Aurora school administrators are taking their first steps toward making Superintendent Rico Munn’s most ambitious school improvement strategy a reality, while the school board cautioned it won’t accept any sweeping changes without support from teachers and parents.
Munn’s plan is to use the state’s innovation schools law to create what he’s calling “ACTION Zones.” Clusters of schools will apply for waivers from district and state policies that will provide more flexibility over personnel, budget, curriculum and resources.
The idea is the schools will work together — mostly outside the district’s bureaucracy — to boost student achievement at some of the district’s lowest performing schools.
Aurora Public Schools, which is the largest school district on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance, has contracted with the education nonprofit Mass Insight Education to lead a variety of committees that will be tasked with redesigning up to five schools. Two of those committees began meeting last week.
The one-year contract with Mass Insight is for $600,000. APS may renew the contract for another two years at $600,000 annually.
Boston-based Mass Insight has worked with school districts across the country to improve chronically failing schools since 2010. During the last three years, Mass Insight helped the Jefferson Parish school district in Louisiana reduce its number of failing schools from 18 to four.
Mass Insight also has worked with the Colorado Department of Education since 2010. For the past three years, CDE has been a member of the nonprofit’s State Development Network, which helps state education departments craft and evaluate school improvement strategies.
While Munn is confident freeing his struggling schools of red tape is the best option for Aurora students, similar schools in Denver have produced mixed results. And costly consultants in other struggling school districts haven’t yielded the results state officials would want.
To win waivers in Colorado, the school committees must follow the state’s innovation school law, which requires proof of broad community support including a majority of a building’s teachers.
Still, school board members pressed Munn and officials from Mass Insight on building consensus for the school redesign plans at a meeting last week.
“If it’s a dictatorial process through a single individual, I don’t think the process will be viewed as authentic,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “I will not vote for any plan that isn’t authentic.”
So far, only one school has been identified to participate in the district’s first ACTION Zone: Aurora Central High.
Aurora Central has been considered academically failing by the state for five years. The State Board of Education was supposed to level sanctions on the high school, which serves mostly Latino students from low-income homes, later this school year. However, legislation passed in the spring put a hold on the state’s accountability timeline.
Munn’s ACTION Zone plan is in part a pre-emptive strike to stave off state sanctions, which could include handing over low performing schools to charter authorizers or closing them. Munn sought and won the state board’s blessing to move forward with his plan this summer.
The APS administration is also considering including Boston K-8 and other primary schools that send students to Aurora Central as part of the plan.
Munn said he hopes to have detailed plans for the five schools to the school board for approval early next year. If the APS and state boards of education approve the plans, they’ll be rolled out for the 2016-2017 school year.