Denver Center for 21st Century Learning

School Level or Grades

Number of Students

Number of Teachers

6-12 220 19

2016-17 SPF Rating


Years Implementing TLC

Accredited on Watch
FRL- 89%
ELL- 34%
SPED- 22%
Students of Color- 93%
School photo shoot at DMHS in November 2015.

Reshaping Curriculum and Culture Through Strong Instructional Leadership

High Stakes at a Hard-to-Serve School

Denver Center for 21st Century Learning (DC21) is not your typical TLC school because DC21 is not your typical school. Only six years old, the school is an alternative pathway for students who have struggled in traditional DPS schools. The high school is on a quarter system and, at the start of each new quarter, students from across the district enroll with hopes of getting their education back on track and earning their diploma. The school faces significant challenges in serving a high-needs population with a small staff and a big responsibility: to ensure students have the credits and the preparation they need to graduate.

In 2014, DC21 was labeled a red school, the lowest rating on the School Performance Framework. Diane Tribbett, an administrative consultant focusing on teacher effectiveness at DC21 said: “This school five years ago did not have an academic culture. If you had visited us then you would see kids in the halls all the time, fight breaking out. You would have looked in classes and seen a few kids learning and a teacher trying to get to each group engaged and the ones not with the teacher just on their phones or their heads down.”

“The school faces significant challenges in serving a high-needs population with a small staff and a big responsibility: to ensure students have the credits and the preparation they need to graduate.”

An additional challenge that DC21 has had to tackle is the curriculum itself, which has been in the process of changing in recent years to better address students’ needs and help them grow academically. Ethan Emery, the school’s dean of instruction, noted: “It used to be [all] credit recovery based, so kids sitting down in front of a computer for long periods of time. The teacher in the classroom might be simultaneously teaching different kinds of content to kids who were not very engaged with school to begin with, so they were especially having trouble sitting at a computer and engaging by themselves.”

At first, Diane was unsure whether this unique school would be well-suited to the teacher leadership model. “Originally our instructional superintendent leaned on us to get involved in TLC, and we were a little reluctant because we’re a small school. Our strength is in hiring teachers able to work with alternative students effectively and we have to do a lot of work-arounds in terms of the curriculum,” she recalled.

Having teachers evaluate other teachers in this small, tight-knit community was a major concern. However, that worry paled in comparison with the challenges all of the teachers were facing such as teaching multiple subjects with multiple lesson plans

involving a curriculum that wasn’t fully serving student needs. Teachers urgently wanted to develop their instructional practice to help more students grow. Unlike a traditional high school with departments that focus on core subject areas, DC21 is designed to help students focus on individual academic challenges on a compressed timeline. Diane said: “Our whole purpose for being here is to take kids who haven’t had much success in other schools so far yet, and [who] are over-aged and under-credited. The idea is to speed up their ability to get credit so that they can get a high school diploma, because otherwise it’s almost like all is lost.” With these high stakes, DC21 moved forward to implement TLC.

“Teachers urgently wanted to develop their instructional practice to help more students grow.”

Making Each Meeting Count

Since starting the TLC model, DC21’s instructional compass for how to address student engagement, curriculum changes and effective teaching practices has been its instructional leadership team (ILT). The ILT, which includes Ethan, Diane, all Senior Team Leads, the assistant principal, and the principal, holds consistent and highly structured meetings each week. According to Ethan, ILT meetings are “focused on the task at hand and the goals we’re aiming to hit for that session. It’s really about building collective leadership capacity in the building.”

Diane echoed this idea, noting that every single week, “Ethan has an agenda planned and a topic. It’s always bendable based on what’s going on in the school or where they are in the evaluation cycle, but the idea is that it is a real learning community.”

Key to ensuring effective ILT meetings has been the team’s insistence on connecting all learning to specific strategies (which are tailored to college and career readiness, supporting students both socioemotionally and academically, and improving instruction) in the school’s Unified Improvement Plan.

Ethan said: “If we focus on these five improvement strategies, our school will see growth on the School Performance Framework. Everything we do, we try to map back to the strategies, and if it doesn’t fit then maybe it isn’t worth pushing forward on. Our kids need to learn these standards and be supported, prepared and proficient in these areas, and we know this doesn’t happen by accident, especially in such a unique setting.”

