In August, four schools in northeast Denver started off the new academic year just like dozens of others across the city. They welcomed new families, warmly greeted returning students and launched into the daily work of helping young learners succeed. But behind the scenes, this year was a little bit different for Swigert International School, McAuliffe International School, McAuliffe at Manual Middle School and Northfield High School — this year, they had formed the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone (NDIZ).
Established under the Innovation Schools Act of 2008, innovation schools are public schools that – through the votes of teachers, school leaders and community members – elect to waive certain requirements of state education laws, collective bargaining agreements and/or district policies. The Act also makes it possible for groups of schools to submit a plan to create an innovation school zone, or iZone. The schools in an iZone must share “common interests, such as geographical location or educational focus.” In the case of NDIZ, all of the schools follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, which aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.
“Lots of our students move between our schools over the years, and with the iZone, we are building a stronger community of support for them,” said Tomi Amos, executive director of NDIZ. “We’re still part of the larger DPS system, but also have the flexibility to be nimble, agile and do what we need to support our students.”
NDIZ was approved by the Denver Board of Education last June and started operating at the start of this school year. It’s the second iZone to form in DPS, and the first to focus on vertical alignment across education levels, empowering educators and school leaders to thoughtfully connect and build on what students learn as they grow through the grades from early childhood through high school graduation.
According to McAuliffe Executive Principal Kurt Dennis, creating that alignment was an opportunity the school leaders didn’t want to pass up. “We thought that having elementary, middle and high schools working together in service to families from a K-12 perspective could be powerful in that we could align curriculum, share best practices and coordinate transitions more effectively for students,” he said. In addition to their overarching accountability to the Denver Board of Education, the NDIZ also reports to a board of community members that live in the neighborhoods served by the schools. “We want to create a framework for participation in the zone that is empowering for both our community and our educators.”
In just the first few months of NDIZ being up and running, there are already early signs that this collaboration will be beneficial for teachers and students. Earlier this fall, the individual IB coordinators for each school — who are responsible for providing professional development in IB to teachers and ensuring all components of the IB philosophy are being upheld — met as a team for the first time. Instead of being lone IB coordinators in separate buildings, they joined forces to host a session for families to learn more about IB programs, and are planning another event in the spring to celebrate IB Day by bringing all four schools together to do some shared learning. “Those connections might not have happened so easily without the zone,” noted Tomi.
Making connections is central to NDIZ’s vision — connections with students throughout their educational journeys, connections between educators to strengthen instruction and share expertise, and connections within a community in the northeast part of the city. It’s a large undertaking, but Tomi is excited to see it take shape. “All the school leaders are incredibly strong in their own right. It’s exciting to see them realize their vision for this at the school level. My goal and my hope is that we stay very centered on the students, staff and families that we serve — it’s really their voice that’s driving this.”