Districts of Innovation explained

How some Texas school districts are opting for flexibility and local control
By Dacia Rivers
In 2015, the 84th Texas Legislature passed a bill that created the ability for school districts with acceptable or better ratings to become Districts of Innovation, a move that exempts those districts from some of the TEC’s statutes. Since then, more than 200 school districts across the state have adopted innovation plans, while still more are in the process of creating their own. The District of Innovation designation was created to give traditional public schools some of the flexibilities charter schools enjoy and provide school districts more local control and autonomy in certain areas.

What it means
Districts of Innovation are able to exempt themselves from several parts of the TEC including those related to:
•  school year start and end dates
•  length of school day
•  90 percent attendance rule
•  class-size ratios
•  teacher certification
•  teacher contracts
•  certain disciplinary rules
•  teacher appraisals
•  planning or conference periods
•  school uniforms
Some rules are not open to flexibility for Districts of Innovation, including:
•  state assessments
•  state accountability
•  school finance
•  district governance
•  curriculum
•  federal requirements
•  all state laws outside of the TEC
To start the process, an eligible district must either create a board resolution or produce a petition signed by the majority of the district advisory committee stating the move to become a District ofInnovation. Next, the board must hold a public school board hearing, and a vote must be taken within 30 days to decide if the district will seek the District ofInnovation distinction.
If the school board votes to continue the process, members must then create an innovation committee, which will be responsible for creating the district’s innovation plan. As part of this plan, the committee must specify from which areas of the TEC the district is excusing itself.
Once the plan is finalized, it must be approved by the majority of the district advisory committee and a two-thirds majority of the school board. The district then posts the plan publicly and becomes an official District of Innovation  for the next five years, after which the distinction expires. The final plan does not need to be approved by the TEA, though districts must notify the education commissioner once an innovation plan is complete.
The process in practice
El Paso ISD was one of the first districts to adopt an innovation plan. They were on board so early, in fact, that they worked closely with the TEA, serving as a guidepost for other districts and a guinea pig for the program.
The 21 members of the district’s innovation committee decided to take exemptions from school start dates, teacher certification, the 90 percent attendance rule, the designation of a campus behavior coordinator, and teacher and administrator appraisals. The committee worked on the plan over the course of 90 days, and it was approved unanimously by the school board.
“I think what’s ironic is that the process of getting the community together, getting our teachers’ associations together and all participating in the process to seek theDistrict of Innovation status was probably as beneficial for us as the actual changes have been,” El Paso ISD SuperintendentJuan Cabrera says. “The process was something that really brought our community together.”
In Era ISD, near the Oklahoma border,superintendent Jeremy Thompson also chose to become a District of Innovation early.
“It gives us some freedom to have local control over things that affect us,”Thompson says.
Era stuck a toe into the distinction at first, taking exemptions for only calendar changes, but Thompson says administrators are considering adding more exemptions to their plan in future years.
Calendar changes
The one change that nearly all Districts ofInnovation have enacted is the ability to change school start dates. In Hemphill ISD,near the Louisiana border, superintendent Reese Briggs says the scheduling flexibility will be especially beneficial to students and the local community.
“Starting earlier in August allows us to have a balanced calendar with approximately equal days in each semester,” Briggs says.“Additionally, our community prefers our schools to let out by the end of May, and the exceptions allow us to accomplish this.”
Teacher certification
Relaxing certification rules has allowed schools in El Paso to fill teacher positions that were vacant due to a shortage of certified teachers in some speciality areas.Schools in the district were immediately able to use this exemption to hire folks such as business community members to take empty positions.
“I’ve quickly been able to fill everything that we’ve had empty,” Cabrera says. “Otherwise it wouldn’t have been filled, which is phenomenal.”
Teacher certification flexibility is on the table for future additions to the innovation plan in Era, according to Thompson, especially when it comes to vocational classes, which can be hard to staff with certified teachers in a rural area.
