Coffee Break: Denver Board of Education President Anne Rowe on how innovation zones are empowering schools to reach new levels of student achievement

For several months, ed reformers and policy wonks have followed David Osborne all around the country to hear hear how innovation hubs like Denver, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Washington DC are successfully Reinventing America’s Schools. As a Denverite, who has worked in Denver Public Schools as well as the district’s charter sector, it’s been nice to see the Mile High City receive some well deserved national recognition. And, as an attendee at Education Reform Now’s Camp PHILOS event in Washington DC, I was equally proud to see one of Denver’s own share her thoughts on how innovation zones continue to lead the Denver Public Schools toward greater autonomy, accountability and transformative outcomes for kids.

I caught up with Denver Board of Education President Anne Rowe back home in Denver following her PHILOS panel appearance to continue the conversation.

What kind of coffee gives you what you need to tackle each day feeling empowered to fight for the students of Denver?

One of our leaders has a sign that was made by a student that now hangs in my office, and it says, “Be bold.” So I pick the bold selection of any coffee, to be poured into the largest cup, with a little bit of milk, to remind myself to be bold that day.

You’ve been on the Denver Board of Education since 2011. What made you initially want to run for school board, and six years later, why do you stay?

It’s really interesting, and I reflect a lot on why I ran because I have never wanted to be an elected anything.

Prior to running, I had the honor of serving on numerous community boards for 25 years— public boards, private boards, large boards, small boards, functional boards, and dysfunctional boards. And as I was choosing how to engage, it really started to narrow down to children’s issues, women’s issues and education.

When Michael Bennet was superintendent and looking at the possibility of having to close a significant number of schools, he created a group called A+ Denver, (now A+Colorado) and the purpose was to dig deeply into where we were, where our schools were and how we should move forward. He asked me to be one of the four co-chairs of that original A+ and in that experience I was able to engage with the district at a really important time, going deep in my learning about values and policy directions. So I felt like I was sort of in a training program for this without knowing it.

I decided to run because, as I became more engaged, I developed this passion for public education and really digging in and seeing what we could do for the children and families of Denver. And still today when I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m thinking about the kids in Denver. It’s an honor; it’s insanely difficult, consuming, and a little scary at times. But, I can’t think of anything that matters more.

At PHILOS 2017, you participated in a panel on empowerment zones as a tool for systemic change. What would you say are the critical ingredients that have made up Denver’s version of the “empowerment zone”?

You have to start with talent. It’s talent coming together in an affinity to serve kids incredibly well. We have to give schools the autonomy they need around talent, time, resources, and having governance over their own network, yet still allow them to be connected to the larger whole. And that’s a huge reason we pushed really hard for our first innovation zone in Denver —it was because of our leaders.

I’m still waiting for the word “fauxtonomy” to start trending on Twitter. Had you ever heard of the term before attending PHILOS, and how has Denver made it possible for schools and leaders to exercise true autonomy while still being held accountable?

I hadn’t heard the term before and I think we all chuckled when we heard it, but it really made me reflect and as we look back to the creation of our first innovation zone, I actually think the concept that underlines “fauxtonomy” was part of the reason that our leaders pushed for an innovation zone.

Senior leadership and a couple of board members had been having discussions with 15-20 of our innovation leaders who wanted much greater flexibility and autonomy. They felt like there was this steady creep into their autonomy that was part of the innovation agreement. While they had the formal status of having greater autonomy, the reality on the ground was that they still felt like it was compliant and top-down driven. And so, the idea of having true autonomy was a huge driver behind our leaders’ incredible hard work and bravery in bringing this forward.

This has caused the district to reflect on what true flexibilities are and as we move toward our belief statement that the school is a unit of improvement, and that the school should have as much decision-making as possible,we have to determine how the district reflects that in school leadership, support and empowerment of schools while still stewarding the incredibly important values of equity, excellence and accountability for all our schools.

Even though the conference was held in Washington DC, Denver was front and center in a lot of conversation. Why do you think Denver Public Schools has become such a model for other districts around the country?

I think probably the biggest reason is that over the past 10 years, the progress we have made, while not nearly enough, has been consistent and has shown that all kids in DPS schools— regardless of where they come from, their background, or their environment—grow.

As we look at the transformation we’ve gone through and the policies we’ve created, it really has been on this pathway of focusing on students first and particularly our most vulnerable students—those who are living in poverty, learning English, kids of color, and our special needs kids—and truly believing that every child can succeed. But what does that mean in a 90,000 student district? And so the innovations we have attempted, the incredible collaboration the district has been able to create with our public charters and in creating not only innovation schools, but innovation management organizations, is the result of flipping the dynamic from a top-down driven district to the school as the unit of improvement.

With that said, we’re looking around the country as well. There are folks who are doing extraordinary things in other other districts, empowerment zones and charter management zones and we need to learn as well. We don’t own all the great pathways and great ideas by ourselves.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to Anne Rowe, the school board candidate, back in 2011 as she set out on this journey to serve Denver’s kids?

I would give her the same thought partnership I’m trying to give our new board members, which is to put your values first and put students first. I’d say, you are going to be challenged, you are going to be lobbied, you’re going to get advice and you’re going to have to make incredibly difficult decisions. But at the end of the day when you have to make decisions, ask yourself what is in the best interest of the students in Denver Public Schools? And just ground yourself in the fact that we are here to improve outcomes for kids and their families and our school environment.


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