Category Archives: School Governance

Three “Must-Have” Areas of Freedom that Autonomous Schools Need to Succeed

My colleagues and I have been working with districts in several states to design and launch autonomous district schools, and over the past several months, we’ve rolled out a series of blog posts and other resources to explain how these kinds of schools can work best, including the new video below:

An obvious question in this work is: Which types of autonomies are crucial to the success of autonomous district school efforts?

Having worked with hundreds of high-performing schools around the country over the past fifteen years, I believe that strong alignment within and across three key areas is necessary to deliver excellent outcomes for students:

1. People

In a traditional district school, the principal likely has a number of people on her team who she did not hire. Maybe a few of them are not bought into the principal’s vision and would rather be on another campus. 

Principals in autonomous schools must have control over who is on their team, how roles are structured, and how teachers use their time, as my colleague Tresha Ward has written extensively about. Think about high-performing charter schools or networks: inevitably they have a leadership team and staff that believe deeply in the mission and unique instructional approach. 

Similarly, principals in district autonomous schools need to be able to select and support a team that is aligned around a common vision and strategy for educating children, wants to be part of the school, and is committed to professional learning and growth. Continue reading

How Autonomous Schools Should Be Held Accountable — It’s Complicated

Across the country, many states and local districts are establishing autonomous school policies, which delegate to principals and school leaders significant authority over school operational decisions that are traditionally held by district central offices. This theory reflects part of the charter school theory of action, which relies on granting increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. 

However, the accountability side of this bargain is much murkier for autonomous schools and so are the outcomes, raising questions about the extent to which these policies are able to capitalize on lessons learned from successful charter sectors. 

cover of Bellwether report "Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools from Feb 2020, features graphic of three school buildings with different but overlapping colors

The strongest charter sectors have pretty clear and consistent approaches to accountability: charters are managed to a performance contract that has specific goals for outcomes. They are subject to periodic renewal based on a data-based assessment of progress on those goals. The consequences for not meeting those goals are clear, often culminating in non-renewal or closure.

Autonomous school policies vary significantly from place to place, and even sometimes within the same city, in ways that create thorny questions about the best structures for holding schools accountable. There tend to be two ways that districts keep autonomous schools accountable to high performance, as we outline in our new report

  1. Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
  2. Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans

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If Your District is Losing Enrollment, Borrow Some Tools from Denver

As families make their school choices during the annual enrollment season this winter, there are a lot of unknowns for district leaders to manage. The size of the student population shouldn’t be one of them. When district student enrollment numbers drop, a whole community can find itself in a panic. School principals start worrying about potential cuts to their staff. District administrators start worrying about consolidating or closing schools. And if all this happens unexpectedly, then parents and students are the ones who suffer.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is at a similar crossroads: enrollment levels are in decline after a period of population boom, but their leaders are able to nimbly respond to enrollment changes due to a number of systems they have in place. Other city leaders take heed.

In most traditional districts, enrollment data isn’t used for a great deal of strategic decision-making, but thanks in part to Denver’s universal enrollment system and student-based school budgeting process, they have a much richer set of data to understand which schools and parts of the city are attracting (or losing) students. Leaders use this to aid in decision-making when it comes to high-stakes subjects like school creation, turnaround, or closure.

These tools also allowed Denver to grow quickly while improving student outcomes. As former DPS official and enrollment management expert Brian Eschbacher explained recently in The 74, during his seven years as the executive director of planning and enrollment services in Denver, he and his team could detect, assess, and respond to changes in student enrollment. Through their annual Strategic Regional Analysis process, DPS staff were able to understand what areas or programs were popular with families as well as where enrollment was beginning to wane. In both cases, it allowed district leaders to be more proactive in their decision-making based on a detailed understanding of enrollment trends. 

