President signals support for district school that operates more like a charter

Most policy watchers measuring the impact of the State of the Union have responded to President Obama’s calls to reform public education with disappointment, but some have leavened their criticism with details that have been slow to stand out. “The education passages didn’t have a lot of substance but they did have some interesting signals,” said Andrew Rotherham on Eduwonk. One of those signals, Rotherham notes, is the story of Denver’s Bruce Randolph School.

In 2008, Bruce Randolph, a struggling middle school, was granted autonomy from key union and district rules and won what was considered historic freedoms in staffing and scheduling (Mike Antonucci has more backstory here). With that autonomy, Bruce Randolph was able to decide its own calendar, develop its own hiring procedures and devise its own incentives for teachers. Most notable was a decision by then principal Kristin Waters to ask all teachers to reapply for their jobs. Of 40 teachers at the time, only six came back.

The results from that move caught the attention of Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, who visited the school in 2009 and surrounded himself with reporters while praising what Waters had called, “Challenge 2010.” It signaled support for nothing less than a district school that gained the flexibility to operate like a charter. The following summary last spring in The Denver Post appears to have inspired the passage in the president’s State of the Union:

Bruce Randolph — where 95.4 percent of students are poor enough to be eligible for federal meal benefits — could be considered the point of origin for Denver’s education-reform movement.

It is a turnaround school that went from being the state’s worst middle school, located on the turf between two rival gangs, to a grades 6-12 school that on Tuesday graduated 97 percent of its first class of seniors. Eighty-seven percent of those grads were accepted to college. Most will be the first in their families to attend a school of higher education.

“This is what it is all about,” said school board president Nate Easley Jr. “It’s proof that reform works.”

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit

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