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With a student enrollment edging ever closer to six figures, Denver Public Schools (DPS) is Colorado’s largest school district. More than 4,300 teachers instruct students in elementary, middle and high schools, along with a mix of non-traditional and charter schools run by three main charter management organizations: Strive, KIPP, and Denver Sciences Schools of Technology.

As one of the nation’s largest and most diverse districts, DPS faces numerous challenges. It must meet the needs of a student population whose linguistic, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds vary widely—no small feat for a small network of schools, let alone the largest in the state. Meanwhile, a centralized management team must support and oversee the efforts of a distributed staff whose instructional methods range from more conventional classroom environments to the earliest stages of adoption of a competency-based education model.

Enabling Flexibility at Scale

Josh Allen, Director of IT for the district, serves as an architect and strategist for all systems on both the academic and operational sides. Understanding and being able to accommodate the needs of various schools calls for an approach beyond the typical IT role, which is often more rigid in nature with a standardized slant.

“We are highly flexible; of our 190 schools, assessment and curriculum can be selected by school leaders for the specific populations they’re educating,” Allen said. “Denver empowers schools to operate within their own preferences, down to the device level and selection of applications. We’ve formalized this process with our board.”

DPS’s technology department manages the Student Information System for all schools in order to maintain compliance with the Department of Education; however, Allen acknowledges the Department of Technology must work closely with schools for their technology and application selections.

Assessment is a similar and interrelated story. Tim Leddy, Senior Product Manager, serves as project manager for the district’s various academic systems. He manages a team of product managers who define DPS’s technology requirements, following the development of prototypes or design documents, teacher interviews and/or focus groups.

Evaluating and Supporting an Array of Technologies

District-wide assessment platform Illuminate DnA will serve as DPS’s data assessment management platform. A majority of schools will employ it in the coming academic year, with some using Achievement Network (“A-Net”), which also incorporates coaching features.

Leddy cites the flexibility of Illuminate as an advantage for DPS faculty. “Our teachers can log in after a lesson for a quick assessment, but the platform also enables end-of-course assessments, interim assessments and just about anything in between.”

As of the beginning of the 2016–17 academic year, 61 of the 142 district-managed schools had rolled out Illuminate DnA, along with a number of assessment platforms. (The adoption was the result of a successful five-school pilot last year). Leddy emphasizes that while most schools have chosen to adopt Illuminate or A-Net, they are also able to opt out and select their own platforms.

From an IT perspective, Allen added, data access and interoperability standards were considered from the very beginning of the district’s RFP process for a new LMS. They used IMS Global standards, as integrating past data into Schoology was an important criterion prior to moving forward.

Allen said the district has been testing out various forms of data-driven instruction with varying degrees of success. “Some of our schools and faculty take to it well, but there’s high variability,” Leddy agreed.

Managing a Complex Assessment Environment

Kristen Maxey-Moore, Director of Assessment, leads DPS’s Assessment, Research and Evaluation (ARE) Department, and is responsible for setting district-wide strategy related to the evaluation of students’ academic performance.

In order to have a common data set for adjusting instruction, she explains, the district administers a minimum of three common formative assessments (one per trimester). DPS assessments include:

  • iStation as the district-supported READ Act assessment in K–5 schools
  • Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), used in grades six and up
  • iReady, STAR, and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), used by schools that have opted out of the first two options

Governance and the Road to Interoperability

DPS has created a charter governing committee on interoperability so that time-sensitive, fully-sortable data inputs can be stored in its data warehouse, regardless of the platform or application initially used to record the data.

“One difficulty we have is not having one standardized method of bringing data into our data warehouse,” Allen said. “When schools make individual choices, the district simply doesn’t have a single universal contract with regard to data ingestion.”

It’s an uncomfortable place to be, he admits, for a district that, due to its sheer size, stands to benefit greatly from improved interoperability.

“We’ve been partnering with a cohort of school leaders across the country on standards development, working with IMS Global, Ed-Fi, and InnovateEDU, among others, to determine how we can best interface with providers so that schools get the benefit of looking at data for adaptive assessments and time-dimensioned student progress.”

While startup edtech firms are typically nimbler in their approaches to data storing, sharing and interoperability, Allen said, working with the “Goliaths” among educational publishers, like Pearson or Houghton Mifflin, requires a fair amount of effort on the school’s behalf in order to source data.

“Along with other districts across the nation, we at DPS need to be able to easily import information critical to supporting our students’ progress,” Allen said. “That may involve telling providers that ‘as soon as we get this done in the evening, we also need to be able to extract it into our data warehouse,’ and have that actually transpire in real time.”

For more, view or download the full Denver Public School case study here.

This case study is from a Getting Smart series on interoperability. It is part of a larger collaboration called Project Unicorn, led by InnovateEDU in partnership with Getting Smart,  EdSurge, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and CommonSense Media. These stories are made publicly available with support from InnovateEDU.

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