Questions and Answers

Aurora Central’s new principal: ‘I want to help this community’

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School has been labeled as failing by the state for five years.

When hundreds of incoming freshman arrive for their first day at Aurora Central High School in August, they’ll be greeted by a familiar face: their former middle school principal.

And that’s exactly the way Gerardo De La Garza wants it.

De La Garza, who was principal for nine years at North Middle School in Aurora, is the new principal at Aurora Central.

And he arrives at a pivotal time: The high school is one of the state’s lowest academically performing high schools and could face state sanctions as soon as 2017.

One of the reasons De La Garza accepted the position, arguably one of the most difficult in Colorado’s education community, was the chance to improve the school for his students.

As part of a school improvement plan, which has received a tentative OK from the State Board of Education, Aurora Public Schools will begin a process to free Aurora Central, and several other schools, from district and state bureaucratic red tape. By creating an Innovation Zone, as its known under state law, the district hopes to create an opportunity for schools like Aurora Central to meet the unique needs of their students.

Gerardo De La Garza
Gerardo De La Garza

It will be up to De La Garza, began his career in Denver Public Schools, to lead the school’s community of students, teachers, and parents, through this transitional period and — ideally — boost student learning at the same time.

And that excites De La Garza.

“I know we can come up with a plan to turn this thing around,” he said.

Chalkbeat spoke with De La Garza on Wednesday, his fourth day on the job. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you come to get this position, which is arguably the most difficult job in Colorado’s public education community right now?
When I heard about the innovation zone plan I had a conversation with my director and said, “When this thing gets going I would like to be a part of it…”

I end up sending most of my middle school kids here. So, I have a vested interest in what was going on.

At the end of the school year, my director asked me if I was serious. I talked it over with my family, my team at North, and other colleagues and decided it was the right decision.

So why do you want to be at Aurora Central?
These are my kids. And I think that it’s really powerful for our students to be able to see a face and see somebody that they know who cares about them and is going to do everything that he can to make sure that this place is a safe environment to learn and somebody there that is going to listen and go to bat for them.

I want to help this community to make this one of the best high schools in Aurora. I think it can be done. We have some great kids that come out of North.

How would you define your leadership style? What does that mean to you? How do you work? What can teachers and students expect from you?
What they can expect from me is somebody that’s going to come in and do a lot of listening and a lot of learning, and then lead.

I want to know what’s working so we can continue those practices and refine them and make them even better. I want to know what are the practices that aren’t working. If they’re not working, let’s stop doing them or fix them. We need to get the right people into the right places to do the job.

I am going to come in here and be collaborative: I want to work with you and we’re going to get the right people into the right places to get this thing turned around.

More philosophically, what do you think the role of a principal is, especially a turnaround school?
A turnaround principal needs to find out what are the best practices out there that have demonstrated that they work. Let’s see if those are some practices that we can bring here, to Aurora Central. I’m not saying that it needs to be a carbon copy. Let’s see if we can bring that here to Central, adjust it to the needs of our community and make sure that it’s the right way to do things here and then monitor it as well.

My job as a leader is to make sure that we are putting those things into place with fidelity. To make sure that the data we’re collecting is real data, to tell us if it’s working right.

What specific skill sets do you have that you believe makes you a good fit for Aurora Central? What’s in your resume that makes you the ideal person to lead central through Central?
I’ve been in this community for nine years so I understand the needs of this community, the needs of these students [and] of these families. That is a unique skill set. It takes a leader to be able to build the capacity of those folks and provide the support and resources those people need in order to be the best they can be to meet the needs of the students. I’ve been successful at doing it in all that locations that I’ve been at.

At North, student achievement data rose each year for your first seven years and then dipped in your eighth. There was a significant dip, 3 or 4 points in each subject area. And in some instances some students lost as much ground as they gained the year before. What do you think happened there? And how did you correct it?
When I got to North, my number one priority was building the capacity of teachers through professional development. And we worked very hard at that. And as a result we saw student achievement going up because teachers became better at their craft.

A lot of these quality teachers left North to take on leadership positions through out the district. What ended up happening is we hired a lot of new people, [and] unfortunately, their heart wasn’t in it. They weren’t ready to work with this kind of demographic and we quickly had to make an adjustment there.

So, the next year, we did an about-face with our selection process and asked different questions. We wanted to get to the heart of why those candidates wanted to be at North, why they wanted to work with middle school students. There’s going to be less turnover at North this year and I expect scores will go back up.

What do you need from Aurora Public Schools officials to be successful?
I don’t really know exactly what those supports will be right now or what they will look like. But I need to make sure that they will be there to support me when I reach out to them. With our system and our model in place I have no doubt that they’ll be there to support me.

What is going to be different on day one at Central compared to the last day of school last year?
One of the things that will change — and it will be a visible change — is administrator presence. My number one priority coming in here is school culture and making sure that kids understand and know who their principal is, who their assistant principals are, who their deans are … getting these kids into their classrooms where the learning needs to happen but doing that in a warm, demanding way. There will be a dramatic change as far as visibility of administrators.

You are one person. There are more than 2,000 students here. So, what systems do you need to put in place to ensure that every student is appropriately challenged to either catch up, stay up, or move up?
My expectation is that myself and my administrative team are in every classroom on a weekly basis meeting with that teacher, giving them feedback on their instruction within 24 hours. We will monitor ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to do that.

As an administrator, how do you know student learning is going on?
I want to hear discourse. Student-to-student, where they’re sharing their thinking with each other to solve problems. And the teacher is facilitating the learning. I want to see students doing the work, not the teachers.

