In the last year, the Douglas County School District in suburban Denver has been called a national model by former U.S. secretary of education William J. Bennett and “the most interesting school district in America” by the American Enterprise Institute.
Starting with the approval of a new strategic plan, “New Outcomes for a New Day,” the district instituted sweeping reforms in 2011 in an effort to remain successful as it faced the emerging challenges of growing enrollment and changing technology, Superintendent Elizabeth Celania Fagen says. The “New Day” plan outlined three major goals for following three years: expand school choice, provide a world-class education and improve on student and teacher performance.
“About 85 percent of our students go on to some sort of higher education, but many of our graduates are underemployed,” Fagen says. “We want current students to have the skill set to get those great jobs and to do that, we had to reexamine every corner of our district.”
The changes have included a controversial private school voucher program, and a curriculum designed to be more rigorous than the Common Core. The district also switched to merit-based pay for teachers and updated its safety measures, including adding armed guards to middle and elementary schools.
Fighting for school choice
Located just south of Denver, Douglas County Schools is also one of the fastest growing districts in Colorado. It has been gaining more than 1,000 students a year over the last few years. Douglas County’s 80 schools include 13 charter/magnet schools, three alternative schools and an online school.
To make room for its growing population, the district built two new charter schools last year and approved the Choice Scholarship Program (CSP) in 2011. CSP would provide up to 500 students with $4,600 in scholarships to attend the private school of their choice. “Having universal choice where students and parents can pick what school is best for them is a value we greatly support,” Fagen says.
Douglas County School District
- Schools: 80
- Students: 67,000
- Staff and faculty: 7,000
- Per child expenditure: $10,308
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 11%
- Graduation rate: 87%
- Website: www.dcsdk12.org
But the program stalled before it started when the ACLU of Colorado sued over the use of public funds for private school education. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the district in April 2013, but the ACLU petitioned the state Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case later this year. Meanwhile, the program is on hold.
Building a new curriculum
The district started to develop a new curriculum in 2011 when the board of education decided the Common Core and Colorado’s standards were not rigorous enough. The district’s Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) set standards for what students should know at the end of each grade, says Kevin Larsen, Douglas County’s board of education president.
Building on top of the Common Core, GVC encourages teachers to let project-based learning, cross-curriculum teaching and other more in-depth concepts drive their lesson plans. GVC was fully implemented for the 2013-14 academic year and, Larsen says, it has inspired teachers to be more innovative. They are taking advantage of a BYOD platform and offering online lectures, podcasts and similar digital course materials to students.
GVC encourages the four Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. “We wanted to embrace those four Cs to make sure the work the kids do isn’t just memorizing information and passing tests, but that they’re demonstrating skills and applying knowledge,” he says.
Encouraging the best teachers
In 2013, Douglas County was the first district in Colorado—and one of the first in the nation—to switch to merit-based pay for its teachering staff. Under the new system, higher salaries will be paid to specialists and harder-to-fill posts. Easier-to-fill positions will get lower pay. All future raises will be based on performance, Larsen says. The district hit a “bit of resistance” from teachers and unions, he adds, but the board believes it will benefit students in the long run.
“While experience in education is important, it isn’t everything,” Larsen says. “Seeing positive turnout in a classroom, to us, seems more fair than experience alone.” Merit-based pay will also make the district more attractive to highly qualified candidates—and help retain them, he adds.
To further enhance the quality of faculty and staff, the district has redesigned all of its evaluations. The new program, called CITE (Continuous Improvement for Teacher Effectiveness), includes 20 types of evaluation—one for each kind of teacher or staff member.
“Each evaluation is aligned to our strategic plan and to what we think would be best for students,” Fagen says. “Overall, it has empowered our staff, giving them expectations and making them accountable.”
The district’s 87 percent graduation rate, which is up nearly six points since 2009, is among the highest in the greater Denver metropolitan area. The third largest Colorado district, Douglas County’s 67,000 students outpace the state’s annual standardized TCAP tests for grades 3 through 10—its students are scoring more than 12 percentage points above the state average in all subject areas. The district’s high school students also have an average ACT score of 22, just above the national average of 21.
Nearly three years into the “New Outcomes for a New Day” strategy, Fagan and Larsen say that, though there has been significant success, the district will revisit the plan this spring to update it for the next three years.
“We were always a high-performing district—our schools were featured in Newsweek’s Top Schools list (most recently in 2013) and our students did well on state tests,” says Fagen. “A good district is an odd district to want to change, but our thought was even if you have the highest performing district, the world has changed, the students have changed and it was time for education to change. Overall, we’re very proud of the amazing work we’ve done.”