Schools Planning Group Looks at Denver Blueprint

By Bill Dries

Going from a centralized to a decentralized school system doesn’t mean less work for a school system. It just means a different kind of work.

Those in the group drafting the blueprint for the merged countywide school system got an idea this month of how different and complex that can be as they looked at the Denver school system’s Office of School Reform and Innovation.

Denver Public Schools has a “portfolio management” system similar to the one the local schools consolidation planning commission has picked as the structure for the coming schools merger.

The organizational chart of that office within the Denver school system is much different, however, than the chart for the “multiple paths to autonomy” model the planning commission has been working on.

The Memphis group’s structure has one box for an office of innovation.

Denver has 17 boxes from a chief of innovation and reform, an executive assistant and an administrative assistant, to a director of strategic school design, an executive director of innovation schools and a director of innovation strategy and operations.

One of the core beliefs of Denver Office of School Reform Initiatives is that the “governance model does not matter.”

But in the Memphis educational culture where complaints about a top-heavy administrative structure have been a constant criticism for decades, the Denver chart attracted a lot of attention for the size of its bureaucracy.

Critics of schools consolidation have consistently cited concerns about the size of the merged school system since before the planning commission was formed.

And who runs the school system is a frequently voiced question that leads to concerns about a decentralized school system that still has a lot of offices and titles.

The Denver model puts all the options for school autonomy within the school structure.

The Memphis plan hasn’t so far. Charter schools are overseen by the school systems now through contracts with charter school operators and some state oversight. That wouldn’t change under the Memphis model. The Memphis model for innovation schools also makes clear that the state-run Achievement School District, including state-run charter schools, is already separate from whatever merged school system is to come. The ASD and charter schools are already a fact of life regardless of what comes next.

The task for the planning commission is more limited than the Denver model. It is to determine a process for the school system’s work with dozens of low-performing Memphis schools that could be candidates for the ASD but which the school system may turn into innovation schools with some measure of autonomy.

The Memphis plan also includes some more limited forms of autonomy for schools within the core group of the consolidated school system. That autonomy could include longer schools days, more school days or other conditions short of a complete makeover of a school that is already performing well.

The Denver model has a similar menu of options and paths to autonomy for schools in what is a more complex structure. But the more elaborate structure reflects a path to autonomy that is possible for all schools and a conversion of a school system to a platform that provides services as needed to those more independent schools.

The Memphis plan is still a work in progress with more of the structure to come on the way to a May to June deadline for a draft plan and an August deadline to submit the plan to the countywide school board and state education officials for approval.

The planning commission’s looming decision is whether school autonomy will coexist on the same level with conventional schools or always be a possibility for those conventional schools.