When district officials threatened to replace the entire staff of Ashley Elementary, Donna Simms went with other parents to the school board to protest.

“The way they came in and said, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s going on'” angered parents, said Simms.

But unlike some situations in which the district moved ahead on its plans without community consensus, in this case the district backed down. They replaced the principal but agreed to work with the current staff and teachers to come up with a plan for the school’s principal.

That decision, Simms said, helped save the school, which has over 95 percent of students below the poverty line and has struggled with low performance for years.

“Had we not spoken up, I think a lot of the families that have been with the school for years and years would have left,” said Simms. “We agreed as a community to stay for this year to see what’s happening and see if what they said was going to happen really did happen.”

The result is a plan that would give the school what is known as a innovation status, meaning it is freed from a number of district mandates. The plan, which observers say is unusual in the amount of community input that shaped it, includes cutting class sizes, incorporating technology and adding time for non-core subjects.

It received the go-ahead from the state board Tuesday morning and has garnered praise even from critics of Denver’s innovation schools process.

The full plan, clocking in at over 160 pages, is available here.

Innovation schools

Denver’s innovation schools have proved to be controversial, with critics saying that the plans schools submit often lack rigor or specificity and often fail to produce results. But Ashley’s plan has garnered praise even from those critics.

“Their’s was the only proposal that seem to have buy-in and be substantive in some way,” said Van Schoales, who heads education advocacy group A+ Denver. “A lot of these proposals are superficial. You can tell they’re going through the motions, that they haven’t had conversations with their staff about how they want the school to get better.”

A recent report produced by A+ Denver, CU-Denver and local unions showed that innovation schools produce mixed results, often failing to outperform similar traditional schools and falling below state averages.

Schoales says that’s because of the relative lack of scrutiny in the innovation schools process.

“Almost everyone gets innovation status,” said Van Schoales. In fact, a 2013 lawsuit alleged that Denver’s school board inappropriately approved innovation plans for two new schools, which were not allowed for under the 2008 innovation schools law.

Innovation schools should be required to submit a comprehensive vision for their school, says Schoales.

“If the proposal was a disaster, then [the school’s] probably going to be a disaster,” he said.

How to have a conversation

District officials, school leaders and community members agree that the decision to have the school community lead the transformation is part of the reason for how strong Ashley’s plan is.

“That was a brilliant idea,” said Jennifer Keel, Ashley’s parent liaison who has been with the school for 30 years. “We were able to take our strengths from the past and bridge them into our goals and our aspirations for the future.”

It’s an example of a successful outreach strategy in a district that in other cases has been accused of alienating parents, teachers and community members.

At Ashley, parents and teachers were initially suspicious of the process, believing the district would go ahead with predetermined plans. But the principal’s openness to their ideas brought them around.

“I was one of those that was very, very, very hesitant,” said Simms. She participated in the principal selection process and in the subsequent school design.

For one, the candidate the district selected, current principal Zachary Rahn, raised red flags for Simms.

“We had a feeling that because he came through the DPS system and the DPS training, we were going to get cut under the table,” said Simms. Rahn arrived in the district as a Teach for America teacher and went through a district principal training program last year.

Instead, she said, “he’s been receptive to the input of the staff and the community. He has been upholding what he said he would do and what we wanted to see in the building.”

Innovation status as an afterthought

Paradoxically, the strength of the plan may come from the fact that it was an afterthought, rather than the end goal of the process.

Starting at the end of last spring, the district convened a committee including Rahn, the school’s teachers and a group of parents to begin discussions about what the school should look like.

“The question that we opened it with was, ‘what does your dream school look like?'” said Rahn. “Innovation was never a thought until after.”

Instead, becoming an innovation school was a tool for doing what the community wanted.

“If this is what we want to do, [innovation] is the way to do it,” said Rahn.

The committee also had plenty of time to complete their work, a component district officials say was crucial to having a successful process.

“They started last winter and didn’t finish until September and October,” said Joe Amundsen, a senior manager of innovation schools for the district. He worked with the committee on the school’s design. “Our hope that is schools do go through the similar process of starting in the spring and working over the summer and putting together the plan in the fall.”

He said two other schools going through a similar process, Isabella Bird Community School and the Oakland elementary campus, are on a similar timeline.

Let’s try that again

For many schools, improving means replacing the entire staff and starting at zero. That’s what happened last time Ashley faced an overhaul, in the 1990s.

Keel, who was at the school at the time, said that the staff was called to an emergency meeting and told they would have to reapply. At the time, she thought it was hard on the school but the intense conversations of the past year have made her wonder if that approach was simpler.

“Going through it twice makes me see how important it is to start all over,” said Keel.

With Ashley’s less drastic approach, both Keel and Rahn say they expect the outcome will be the same, with large-scale turnover of the teaching staff. But the timeline will be more gradual, giving people time adjust to the new way of doing things.

“Change is hard for adults,” Rahn said.

The slower process means many teachers have decided for themselves that the school’s new direction won’t work for them, rather than being fired or pushed out.

“There’s a chunk of people who voted for the plan who think it’s right for the school but for themselves it wasn’t right,” said Rahn.

Rahn says the key was to balance making big picture changes with easing community fears.

“Turnaround fails because change is incremental” said Rahn, a message he drove home for teachers starting at the first committee meeting. On the other hand, he understands why school closings and mass firings can be hard on school communities.

For him, it’s still an open question of whether this approach will work.

“Will we get the same results without getting blown up?” said Rahn, but he’s hopeful. “We’re bound to prove the stats wrong.”