A 21st Century School System in the Mile High City

By / 5.4.2016

Some of the most dramatic gains in urban education have come from school districts using what many call a “portfolio strategy.” Others call it “reinvention,” a “21st century approach,” or “relinquishment.” By whatever name, it generally means that districts negotiate performance agreements with some mix of traditional, charter, and hybrid public schools, allow them great autonomy, let them handcraft their schools to fit the needs of their students, give parents their choice of schools, replicate successful schools, and replace failing schools.

Many doubt such a strategy is possible with an elected board, because closing schools and laying off teachers triggers such fierce resistance. Most cities pursuing the portfolio strategy—such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Camden, N.J.—have done so with insulation from local electoral politics. In New Orleans, the state board of education and its Recovery School District (RSD) oversee most of the schools; in D.C., Congress intervened, creating an appointed Public Charter School Board; and, in Camden, the state took over the district.

All of which explains why reformers are paying close attention to Denver, Colorado. With an elected board, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has embraced charter schools and created “innovation schools,” which it treats somewhat like charters. Since 2005 it has closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70, the majority of them charters. In 2010 DPS signed a Collaboration
Compact with charter leaders committing to equitable funding and a common enrollment system for charters and traditional schools, plus replication of the most effective schools—whether charter or traditional.

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