school visits, joint observations of instructional practices and systems, analysis of student data, and reflective coaching conversations. Direction by an instructional superintendent to a principal “should not be the norm; coaching and empowerment of principals should be the norm.”

But if coaching fails to produce needed changes, when should an IS be directive? Examples include:

  • When school practices are causing or perpetuating significant inequities for students.
  • When a school is demonstrating significant deficiencies in critical practices or systems that are leading to poor student outcomes
  • When schools are not fulfilling legal obligations.

Panel of principals, instructional superintendents react

Board members heard reactions to the draft from a panel that included school leaders, instructional superintendents and central school-support leaders. All six applauded the draft as exciting and continuing to move the district in the right direction.

“Will this help you retain and attract and build better leaders? Yes,” said McAuliffe Executive Principal Kurt Dennis, who leads two innovation schools. He also said he’s seen increasing empowerment as a school leader in DPS.

“For me, personally, to have this experience the last five years in Denver makes me want to continue the work,” he added. “We need to promote it more (outside Denver). Folks need to know, you don’t have to be a middle manager to lead a school.”

Eldridge Greer, associate chief of student equity and opportunity, and Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer, said the draft represents more of a shift for central school-support staff.

“How the work will look is really excitingly different,” Eldridge said, describing it as the difference between “coaching and mentoring versus compliance, compliance, compliance.”

Board members said the work represents a true collaboration between board and district leadership.

“We have been on this journey for some years now and there have been stops and starts,” said Board President Anne Rowe, referring to the empowerment of school leaders. “I think articulating this as clearly as we can is going to help push us forward.”

See the full board presentation and Tom’s draft theory of action.