Our latest policy brief addresses a topic that has aroused a lot of curiosity among Arkansas educators and school leaders: schools of innovation. Schools of innovation receive waivers from certain regulations in order to facilitate the use of innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Despite a short application period (February to May 2014), the Arkansas Department of Education received 129 applications for schools of innovation for the 2014-15 schools of innovation. In the end, the Commissioner of Education approved 11 schools to become “schools of innovation.”
Difference between Schools of Innovation and District Conversion Charters
One of the first questions we had when we learned about Senator Elliot’s bill to establish “schools of innovation” was how this model was different from district conversion charters. Both allow school districts to apply for waivers from certain rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools in order to achieve specified goals and in exchange for greater accountability.
Schools of innovation and district conversion charters vary in their application process, approval process, funding, and waivers (see page 2 of our policy brief for a full description of the differences between the two types of schools). One of the key substantive differences between schools of innovation and district conversion charter schools is that district conversion charters can waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act (which allows schools to dismiss teachers without going through the remediation and 60 day dismissal processes), while schools of innovation cannot.
According to Denise Airola of the Office of Innovation for Education (OIE), the school of innovation status allows schools to make changes on a smaller scale as opposed to district conversion charter model, which implies changing an entire school model. In contrast, schools of innovation may ask for a waiver from requirements that only affect part of the school or student body instead of requiring changes for everyone.
One possible reason for the greater interest among schools in becoming “schools of innovation” than district conversion charter schools is that many may view the “school of innovation” label as politically safer than the “charter school” label. It’s possible that “schools of innovation” do not have the same negative connotation to many districts as “charter schools,” which many districts see as competition. Perhaps “a rose by any other name” does not smell as sweet in the case of schools…
Characteristics of Successful Application for Schools of Innovation
With an acceptance rate of only 8.5%, becoming a school of innovation for the 2014-15 school year was about as competitive as getting to Harvard. What do the 11 approved schools of innovation look like, and what may have made their applications successful? Many of the selected schools are integrating STEM subjects into the curriculum, and several offer new opportunities to students, such as the opportunity to learn a foreign language at the elementary level or the change to gain college credit through concurrent enrollment at the high school level.
Arkansas Schools of Innovation for 2014-15 School Year
Another explanation for the relatively small number of approved applications is that several of the 129 applications asked for waivers from the 180 day school calendar, largely as a way to gain more flexibility in how to make up snow days. While the school calendar may be a legitimate area in which schools should have more autonomy, it does not quite fit with the intent of the bill, which is to use flexibility from regulations to boost student engagement and achievement.
Schools that are interested in applying to become “schools of innovation” for the 2015-16 school year will benefit from more planning time and the lessons learned from the inaugural class of schools of innovation. A great place to start would be the Office of Innovation for Education (OIE), which offers support to schools interested in applying to become a school of innovation. In a March blog post, the OIE lists and explain four questions all schools should ask themselves while developing their “Innovation Plan”:
- What needs are you trying to meet?
- Which innovative programs or practices may help you meet those needs?
- Which students, teachers, and leaders are the best fit for this innovation?
- How will you improve if you are making progress and improving student success
Schools of innovation have the potential to be an exciting addition to public education in Arkansas We wish all 11 new schools of innovation luck in their inaugural year and look forward to seeing what new ideas the next crop of applications will bring!