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File photo of first graders reading at Paris Elementary, an innovation school in Aurora.

More than 10 years after Colorado passed a law allowing schools to request “innovation status,” giving them flexibility from state laws, district policies, and union contracts, state officials say they don’t know if it’s making an impact on the 100-plus schools that have been granted the status.

“I keep going back to ‘does innovation make a difference?’ So far, I have found it doesn’t really matter from the information I received,” said State Board member Joyce Rankin, noting the state needs “more definitive information.”

Education commissioner Katy Anthes told the State Board of Education on Thursday that the department would take another look. At the same time, she cautioned that the work could be time-intensive and require partnering with outside researchers.

Finding answers could be complicated by the various ways a school can combine different waivers, and also what they do with the flexibility they’ve been granted, Anthes said. Plus, she said, some of that local information may not be immediately available to the state.

Innovation schools have become more prevalent over time. But part of the reason it matters for State Board members now is that “innovation status” is one of its options for ordering improvement at chronically low-performing schools.

As the State Board considers the fate of these struggling schools — should they be closed, turned into a charter, or be handed over to an external manager? — one of the least disruptive plans it can approve is an “innovation plan.”

Seven schools that have gotten to the state hearing process for their lack of academic improvement have so far taken this route. Of those seven schools, three improved, a middle school in Pueblo closed, and three others — including Aurora Central High School, whose progress the State Board will review again next month — have not seen enough improvement to get off the state’s watchlist.

The state hearing process aside, board president Angelika Schroeder said she wants to be thoughtful about the intent of laws that legislators approve while taking into account that some schools and districts may seek exemptions from some of those laws.

Board member Steve Durham, meanwhile, said that barring evidence that shows innovation status hurts student achievement, he’s fine letting districts continue to experiment with the flexibility. Still, he said he didn’t want low-performing schools to seek innovation status only “to avoid more stringent action.”

“That could be gaming the system,” he said.

State Board members said their frustration in evaluating whether innovation status helps schools is that data seems to be mixed.

That’s similar to past research that others have done.

The Stanford University-based research group CREDO published a study earlier this fall that looked at the performance of Denver students based on the governance of their schools. That study found no clear distinction between students at district-run schools, innovation schools, and charter schools.

A 2013 study that also looked at Denver innovation schools found that teachers reported feeling more empowered, but also had less education and classroom experience. Teacher turnover was high, and student academic growth varied widely from school to school.

At the end of the 2018 calendar year, Colorado had 102 innovation schools across 16 districts. Most innovation schools serve slightly higher percentages of students living in poverty, as tracked by the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with other public schools. The Denver district continues to lead the state with the highest number of innovation schools. According to the state’s annual report, Denver serves more than 22,500 students, or about a quarter of all its students, in innovation schools.

The most common waiver requests are related to time, personnel, and budget. Schools may request waivers that allow them to extend the school day or school year. They request waivers from personnel laws and policies governing how they hire, or fire, teachers and staff, and they request more budget flexibility to compensate teachers differently for their longer school days.

Education department staff briefly highlighted innovation schools in Greeley and Westminster as showing promise.

State Board member Deb Scheffel suggested that instead of a broad research project the state might just choose to do a case study taking a closer look at schools that have used innovation status successfully.

Anthes said she would look at options to dig into the questions more and present them to State Board to pick one.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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