broken

At Aurora’s struggling schools, teachers say they don’t know how to teach state standards

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Public Schools bus picks up students after school.

Teachers at five academically struggling schools in Aurora aren’t prepared to teach. Students who are learning English at those same schools are often left behind. And their parents are out of the loop.

Those are some of the findings from a series of school audits conducted by an independent contractor working for Aurora Public Schools as the school district reimagines some of its lowest performing schools that sit on its Denver border.

The reports, which were compiled in October and November, are meant to inform the work of numerous committees setting a new course for the schools — one that will hopefully lift historically low student achievement and morale.

Among the recommendations from the consultant Mass Insight: Give more planning time to teachers, rethink how English language learners are taught and lay a new foundation for what is supposed to be taught at each grade.

“No one was in the schools arguing things were great,” said Matt Bachand, engagement director at Mass Insight. He added, “Schools are going to push the envelope, we hope.”

The work to create functioning schools that serve the mostly poor, black and Latino students in the Original Aurora neighborhood is in part an effort to stave off state sanctions. APS is the largest school system on the state’s accountability watchlist and is in danger of losing its accreditation if student learning doesn’t improve.

While each school — Aurora Central High, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, Boston K-8, Paris and Crawford elementary schools — faces its own unique challenges, the reports paint a picture of mostly broken schools where little learning happens, especially for the district’s most at-risk students.

“Though it appears as though Paris Elementary offered professional development for staff on unpacking standards, developing essential questions and daily objectives, most students could not communicate what they are learning in class,” the audit said. “Similarly, most students could not explain how they know if they are on or off-track in class.”

Jocelyn Stephens, the APS learning director who oversees Paris, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“These reports are a confirmation — and maybe provided us a couple of perspectives we didn’t have,” she said.

Parents’ perspectives, for one, were lacking, she said.

Last fall, APS was chastised in another report published by parent advocacy group RISE Colorado and the education reform group A+ Denver. The report encouraged the inner-suburban school district to engage its poorest families more.

Parents, students, teachers and school administrators were surveyed and participated in focus groups for the Mass Insight audits, Bachand said.

“The goal is when the report comes out, no one in the building says, ‘No one like me participated,’” he said.

One glimmer found by Mass Insight is that most teachers reported a positive working culture and felt respected by their principals.

While no immediate and permanent changes will take hold at the schools until after both the APS school board and State Board of Education sign off on the plans, Aurora officials say they’re working to improve schools now.

“What I think you’ll see right now is a response,” Stephens said.

In December, principals across the district were told they and their teachers were free to make curricular changes as they see fit. That conversation was a demarcation for a school district that previously sought consistency across its classrooms in an effort to support a highly transient student population.

Stephens said it will take time for the district’s culture to shift.

“It’s one thing to be shared and another thing to be lived,” Stephens said. “That is the work.”

While a shift at the district level is important, state officials hope those in the schools are able to come up with their own plans.

“We want to be sure that the schools are clear about what they’re trying to do,” said Peter Sherman, the state’s top school turnaround officer. “We want to see in those plans, the school focused on some of these core systems. We also want to see outcomes. We want the plans and the schools to be really clear about the outcomes they’re seeking for kids.”

Lisa Escarcega, Aurora’s chief accountability and research officer, told the school board last week that the schools’ plans should be made public the second week of February.

“But if the schools need more time,” Escarcega said, “we need to give that to them.”

Mass Insight’s School Readiness Assessments

Aurora Central High School


Aurora West College Preparatory Academy

Boston K-8

Crawford Elementary School

Paris Elementary

Questions of fairness

Aurora school board raises red flags about bringing DSST charter to district, but signs off on continuing negotiations

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday gave district officials approval to continue negotiations with the DSST charter network, but not before raising concerns about the process and emphasizing that this green light doesn’t guarantee final approval later.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn earlier this year proposed a plan to bring the high-performing DSST network to Aurora, in a new school serving sixth through 12th graders.

Under Munn’s proposal, APS would pay for up to half of the cost of a new district-owned building and allow DSST to use it if the charter network came up with the rest of the money. After passage last month of a $300 million bond measure that included the district’s share of the project cost, Munn on Tuesday asked the board for input on continuing negotiations and on what he should prioritize.

DSST has said it would assist with fundraising to complete the building, but that it believes the school district should take the lead.

Board members asked questions around fundraising for the second half of the building’s cost, about whether the school would serve students from across the district or from a specified boundary, and whether the timing is right.

Some board members also raised concerns that the process of inviting DSST for the partnership may not have been fair, and cautioned that they didn’t want to make any guarantees to DSST before the network submits an application for a charter in the district.

“A concern I have with this proposal and not the school — because I would love to have a DSST campus here — is how the community was engaged… and also how our charters were engaged,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “We’re setting up a situation where an outside provider is going to have an opportunity to serve kids, where none of our charters within the district were given that same opportunity.”

Pat Leger, principal of Aurora Academy a charter in its sixth year in the district, said she would have liked the opportunity to have been considered, but mostly felt “offended” because of a recent disagreement with the district about whether her charter could benefit from the district’s bond dollars.

“The part of the process that bothered me the most is he wouldn’t include us in the bond, but he will go out and give money to a charter that he’s never worked with,” Leger said. “That to me feels inappropriate.”

Aurora charter schools are set to get some bond money to improve technology and security, but a district committee found their larger capital requests did not merit inclusion in the bond.

Leger said that she believes Munn’s intentions are good, but that the process hasn’t made it clear why the district believes that need exists at a time when enrollment is down and several other new charter schools were recently approved to open.

