Are Innovation Zones a solution for Delaware schools? - Technical.ly Delaware

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Oct. 14, 2020 5:31 pm

Are Innovation Zones a solution for Delaware schools?

Young nonprofit First State Educate is pushing for schools with lower test scores to become autonomous. Here's how that works elsewhere.
Innovation Zone schools have the autonomy to decide what’s best for their specific student body.

Innovation Zone schools have the autonomy to decide what's best for their specific student body.

(Photo by Pexels user August de Richelieu used under a Creative Commons license)

Correction: First State Educate does not work to put its members in elected positions on local school boards, as previously reported. (10/15/20, 2:11 p.m.)

Back in 2010, Delaware and Tennessee were the first two states to be awarded federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grants, with Delaware receiving $100 million to implement a comprehensive school reform plan. Since that time, the Pathways program has grown, giving public school students career training in everything from engineering to business to agriculture, along with college prep. But, while RTTT prioritized student opportunity and growth, turning schools around really means bringing up the test scores of minority-majority schools.

The change in test scores at these schools since RTTT has not been dramatic. With standardized testing as the primary way to measure a school’s quality, it may have looked like money was thrown at a problem and wasted. But in considering the facility and program improvements at public high schools in the state over the last decade, perhaps a narrative shift is in order.

Laurie Jacobs of the equity-minded nonprofit First State Educate says that there is a possible solution to the testing problem — one that Tennessee adopted and led to an improvement in academic gains after receiving RTTT funds.

It’s called an Innovation Zone.

Innovation Zones are schools that are both funded by the district and autonomous. Unlike the Opportunity Zone program for commercial real estate, it’s not about location as much as the students served. So, for example, schools like Highlands Elementary, which is predominantly Black and Latinx despite being located in predominantly white Rockford Park, might be eligible to be an Innovation Zone school.

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“Our belief is that, with autonomy and the ability to self-program, they’ll really be able to attack the students’ needs in Wilmington and get the English and math deficiency rates up to match the rest of the state,” Jacobs told Technical.ly.

Another way Innovation Zones have been more successful than traditional public schools is by allowing families to be more actively a part of the decision making.

“What we have noticed over time that there have been a lot of attempts at education reform that have been unsuccessful because they’re missing the community and the people aspect,” Jacobs said. “So the plans are coming from the top down and the community doesn’t have a seat at the table — they’re having this done to them instead of being actively engaged in it. What First State Educate is trying to do is fill that gap.”

The challenges of COVID-19 have widened that gap, too.

“We received a call to help a shelter for foster students who were being asked to do this work at ‘home.’ They’re at this shelter for only 30 days, the staff at the shelter aren’t familiar with a lot of the tools, they aren’t familiar with the lessons,” she said. “So we’ve been really focusing on the equity aspect of [school] being virtual or hybrid.”

An innovation Zone model could make adjustments — without having to go through the school board and the state — that would better serve those students, whether by giving them access to the school in small groups (similar to a learning pod), or by opening the school under health and safety restrictions so parents are able to work.

“The decision is up to the school to do what’s best for students,” said Jacobs, “as opposed to being told to be hybrid, or virtual, or in-person. A lot of the districts don’t have that flexibility.”

Jacobs says the advocacy group, which the public can join for free on the First State Educate website, is working to educate its members on the importance of school boards and expose them to the various ways to engage with them. The goal is to create an equitable education system in Delaware.

“We believe that if we build the people power around education issues we’ll have all the right ingredients to really get some reform and some change to happen,” she said.

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