Brainstorming over, hard work begins to remake D-49

March 25, 2011

Stacks of proposals on how to remake Falcon School District 49 await teachers, staff and parents when they return from their two-week spring break in April.

A flurry of community and staff meetings were held across the district in February and March as ideas were  collected and debated.

Now the hard work begins. And the big question of how different things will be remains unanswered.

District officials say it’s too early to predict results of the efforts.

Since January, the roughly 14,700-student district on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs has been working toward applying for innovation status from the Colorado Department of Education, which would allow it to seek exemptions from some state and local rules.

The people making decisions that will affect kids are the teachers, staff and parents who are closest to the kids, said Assistant Superintendent Bob Felice, who leads the Vista Ridge Zone.

“That’s a major shift in how we do business,” he said.

Eventually, each building and each of the three primary zones will submit innovation plans to the school board and then to the state. The zones could follow divergent paths, but so far the differences are minor.

Ideas for change ran the gamut from typed proposals with references, research and a list of supporters, to handwritten single-sentence suggestions.

People in all zones wanted to grant teachers more time for collaboration. Regular late start or early release school days were suggested.

In Vista Ridge, a parent suggested using the teachers of electives as a roaming group of substitutes. While they taught their special classes at a school, the regular teachers could spend time working together.

The idea of a four-day instruction week for students gained traction in Falcon and Sand Creek. The fifth day would be used for professional development or for additional instruction for kids who needed a boost.

Digging into those possibilities will require a look at the “seat time” mandated by the state, although currently the district surpasses the minimum.

Changing the way teacher evaluations are done was another popular concept. Some want other teachers, not administrators, to be part of the evaluation process.

State law is specific in what must be included and the paperwork that must be done for evaluations. Many call some of the requirements redundant.

“We’ll see what rises to the surface,” Assistant Superintendent Mark Carara, who leads the Falcon Zone, said of the ideas.

Felice said he expected many changes would not require waivers of state or district policy. He said it would be reasonable to have about three ideas that would call for waivers, such as a change to teacher evaluations, included in the zone innovation application.

Key differences between the Falcon, Sand Creek and Vista Ridge zones haven’t surfaced.

Priorities vary, as have levels of enthusiasm, involvement and meeting structure.

In Falcon, for example, there was an outcry for busing, acknowledging that may mean cuts elsewhere.

Participants in the Vista Ridge Zone meetings seemed the most enthusiastic about potential changes. Relationships, with a focus on parent involvement, emerged as a priority. Also making the list of priorities was an aligned K-12 curriculum and instruction that focused on problem-solving.

Sand Creek Zone meetings have been smaller and quieter. Concerns focused on time — not enough time for teachers to plan and not enough time for struggling students to receive help.

Most of those attending conventions for any zone were district employees and parents active in schools.

Some expressed frustration with the way the board had pushed the concept, and believe that ultimately it will do what it wants despite the zone decisions. One person at a Sand Creek Zone meeting asked if a waiver could be sought to do away with the school board.

After establishing a different administrative organization and selecting zone leaders, the school board stepped back, as it said it would do.

A tentative calendar approved by the school board in February has innovation plans being put together before the school year ends in May. The goal is to obtain state approval so the district may begin operating under innovation status starting in the 2012-2013 school year.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Felice said.

At the end of this week, the innovation leaders, department heads, the chief education officer and other district leaders will meet and review budget details in light of possible program changes.

District 49 is looking at $7 million to $9 million in cuts based on the state forecast.
Felice said the innovation structure grants each school more agility to deal with problems — especially fiscal challenges.

“We’ll be able to stretch our dollar further,” he said.

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