As the ILT began to establish an internal culture of high expectations and focus, members also recognized the mission-critical need to support and develop the coaching skills of the Senior Team Leads, so that they would be able to effectively guide teams in carrying out the identified improvement strategies.

Ethan was clear about how many skills are involved in being a strong instructional coach. “A ton of stuff goes into coaching: you have to ask questions, you have to understand educational best practices, you have to know how to write content learning objectives and how to build relationships. A million and one things. We were strategic at the beginning of the year, making sure that the focus of our time together would set them up for success and that they would feel really well supported.”

The ILT became a hub for the Senior Team Leads to access the tools they need to be able to develop these skills throughout the year. Diane said: “There is a learning component. We knew we could not take excellent teachers who have not had the training that [other school leaders have] had and put them in that multiple role of evaluating and coaching without giving them more training.”

“After just two years of implementing TLC, the school’s SPF rating jumped over orange and is now yellow.”

At a recent ILT meeting, for example, the learning focus was on how to hold mid-year performance conversations that would help the school grow and retain teacher talent. The activity Ethan put together involved diving into the rubric that Senior Team Leads use for these conversations, and analyzing evidence that could be used to support a variety of indicators.

Senior Team Leads discussed how the evidence connected to specific behaviors the ILT wants teachers to be demonstrating in the classroom. The activity and discussion that followed could be directly applied to how Senior Team Leads would be working with teachers and strengthening instruction in the upcoming week.

Adapting Curriculum to Ensure Students Thrive

The impact of such a high-quality ILT has been felt beyond the walls of the Tuesday morning meetings and observation-feedback conversations between teachers and Senior Team Leads.

The Senior Team Leads have also been instrumental in curriculum changes as Ethan noted: “Senior Team Leads have the history of teaching here and can help their teachers when they are looking at the curriculum and saying, ‘how can I possibly fit all of this into this short of time?’ They can help through their common planning or one-on-one interactions to help fit it all in and prioritize what we’re teaching and what we’re trying to have kids learn.”

With the Senior Team Leads and administration support, the curriculum has moved away from strict credit recovery to more standard district curriculum while maintaining differentiation for the unique students that attend DC21.

Ethan said: “We want kids to have a different learning experience. We were very tactical in our changes and we introduce materials so that in most cases we are using the district curriculum but it has a very different look and feel to it so that kids don’t have a negative reaction based on their previous encounters with traditional lessons.”

The culture and rigor of the ILT is also reflected in the team meetings Senior Team Leads run. “They have time carved out throughout the month to help facilitate thinking in terms of what teachers’ units look like. Our Senior Team Leads also help facilitate an ongoing, data-driven instruction process for the standards that the kids are supposed to be mastering according to a teacher’s scope and sequence,” Ethan said.


Onward and Upward

Teachers and teacher leaders alike are beginning to see the fruits of their labor. Students are growing academically, and they’re graduating at nearly twice the rate they were a few years ago. After just two years of implementing TLC, the school’s SPF rating jumped over orange and is now yellow. While no one on staff is fully satisfied with a yellow rating, they are all proud that DC21 is on an upward trajectory.

Diane directly attributes the rise in test scores, graduation rates, and the burgeoning academic culture, in part, to TLC: “As an example, our teachers have someone who takes very seriously the task of looking at their lesson plans. It used to be before that you turned them in and someone might or might not look at them. You could turn in the same batch four weeks in a row and no one would have noticed. Now, Senior Team Leads (read them closely) and can give feedback.”

2013-14: DC 21’s graduation rate – 27.6%

2015-16: DC 21’s graduation rate – 43.3%

Colorado Department of Education

Instead of being an additional strain, distributive leadership has become one of the best vehicles to address the unique challenges at DC21. As Diane reflected on DC21’s exciting progress, she observed: “In general, the academic culture has changed and teacher leadership is a part of it. We were reluctant, but I would be the first to say I was wrong. It has helped — not hindered — our culture and that’s because we’re co-accountable to each other.”