Four Innovation Research Zones Approved by Commissioner Cassellius

March 29, 2018 • Krista Kaput

On February 22, the Innovation Research Zones (IRZ) Advisory Panel convened to decide which of the nine IRZ applications they would recommend to Commissioner Cassellius for approval. An important note: the IRZ legislation put a cap on the number of IRZs the Commissioner could approve—up to three in the seven-county metropolitan area and up to three in greater Minnesota.

The Panel decided to recommend four for approval, which were subsequently approved by the Commissioner:

  • Bloomington Public Schools (Metro)
  • Saint Paul Public Schools (Metro)
  • TriDistrict: Inver Grove Heights, South St. Paul and West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School Districts (Metro)
  • Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton School District, St. James Public Schools, Fairmont Area Schools, Waseca Public Schools, St. Peter Public Schools, Sleepy Eye Public Schools, Tri City United, and Granada Huntley East Chain (Greater MN)

Below are detailed descriptions of each IRZ, as well as future plans Education Evolving has to improve the legislation.

Refresher: What Are the Innovation Research Zones?

During the 2017 legislative session, Education Evolving led a coalition that worked with legislators to successfully pass the IRZ Pilot Program. The purpose of the legislation was to “allow school districts and charter schools to research and implement innovative education programming models designed to better prepare students for the world of the 21st century.”

Specifically, the IRZs created the opportunity for public schools and other organizations to join together to form a partnership. Schools in those partnerships could receive statutory flexibility that makes it easier to implement innovative programs like personalized learning, multidisciplinary models, and competency-based progression.

Of the five possible statutory exemptions provided in the legislation, the Commissioner ended up only granting one of them to IRZs—online learning.

Bloomington Public Schools

In their application, Bloomington Public Schools (BPS) outlined their their intention to use three innovations at Valley View Elementary School, Valley View Middle School, Kennedy High School, and Jefferson High School. Notably, in three of the schools (except Jefferson), the majority of the students are low-income and students of color, and a significant portion are students with special needs and English Learners (EL).

Specifically, the innovations include:

  1. Creating and piloting a seamless, integrated “E-5” educational system that locates and unites Early Learning programming with the district’s traditional K-5 academics under the instructional leadership of the elementary principal.
  2. Creating and piloting a system to identify “beat the odds” teachers and instructional strategies and use this information to personalize learning more effectively for EL students.
  3. Creating and piloting a system of alternative pathways to graduation that provide more flexibility in the way students are able to earn credits and meet graduation requirements.

The purpose of these innovations, according to BPS, are to address “persistent challenges and improve outcomes for all students as we reduce or eliminate disparities in outcomes for low-income students, ELs, and students eligible for Special Education services.” In addition to addressing disparities and improving outcomes for ELs, BPS asserted these innovations would enable their students to:

  • Enter kindergarten fully prepared.
  • Read fluently by third grade.
  • Graduate from high school prepared for college and career.


In their application, the TriDistrict outlined their Career and College Readiness Initiative, which focuses on improving career and college readiness for all students, but particularly for students of color and low-income students, by providing them with immersive learning experiences (ILE) while in high school. The TriDistrict defines an ILE as an experience that is a “rigorous career-focused course or pathway that contains at least one value-added aspect (e.g. accreditation, certification, concurrent enrollment, internship/mentorship, or other extended career-related experience), and incorporates profound, purposeful collaboration with business and/or community partners to enhance and deepen the authenticity of the learning experience.”

Specifically, they focused on two main types of ILE pathways and courses:

  1. Career and technical education (CTE) courses and pathways into careers that are in high demand in their area and that offer a high wage or salary. They identify high demand areas through engaging with businesses, their local chambers of commerce, research, and data on job growth and forecasts. These courses may also include an internship or mentorship component.
  2. Rigorous courses that create the opportunity for students to earn college credit, or articulated credit, in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in the Schools, Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, concurrent enrollment, or through articulation agreements that are aligned to the student’s personalized post-secondary education plans.

Importantly, the TriDistrict aims to ensure that the students’ “interests, aptitudes, and passions” are reflected in the pathways and courses they are participating in, as well as create opportunities for students to participate in self-directed learning and to develop their 21st century skills in perseverance, grit, collaboration, time management, etc.

Saint Paul Public Schools

Saint Paul Public Schools’ (SPPS) IRZ application was focused on serving their older EL students through their two alternative learning centers (ALCS)—LEAP High School and Gateway to College ALC.

Describing the need, SPPS wrote, “Unfortunately, four years is insufficient time for many EL students to complete graduation requirements. Although EL students are able to continue pursuing graduation requirements after senior year, many feel pressured to leave the traditional high school setting because they are older than other high school students.” SPPS also noted that their EL students have lower four-year graduation rates and higher dropout rates than their non-EL peers.

In order to provide EL students with the supports they need, raise graduation rates, and lower dropout rates, SPPS outlined how they want to create a program that works closely with older EL students to identify their academic and career goals and then match them with the ALC that best suits their needs. While attending the ALC, the EL students would work with counselors and other staff to create a graduation plan that includes supports that would ensure that the students receive a diploma and are also ready for college and career.

Eight Districts Band Together in Greater Minnesota

Eight school districts (listed above) and South Central Service Cooperative are working together to “bridge the equitable programming gap that exists between districts in our region and between rural and metropolitan area schools.” Specifically, they want to do the following:

  • Allow students to meet standards while also pursuing their passions, interests, and strengths.
  • Provide professional development for their educators in several student-centered areas: self-paced learning, blended instruction, project-based learning, etc.
  • Formalize student-centered learning partnerships with regional businesses, industries, and post-secondary institutions.
  • Improve equitable access to career and technical education programming, industry certification, and college credit.

Another component of their plan spoke to developing and retaining talent in the rural areas, explaining “Rural Minnesota has many good paying jobs but are struggling to find qualified candidates.” Through their IRZ, they believe that they will not only better prepare their students for college and career, but also help retain talent in their region.

What’s Next?

Over the last couple months, Education Evolving has spoken with school and district leaders, policy makers, and IRZ Panel members who have been involved with implementing or applying for the IRZ program. Based on these conversations, our recommendation to the legislature is to lift the cap the number of possible IRZs. We also heard some ideas for additional statutory flexibility options that could be added to the law.

We look forward to working with legislators and other champions of innovation to advance these recommendations. We will report on progress here on this blog.

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