There’s an ongoing debate in public education of whether adults can improve schools that serve predominantly poor students. Some believe schools can, regardless of poverty. Others believe schools can’t be tasked with boosting achievement without taking on poverty first. What do you subscribe to?
If you have the right people that are willing to do the right job and believe in these kids then it can be done.

Chalkbeat intern Doug Hrdlicka contributed.

Lease for scholarships

Aurora Public Schools, CSU online degree program hammering out details of new partnership

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

Seven months after voters backed the project as part of a $300 million bond package, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado State University are negotiating terms of an unusual partnership that involves swapping building space for scholarships and other services.

Under the proposed deal, Aurora Public Schools would spend about $8 million to construct a new building to house CSU’s Global Campus, an online degree program under the Colorado State University system. If board members approve the final deal, CSU-Global would pay the district not through conventional lease payments, but in some combination of full-ride scholarships, discounted tuition for district graduates or teachers, and staff training.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn, who came up with the idea, views it as a chance to open another door to college for Aurora students, many of whom come from low-income families.

But some school board members have expressed skepticism about how many Aurora students will benefit, and one has raised questions about Munn’s position as CSU board member.

For the project to even be included on last fall’s bond question, state law had to change. After lobbying from APS officials, lawmakers did just that, allowing for bond-financed projects to build not just school district buildings but also buildings to lease to higher education institutions.

Aurora Public Schools then included the project in its bond package, which is also paying for two new school buildings, fixes to existing buildings and technology upgrades.

CSU-Global currently pays $500,000 per year to lease office space near the Denver Tech center, in the south suburbs.

“What we are doing right now is paying a landlord,” said CSU-Global president Becky Takeda-Tinker. “But we thought if we could keep the money in Colorado, and inside the public sector, it makes a lot of sense.”

Plenty of uncertainties remain. While the district has hired an architect, a site has not yet been determined. The initial proposed site, on vacant land the district owns near William Smith High School on Airport Boulevard, may not be available because of federal easements on the property. Munn said officials are considering about five additional sites.

As part of the deal, the district will have to set a lease amount based on market rates and the services the district receives must be worth that amount. But since a location hasn’t been set, officials aren’t yet sure how much the deal will be worth. The terms continue to change, Munn said, in part, because a location for the new building hasn’t been finalized.

Questions and concerns about the partnership came up at an Aurora school board meeting in December, when some board members said they were learning for the first time that students would not be able to enroll at CSU-Global directly after high school.

Because CSU-Global is set up to serve non-traditional students, and because state officials didn’t want the school to compete with existing schools and community colleges, the school only takes transfer students who already have more than 12 credits, unless they’re from outside Colorado.

At the meeting, board president Amber Drevon questioned Munn about how many students might benefit from such a scholarship if they have to go out on their own first.

“I thought we were trying to reach the students that wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise,” Drevon said. “But they are going to have to go spend that money or get scholarships first before they even have the opportunity to enroll in CSU-Global. That probably will not help a lot of kids we were trying to reach in the first place.”

Munn responded that even so, the thought of a portion of a four-year degree at an affordable price would be used as motivation for students.

“What concerns me is that you’ll lose them,” Drevon said.

“I appreciate that, but I think the challenge is we’re already losing them,” Munn responded.

Drevon did not return messages requesting comment for this story.

Early draft documents from July 2015 estimated that about 200 Aurora students per year could potentially benefit from scholarships or discounted tuition at CSU-Global. But Munn said the number of students who will benefit will depend on issues still to be resolved, including figuring out how many services the college will need to provide or whether the program prioritizes students who qualify for federal Pell grants or students studying a particular career program.

He said conversations are underway to see if money can be raised to help students pay for the credits they would need to earn at a community college or elsewhere before transferring to CSU-Global.

Board member Eric Nelson also raised alarm in December about Munn’s status as a governing board member for the CSU system. Munn became board chair just over a month ago.

“To me it seems the biggest beneficiary here is you, currying political favor with large CSU donors and other CSU board members at the expense of APS and our own district and student needs,” Nelson wrote to Munn in December.

Nelson said last week that his concerns haven’t changed.

Munn said he has disclosed both positions, has removed himself from all board votes or discussions at CSU about the proposed deal and is not at the negotiating table, though he will be making final recommendations on behalf of the Aurora school district.

Other board members are unconcerned about Munn’s two roles.

“I really don’t worry about it,” said board member Monica Colbert. “Because of the format CSU-Global offers, they’re the right ones to offer services to our students, regardless of Rico’s role.”

Munn says the clear goal of the partnership is to increase the district’s college going rate, and he said CSU-Global addresses some of the issues Aurora graduates cite in not going to college, such as not having the ability or desire to move away from their community, or the need to work while going to school.

According to a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, about 42 percent of the district’s graduates went on to college in 2015, which is lower than the state’s overall college-going rate of 56.5 percent.

If the same Aurora students are going to college, but just changing which school they go to, then the partnership will not have been a success, Munn said.

Michele Moses, professor of educational foundations and policies at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Education, said that she believes the proposal could increase college access, but that the district should question what an online-only college could provide that other colleges can’t, given the overall bad track record of online schools, particularly with at-risk students.

“It seems the question really is, ‘Is the investment that this is going to take for them, is that going to be worth the benefit, given that we have all of these concerns right off the bat?’” Moses said. “If the partnership with CSU-Global is seen as one piece as the larger puzzle of college access, then maybe, why not?”

Munn said he expects to have the major pieces of the deal in place to be able to sign a letter of intent this fall. And work on the building should be able to start this winter so the building could be ready next year.

“We know how it can benefit students and we know different ways it can benefit students,” Munn said. “Now it’s about using the resources that we have to structure it in a way that makes the most sense. I think we’re very close.”

A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.