Elected Board Urges Innovation in Denver

The board of Denver Public Schools (DPS) is probably the best and most aggressive elected school board in the country. Superintendent Tom Boasberg is extending the portfolio strategy of diverse schools set in motion by former superintendent now Senator Michael Bennett.

The Denver Plan 2020 is the third iteration of a citywide learning strategy guiding the 162 school district. It has five goals:

  • Great school in every neighborhood
  • Foundation for success in school
  • Ready for college and career
  • Support for the whole child
  • Close the opportunity gap

The board seeks to “dramatically accelerate the progress we’ve made by investing more in what is working and embracing innovation.”

The district recently adopted an Academic Strategic Plan, a highly actionable companion document that highlights data-driven, standards-aligned, personalized learning; high-quality personalized adult learning; and executing with excellence. The goal is to ensure every classroom is aligned with the vision of a DPS classroom, a classroom that is joyful, rigorous and personalized.

DPS wants grads to make the following statements with confidence:

  • I think critically to understand and effectively respond to complex issues.
  • I creatively solve challenging problems by working both independently and collaboratively with others.
  • I am passionate about new ideas; accessing, synthesizing and applying new knowledge; and seeking new experiences to learn and grow.
  • I use my native language and culture as assets.
  • I value and embrace cultural and linguistic diversity.
  • I am open-minded, listen attentively with a critical ear and share my thoughts with passion and elegance; I can communicate with impact.
  • I strive to understand the perspectives of others.
  • I am self-driven and persevere when confronted with unexpected challenges.
  • I am self-aware and dependable, hold myself accountable to high standards and serve as a role model in my school and community.
  • I value and nurture my physical health, as well as myself as a “whole” person.

While tight around outcomes, DPS is flexible on approaches. Schools can use the district curriculum or “determine their instructional models based on evidence, their strategic school designs and the needs of their students and communities.”

DPS has a great definition of personalized learning: Every day, every student understands his or her development and growth opportunities and goals, enthusiastically engages in learning through methods that leverage his or her strengths, and has access to engaging and standards-aligned curricular resources that support his or her academic, social and emotional needs while promoting mastery.


Design Lab. While most urban districts rely on external innovation incubators, DPS launched their own innovation lab, known as the Imaginarium housed in the Office of Academics and Innovation and led by the Chief of Innovation and Reform, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust. The innovation lab, modeled after IDEO, Stanford’s d.school, and 4.0 Schools, seeks to “stimulate and support innovation” across the district to transform learning.

While simulating and supporting innovation in schools and in central office, Whitehead-Bust believes situating a design lab within the district will enable DPS to cultivate a culture of innovation and build strong innovation muscle inside the district in a way that an outside group just couldn’t.

In addition to conducting design challenges and providing other services to support innovation in public education, lab staff, the iTeam, is currently supporting 19 new and existing schools with a deep commitment to personalized learning and plans to support an additional 8-10 schools in the 2015-2016 school year. The schools spent a year working with the iTeam on their plans. Most took on a portion of the personalization framework.

Whitehead-Bust anticipates each school will implement their personalized learning models over a four-year period roll out with a mixture of general fund and philanthropic investment.

Funders. The innovation agenda has been funded predominantly by national foundations and DPS general funds. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded teacher effectiveness valuation, district-charter collaboration, and personalized learning. The Colorado Education Initiative is a Regional fund for Breakthrough Schools, a program of the Next Generation Learning Challenges and supported by the Broad, Dell, and Gates Foundations. The national initiative, which has already supported 49 new and transformed schools, is supporting three redesigned schools in Denver. Carnegie and its nonprofit partner Springpoint are supporting one new competency-based high transformation school opening this fall. Denver-based investment firm Janus Foundation gave DPS $2.1 million grant to support ten several new blended learning lab sites.

Challenges. We’ve been writing about the challenges of personalization, technical and implementation, and DPS has faced their fair share.

“After three year of focusing on personalized learning, while we have made significant strides, there is not a deep and common understanding,” said Whitehead-Bust.

In addition to the Tower of Babel problem, the change process is a big time challenge for school staff, “There are competing priorities and only so many hours in the day,” said Whitehead-Bust.

She said there remain a few skeptics that prefer to stick to tried and true methods. Some also have a fear of failure associated with trying something new, which is reinforced by old policies, habits, and mindsets.

Portfolio. The district has increased school-based flexibility. All Schools, regardless of governance model, can choose own curriculum, assessment strategy, and PD programs. Many District services are opt-in rather than required.

Empowering schools with choices is beginning to change the central office culture and customer service, said Whitehead-Bust.

What about low performing schools? That’s still a tricky issue and topic of active discussion. There’s a bit of a gray area in terms of when and how the district intervenes.

The district has a constructive relationship with area charter schools. DSST was recently approved for eight more schools, putting it on track to 22 schools by 2024-2025. There’s a DSST School supported by their innovation lab.

Lessons. In Smart Cities That Work For Everyone we noted the importance of sustained leadership for improvement and innovation. Denver is an example of the benefits of how a strong board supports effective district leadership.

Denver has a strong advocacy community; they form partnerships that benefit families and kids, and they support a school board that promotes equity and innovation.

Smart Cities also noted the growing importance of capacity to incubate talent, tools, and schools. Denver’s homegrown Imaginarium is a good start.

Denver has a healthy and cooperative local philanthropic community. With a few exceptions, they have not yet embraced an innovation agenda. DPS has relied on national funders to support the development of new school models.

DPS is a district worth watching because they have a board that supports innovation.

For more, see:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.