I attended a presentation on Friday by Dr. Rob Stein, principal (and alum) of Manual High School in Denver. Manual HS has been designated an “Innovation School” with approval from its staff and the local & state school boards, which means they, by Colorado state law, can deviate from district and state regulations (but not federal). They are not a charter school – all of their staff are district employees.
Denver’s central bureaucracy and expenditures sounded similar to Seattle’s. He showed a picture of Denver’s policy manuals: thousands of pages occupying an entire shelf. Some were downright comical but illustrative of the dysfunction in public schools. For example, their 98 page union agreement includes “Article 15-1-1: Each school will have a desk and a chair for each teacher, except in unusual circumstances.” He was quick to point out that the union is not to blame, but it’s symptomatic of a breakdown in trust in a system no longer optimized for student education. He showed the Denver schools org chart with dozens of arrows pointing to all of the folks that a typical principal needs to answer to. He estimated 80+ hours a week just to respond to the emails. More importantly, he calculated $4,157 per student to pay for central staff despite a fuzzy connection to specific student learning in his school.
With their “innovation school” status granted, Dr. Stein and his staff were able to redesign and simplify everything to focus on the needs of his students, most of whom were arriving multiple grade levels behind in core subjects. With approval of his staff, they extended the school day, chose the proper mix of staff, and partnered outside the district for some services (much of it pro-bono). When given control of his budget, his funds paid for more teachers since his teachers (as is typical in lower performing schools) averaged fewer years of experience. In return for agreeing to a longer day and school year, the teachers were given a class size max of 25 (vs. district avg 35), student load of 75 (district avg 175), extra advisory time (1:15 ratio), intervention time, and professional development time, and 75 minutes every day for planning (vs. 40 district avg). And the district’s central services now need to earn his school’s business. When he saw that 85% of his kids qualified for free or reduced lunch but less than 50% were eating it, he took his dollars to a healthy, local independent vendor instead – and now, to the benefit of all schools, the district is responding.
He said it’s too soon to proclaim his program a success, but so far the results are encouraging: they went from the worst rated high school in the state to number 3 (and number 1 for Title 1 schools), their attendance rate is highest in the district, and they’ve only had 1 drop-out. So far, it looks like their teachers are satisfied as well, with only 2 teachers leaving in 2 years. And they have high levels of parent and community participation.
Dr. Stein ended with the bottom-line question, “What’s so innovative about having the flexibility to focus on your mission?” Not all principals are qualified to run their own school like this. Dr. Stein said he could not have done this without the help of some key support people. Perhaps this is not so dissimilar from the way Alternatives were created in Seattle. But, there are no principals in Seattle with the autonomy to make the kinds of decisions that Dr. Stein is able to make in his school. I believe some of them deserve that chance. And since this is district run - not charter - there is greater potential for innovations to find their way back to all schools.
I’ve been told that a video of the presentation along with the slides, should be up on the web soon (not there yet). Go here and click "Events": http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/Centers/education/index.html He's introduced by Manual HS alumnus Norm Rice.