“The whole process needs to be looked at,” she said.

Van Schoales, CEO of the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado, while pleased that the district has become more welcoming to charter schools, said his group is also concerned about Aurora’s process.

“You have to have an open, transparent process,” Schoales said. “The fact that the district went back and forth with schools about access to facilities and the bond, it speaks to the fact that there aren’t any clear written rules of engagement.”

Without a process, Schoales said, it could for some people “reinforce the perception that there are backroom deals happening.” Last year, to bring more clarity and transparency to its process, Denver Public Schools adopted a new policy for how it allocates space to district-run and charter schools.

In a letter sent to Munn in July, Bill Kurtz, the charter network’s CEO, expressed a willingness to pursue the plan but outlined a set of criteria the group uses to evaluate potential partnerships. Among the opportunities DSST would be looking for in a deal would be the ability to operate four schools in the district.

Several board members said they would not want to guarantee any future schools without having them go through the district’s application process first. Board member JulieMarie Shepherd wasn’t at the board meeting, but submitted her opinion to the board in writing, expressing the same thought. According to the district’s regular charter school process, applications are accepted each year in March.

The other main concern board members raised was about the timing of opening a new school while enrollment numbers in the district have started dropping. School officials this year were off on their projections by 643 students, requiring the district to adjust the current year’s budget by cutting $3 million.

Two of the five board members at Tuesday’s meeting, Amber Drevon and Barbara Yamrick, suggested the district pause negotiations with DSST while the board works on the budget. Jorgensen requested that district staff look at the financial implications to provide the board more information before a deal reaches a final vote.

Munn told the board that if a deal is reached, a DSST school wouldn’t open for a few years and that by that time, district officials predict enrollment will be increasing again.

Too much too fast?

Key piece of Aurora Central High School’s reform plan not yet in place

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Nearly half a year after district officials laid out a plan for changes at Aurora Central High School, at least one major focus of reform is not yet in place despite an aggressive timeline the district spelled out in the plan approved by the state.

The school is one of five low performing schools that Aurora Public Schools grouped into an innovation zone, granting each school autonomy from various rules and policies so they can try different improvement strategies. Aurora Central’s plans focused on adopting a so-called competency-based learning model, which does away with traditional grade levels based on age and instead groups and advances students through levels based on what they know.

Officials say the plan included so many pieces that some changes took priority over others.

“Any plan we implement is only going to be as strong as how we implement it,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of Aurora Public Schools’ innovation zone schools. “One of our core pillars for the innovation zone is investing in people, so that’s where we started in the summer before the school year began.”

The innovation plan for Aurora Central — the only traditional high school in the innovation zone — included a timeline to start trying a competency-based model starting with ninth graders and adding one grade level at a time. An entire section in the plan covered the need for, and the details of, the competency based plan that would “provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned,” “provide students with personalized learning opportunities,” and increase engagement, “because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs.”

“We are confident we can assemble a core set of strong, committee, and driven staff that would be willing and motivated to pilot this approach with our 9th grade for the 2016-2017 school year,” district officials stated in the plan.

The work was to start over the summer with teachers and educators meeting to align the competencies and determine if the resources and tests available were enough. Those meetings started, Browne said, but weren’t completed. Many teachers were new and needed more training.

“We didn’t anticipate having that many new teachers,” Browne said.

District officials say they are still researching the model and whether it is the right fit for the school. In the meantime, other changes are being made including some that were part of the plan and some that weren’t.

“We are working very hard to implement the plan, but more importantly to improve the schools,” Browne said.

Aurora Central’s innovation plan could be under scrutiny soon as the state gets ready to decide on sanctions for schools, including Aurora Central, that have recorded five years of low state ratings. Among the options, state officials could recommend the school for closure, or turn over management to a third party.

The state could also approve an innovation plan in place of the more drastic sanctions, giving the school more time to show improvement while it makes the changes.

Exactly how those plans would be reviewed to determine if they should be given time to show improvement, and how they would be monitored as schools work on the changes, is still not clear.

Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said that his staff created a rubric that they used to look at Aurora Central’s innovation plan before it was approved by the state.

“We knew we were going to have innovation plans that come forward as accountability pathways and we knew we would need to look at those innovation plans through a different lens, so we created a rubric that sort of looks at it as a dramatic turnaround plan,” Sherman said. “We were trying to be proactive. Everyone at CDE thought their plan was good. We all can get behind it.”

However, Sherman later clarified that the earlier approval of the plan was not a sign that it was without faults. Before the state board approval, education department officials provided feedback that was critical of the plan, including concerns about how the school’s leadership would help put the new learning model in place and about the timeline for the “large number of initiatives.”

Browne said district officials are still not sure if Aurora Central’s innovation plan will be presented to the state as an accountability plan to avoid other state sanctions.

In the meantime as officials try improving the schools, the innovation zone team has an advisory group that includes teachers and school leaders meeting biweekly to constantly re-assess the needs of the schools in the innovation zone and prioritize the changes they make.

Included in the work that is happening at Central, Browne highlighted adjustments to teacher training days, training for school leadership teams through the nonprofit Relay Graduate School of Education, and programs to help ninth graders transitioning to high school including a pilot where a middle school counselor from Boston K-8 school is traveling to Central once a week to keep track of students coming from that school.

“We feel very confident in the adjustments we have been making,” Browne said. “But we have a long time before we’re satisfied. The amount of growth that is necessary is not going to happen overnight.”

This story has been updated to add more context about Peter Sherman’s comments.