Nearing Falcon Innovation Crossroads: Proposals Approved, Opposition Strong

School district “Innovation” through site-level autonomy can be a promising path to pursue, but doesn’t necessarily move forward smoothly or quickly. Local politics, leadership challenges, and the limits of imagination all can slow progress. Yet the spark unleashed remains to be ignited into action, where there is a will to yield productive, student-centered change.

Such is the case in Falcon School District 49 outside Colorado Springs, where more than 15 months ago the Board of Education boldly seized the mantel. Within weeks, leaders in the district’s zones of innovation separately began to convene with parents and staff to flesh out plans that would free them from specific district policies and state laws to achieve something greater. District leaders made some tough decisions to streamline functions and administrative personnel.

One local election and various delays later, numerous school innovation proposals yesterday reached the Falcon Board of Education for an important vote. (Pictures from the meeting are on the district’s Facebook page.) Despite objections, the Board was able to squeeze out three votes to approve innovation proposals affecting nine schools.

Taken as a whole, the substance of this major round of proposals was not radical or earth-shattering. Most of the specific requests do not need waivers from the State Board of Education, and not all even require overriding school board policy. Still, staff members at one school voted to opt out of tenure protections. An entire zone (representing a third of the district’s traditional schools) won support to adjust its calendar to meet local curriculum and testing needs. Another high school seeks to create six “career academies.”

Falcon is fast approaching another important crossroads. The issue at hand is local empowerment. Awakened to the realization that too much power has been ceded and delegated to professional administrators, parents and the classroom teachers with whom they choose to partner are taking ownership and gaining the responsibility that comes with self-government. As the process still lives, innovation zone leaders are paying attention. But the school board stands closely divided, and with a vacancy soon to be filled, the transforming process and the fruits it has begun to bear rest precariously in the balance.

The extent of Falcon’s innovation does not end with the proposals ratified last night. Despite that victory, political opponents are dangerously close to shutting down the process gaining community support. As Carol McGraw’s Colorado Springs Gazette story pointed out, two pro-innovation Board members made a dramatic exit from the meeting. That move sends a powerful statement. Is there enough momentum among engaged parents and their allies to face down the challenge and overcome it?

A couple months ago I pointed readers to a thoughtful Education Next article, asked if we can put schools in charge, and held forth Falcon 49 as an example that represents “model steps forward for others in the K-12 world to embrace.” Do I still have such high hopes? Yes, but it certainly hasn’t been as easy as I once thought.