Getting in the zone in Northeast Denver

If you’ve ever played competitive sports, you’ve probably had at least one coach tell you to “get in the zone.”  It’s that signal to get your head right and start mentally preparing for the opportunity in front of you.

But what if you don’t know anything about the opportunity before you? What if you don’t really know what’s at stake, let alone how to maximize your chances of success?

With little-to-no understanding of what’s possible, how do you get in the zone?

These are the questions that families of McAuliffe International, McAuliffe Manual Middle School, Swigert International and Northfield High School brought with them to the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone’s recent kick-off.

Led by my friend Tomi Amos, the zone is the second innovation zone to launch within Denver Public Schools. For weeks I’ve watched her build relationships with principals, teachers, families and community members. And, when I finally asked her what it means for the schools above to be a part of the zone, I wasn’t surprised when she smiled, turned to her computer and shared an invitation to the zone kickoff.

Per usual, she was prepared. In fact she’d been preparing since she was named the zone’s executive director earlier this summer. And while she knew I’d eventually want to know what this innovation zone was all about, she knew it was more important for the families at those schools to learn about how being in the zone could positively impact their child and how they could play an integral role in their kids’ success.

While I might not have school-aged kids yet, I do have a new home in the area. As a new resident, I wanted to know what it could mean to have kids attending schools in the zone one day. So, I headed down the street to join many of my neighbors who had a more immediate stake in the game.

When I pulled up to Swigert International School, everything (including the kids) was hoppin’. Literally, kids were hopping from one bouncy castle to another. The Northfield High cheerleaders excitedly greeted families at the entrance, while young musicians in the band set an optimistic tone.

I was definitely feelin’ the zone. But I also knew there was more to it than just fun and games.

While students enjoyed games and pizza, families and community members got the opportunity to learn more about what the innovation zone was all about.

Families listened as Tomi explained that a zone is simply a cluster of DPS innovation schools that are run by an independent, community-based nonprofit organization that helps coordinate efforts to provide the best possible opportunities for all students across the zone.

Unsurprisingly, most people still wondered, “So what does that really mean for my kid?”

But judging from the raised eyebrows around the room, I’m pretty sure Tomi’s answer brought a most pleasant surprise.

“This zone is about you and what you want and need,” Tomi said.

In fact, there are several different opportunities for families to choose how to engage with their child’s school. Families can learn more about the Inter Baccalaureate programming offered throughout the zone. There are groups for new families and families with kids transitioning from one level to another to connect and support each other. The zone even has its own speaker series where families, staff and community members can collaborate to bring in speakers and experts on resources that might benefit kids across the zone.

But one of the most unique aspects of Denver’s innovation schools and zones is that each school has the ability to customize how they support students by opting out of certain district services and using money saved toward resources they feel will best benefit student needs.

For instance last year, Denver’s first innovation zone (the Luminary Learning Network) opted out of about $550K worth of district services among all of its schools. Schools have used funds to hire additional staff to support students with special needs and intervention teachers to increase students’ reading and math skills.

Learning that these extra funds go directly back into the classroom piqued the interest of parents like Kori Leman and her husband who had no idea what an innovation zone was or what it would mean for their son, a sixth grader at McAuliffe Manual Middle School.

Raising two children of mixed race, Kori said she’d love to see funds used to increase teacher diversity and culturally responsive teacher training. Other parents hope to see more experiential learning opportunities for students, but many just want to make sure that schools have what they need to meet the needs of their specific student populations. And for each school, that may look different.

Having worked in Denver’s ed space for many years, I thought I was “in the know” about what was possible with innovation schools. But what I’ve seen from Tomi and leaders at the schools around me, is that defining what’s possible depends on input from everyone, including teachers and families.

I believe Tomi and the zone’s school leaders want to engage in positive dialogue with families, teachers and those in the community who want our neighborhood’s kids to have a great school experience.

The zone kick-off was just one opportunity for folks to voice their opinions on what they want to see in their schools and learn about how to actively stay involved. Hopefully the more people realize their voice matters, the more they’ll use it to get in the zone and shape it into a community of schools that does right by all kids.

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