Ever since I left college I have wanted to do four things: work with truly talented people; solve tough problems; create elegant solutions; and make a difference in a meaningful cause. I would have found all four at the Denver Green School.
Denver Green School: sounds like a focus on environmental sustainability. Check. But there are deeper, powerful trials at work here, which appear to be well on a pathway to success. DGS offers windows into systematic leadership structure, the ability of even young students to think about their own learning, community engagement, and more. There are lessons here for both public and private schools. I certainly don’t pretend to do these folks justice in a few pages, but read on!
DGS is not a charter school; they operate under the leadership of the Board of Denver Public Schools, but were formed under an innovation initiative that gives them a great deal of autonomy. Frank Coyne, one of the founding leadership partners sent me this brief summary:
Denver Green School (DGS) is an ECE-8th grade school within Denver Public Schools (DPS) serving students from 16 countries and students with a 59% free and reduced lunch population. DGS is one of Denver’s first schools to obtain Innovation Status, which provides the school with the autonomy to explore and implement hands-on, brains-on curricular programs while still receiving the support of the School District. DGS is the first school in Denver Public Schools dedicated to teaching concepts and practices of sustainability. Students at DGS are encouraged to explore what sustainability means in relationship to their classroom, their community and themselves and they do this through a host of project-based learning activities.
At the core of DGS is a remarkable leadership structure that we all can learn from. The leadership team is comprised of seven founding “partners” representing a combined 150 years of teaching and administrative school experience. Since inception a few years ago, they have added three more partners, and will continue to do so as teachers rise to the level of interest and commitment of the founders. Three of the partners act, as a group, like the traditional principal, taking care of basic administrative functions.
I find this structure compelling for several reasons. The first is that they have addressed one of the critical weaknesses of all knowledge-based organizations: the weak link at the top. Especially in start-ups, the energy demanded to get an organization up and running is ridiculous and burnout is a real threat. If the vision and leadership is concentrated in one person, it only takes one point of failure to put the organization at risk. Sometimes this means real failure; sometimes it just slows down what has been great progress. DGS is run by a true partnership of intellectual equals who are committed to ensuring long-term sustainability by designing out the weak link. On paper Mimi Diaz is the lead partner, and in many schools she would rely on a strong leadership support team in a subordinate role. At DGS she truly is the lead of equals. Maybe you have to sit with these folks to appreciate just how strong this makes them; if so, you should go sit with them like I did.
I asked the partners why they started the school, what they want their students to walk away with. Partner leader Jeff Buck (this is not a direct quote, but pretty close): “The world is facing complex problems. We need to bring up a generation that can think about things from a systematic framework. We want them to know what is happening, know they have an opportunity to affect the world around us, and do it.”
DGS believes that students are naturally metacognitive and that traditional school beats it out of them. They create interdisciplinary units through which students pass through all of the Common Core material, but they overtly address the “why” and “how” of learning. They want their students, even the little ones, to understand how they know what they know, and then go apply that knowledge to the unknown. They use a lot of PBL, but agree that PBL is just a tool. They create units that are “hands-on, brains on”. I love it.
At an operational level this is a democratic, teacher-led organization that fosters, in fact demands, open inquiry and exploration from their adults. The team was open with me that they feel they have more work to do in this area of moving the decision making down in the classroom to be more inclusive of student co-ownership.
Professional development at DGS starts with a hiring process, which is focused on getting the right leaders and future partners to the school. PD is organized around coaching, mentoring, peer counseling, and student-centrism. PD is internal, they do not bring in many outside “experts”; after sitting with them it is clear they have a ton of in-house talent. They have tweaked their schedule so they put in extra minutes Mon-Thur and have a half day every Friday for PD. These sessions are data driven, and every six weeks they build in an extra session to specifically review assessment data. Buck pointed out “in our PD we focus on the students, literally. The video camera is pointed at the students, not the teacher. We want to know if the students are doing what they are supposed to be doing, not whether the teacher looks good that day.”
PD takes a huge leap forward each year in the summer. Teacher contracts include a week in June and two weeks before school starts that are totally dedicated to PD and school coordination issues. Also, prior to the start of the school year, every teacher spends 20-30 minutes with his or her new students and parents either at the student home or a neutral site to get to know the student outside of the classroom setting. How does that contrast with what your school normally does in the hectic few days of run-up to the start of the school year?
I won’t go into the actual programs around sustainability that DGS uses as school-wide themes: the incredible garden, research and action around reducing water and paper usage, the relationship between food and justice, and more. You can learn a lot more about those on their website.
How do they know it is working? They hire the staff they want and have high retention. They have high enrollment demand and retain the students who come. By all standardized measures, student achievement is on a steep upward trajectory. They are adding partner leaders.
Is the DGS model exportable? Jeff offered this (again, I am paraphrasing but it is close): “Educational reform (here I am pretty sure he is talking about public education) is largely driven by the need of business, and business loves efficiency, so education tends to strive towards efficiency. The system wants constant, rapid feedback. But good education may not be best if it is most efficient.” The leadership and teaching models at DGS increase the potential that partner leaders will spin off to start their own schools. But they also believe that one size does not fit all, that they are both leading and responsive to their particular community, and that is a key to their success. This aligns with my views that schools must be more fluid and self-evolving, that packages of imported solutions may sound good but may actually contain that basic flaw. So far, DGS may be one of the most self-evolving capable schools I have ever seen.