“We have a few kids who would like to take a computer science programming class, but we don’t have staff to do that, nor do we have enough students interested to justify a full-time teacher,” Thompson says. “Freedom and flexibility in hiring would allow us to hire a local person that has some computer programming skills and can teach just one to two classes a day.”
Class size
When San Antonio ISD became a District of Innovation, the innovation committee only opted for flexibilities related to school time and class-size ratio. Dana Ray, director of charter, magnet and summer schools in the district, explains that the thinking behind this change isn’t to crowd classrooms, but to benefit one particular campus that struggled with an overflowing fifth-grade bilingual class. By adding a few more students to some lower-grade classes, the school hopes to be able to break that large class into two groups.
“That was the only campus that really thought about that particular waiver, and even though they wrote a plan as part of our process, they ended up not needing to use it this year,” Ray says. “We applaud them just for being able to think of how they might use it.”
Some teachers’ associations have expressed concern over District of Innovation exemptions, especially those regarding teacher contracts and certification. To combat this in El Paso, the committee immediately excluded the possibility of including contracts in its list of exemptions,which alleviated the concerns of district teachers, according to Cabrera.
Thompson says they’ve done the same inEra, incorporating teachers’ input into the district’s innovation plans to assuage fears,which he understands.
“Teachers were involved early in theDistrict of Innovation discussions, and we opened those up for them to give us suggestions about anything,” Thompson says. “We want to make our school districts enticing to good teachers. If anything, we’re trying to use the flexibility to help them.”
In San Antonio, Ray says that strategically deciding which exemptions to take, rather than taking them all just because it’s possible, helped mediate fears as well.
“We were very cautious in the way we approached this, and I think that helped principals, too, in their planning,” Ray says.“When you just say, ‘We’re gonna take away three statutes instead of 20,’ you can focus and figure out where your energy is best served.”
Keeping the status quo
In some districts, such as Miles ISD,outside of San Angelo, administrators have chosen to take a “wait and see” approach to becoming a District of Innovation. Superintendent Robert Gibson says schools in Miles are doing just fine the way things are now, and he sees no reason to fix something that isn’t broken. Some teachers in Miles were skeptical of theTEA’s intentions behind the Districts of Innovation program, a factor that aided the district’s decision to opt out for now.
“They want to let other people work the bugs out of it and see if there are any pitfalls to it and consider becoming a District of Innovation later,” Gibson says.
The school board in Miles voted six to one against becoming a District of Innovation, largely due to concerns over changing teacher certification and contract rules. Even though some administrators in the district liked the idea of having a flexible school start date, in the end it wasn’t a move the school board felt comfortable making.
“We didn’t feel it was worth damaging teacher morale in any shape form or fashion just to get an earlier start date on the calendar,” Gibson says.
Feedback in San Antonio has been positive, according to Ray, who says creating an innovation plan has administrators thinking about what they can do differently under the District of Innovation designation to better serve their campuses and community.
“Historically, we tended to be pretty standardized in our practice across the district,” Ray says. “We’re moving away from that and looking for opportunities like the Districts of Innovation to put more autonomy at the principal level and the campus level to do things differently.”
As El Paso ISD wraps up its first full year as a District of Innovation, Cabrera is also pleased with the process and the results. Initially, administrators in El Paso were drawn to claim the distinction in an attempt to make their schools more competitive with others, including private and charter schools.
“We felt being a District of Innovation would offer us a different way to look at the law and limitations placed on public school districts to see what we could do to create more choice within the district,” Cabrera says.
Despite the fact that El Paso ISD serves nearly 59,000 more students than Era ISD, the smaller district has also felt the benefits of being a District of Innovation, according to Thompson.
“There are so many unique things that happen in a small school environment that being a District of Innovation is really vital to us,” he says. “Rules are not one-size-fits-all, and the flexibility gives us the opportunity to make decisions that are in our best interest, locally.”
For more information on the Districts of Innovation, visit the TEA website.
DACIA RIVERS is Editorial Director of Texas SchoolBusiness.
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