Understanding enrollment trend data is only the first step to managing declining enrollment: it needs to be paired with action that can help mitigate some of the negative effects of school closure decisions and provide high-quality options for students and families affected by those decisions. That could mean consolidating schools, as is happening with a Denver charter school, but it’s important that such dramatic steps are accompanied with supports for students and families. (My colleague Lynne Graziano recently wrote about how districts can help families navigate the school closure process.)

Better understanding of enrollment data can also help districts adjust course before such drastic actions need to be taken. Understanding what kinds of schools attract families can help districts shift their offerings to better align with what families want for their kids. One example of this can be found in Jeffco Public Schools (a district neighboring Denver), where they are turning a school that’s losing enrollment into a “classical school,” a model that’s been popular in neighboring communities. 

Leading a school district through declining enrollments is never easy, but the impact can be managed through smart leadership. If districts learn from and adopt Denver’s “detect, assess, respond” approach to enrollment trends, they’ll be better prepared to ensure that enrollment dips don’t lead to negative outcomes for kids and families.

Media: “District Schools? Charter Schools? There’s a Third Way — Autonomous Schools That Work Like In-District Charters” in The 74

Alejandra Barraza was working as a school principal when San Antonio Unified School District identified her as a strong leader who could impact more students. Now she runs two schools that enjoy freedom over their curriculum, professional development, and a portion of their funding.

Autonomous schools like the ones Barraza runs are cropping up across the country. Whether they will live up to their promise depends on whether they’re given enough autonomy over resources and time to customize their approach to meet their students’ specific needs.

Read more in my op-ed published over at The 74 today:

With many teaching and learning responsibilities moved away from the district level, central office staff can focus on operational functions like human resources, transportation, food service, maintenance and school facilities. Mohammed Choudhury, the district’s chief innovation officer, explains: “We want to ensure our schools have autonomy around the use of talent, time and resources. We don’t want our principals in autonomous schools to worry about janitors, procurement processes or air-conditioning service providers.”

You can also read a recent resource on autonomous schools I co-authored with Tresha Ward here.

The Innovations That Charter Schools Were Supposed to Spur Are Finally Taking Root

Remember way back when charter schools were new and people thought that their innovations — and lessons from those innovations — would transfer to traditional districts, and all schools would improve? Then for the next two decades, nothing even remotely like that seemed to happen?

Today, policies in several states allow for autonomous districts schools, inspired, in part, by charter schools. Sometimes called “in-district charters,” these new models allow districts to use some of the same freedoms that public charter schools enjoy while remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services. Autonomous district schools are cropping up all over the country, including Springfield, MA; Indianapolis, IN; Denver, CO; San Antonio, TX; and Los Angeles, CA — you can learn more about them in our new resource released last week.

Map of districts around the country experimenting with autonomous district schools, sometimes called "in-district charters"

A recent report by PPI suggests that when autonomous district schools benefit from enough autonomy, they can outperform traditional public schools. Although this report shows that autonomous district schools in the regions studied do not perform as well as charters, early evidence indicates that these types of schools can be a promising strategy for improving student outcomes.

Why are these schools gaining traction in such diverse geographies? Through autonomous schools, districts can:

  • Utilize the same freedoms that charters have enjoyed to enable educators to innovate and make decisions that better serve the diverse needs of students and families;
  • Bring programmatic decision-making closer to schools; 
  • Retain students and families who might otherwise enroll in charter schools (thereby keeping enrollment and financial resources inside the district);
  • Unleash the creative potential of the large pool of diverse leaders within districts; and
  • Expand the reach of talented leaders to more students and retain these leaders in the district.

Tresha Ward, Lina Bankert, and I spent much of the last two years supporting the design and launch of autonomous district schools across the state of Texas, in Denver, and in St. Louis. Based on what we’ve seen, we are excited about the potential of these types of schools to improve outcomes for students. But we also know that doing this work well is difficult: it requires significant skill-building and support for district principals and strong and unwavering support from district leadership and school boards. 

We see five key contributors to the success or failure of these initiatives that we will explore in a series of blog posts over the next couple of months:

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