Game changer

The plan to revitalize Aurora’s schools: Longer days, new curriculum and more teacher training

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015.

Nearly a year after Superintendent Rico Munn announced his intention to overhaul five of Aurora’s most troubled schools, the public is getting its first look at what might be in store next year.

Among the proposed changes: Schools will abandon the district’s mandated curriculum and school calendar. Students will spend about 45 more minutes a day at school. Teachers will spend more time planning lessons together. And principals will have more control over their budgets.

The plans to redesign Aurora Central High School, Aurora West Preparatory College, Boston K8, and Paris and Crawford elementary schools were released by the district Friday evening following six months of work by committees that included teachers, students, parents and community members.

Friday’s release is a milestone for the inner-ring suburban school district, which has struggled to educate its mostly poor and Latino students for years. It’s also a halfway point in a lengthy process to avoid state intervention and a loss of accreditation.

A majority of teachers and administrators at the five schools must approve the plans, which include changes to the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement with the district.

Those changes will vary at each school. But at Aurora Central, a majority of teachers must agree to give up their tenure rights — a tough decision for veteran teachers that, if rejected, could prompt the state to step in with more drastic changes.

After the schools OK the plans, the Aurora school board must also give its blessing.

Additionally, the plans must be vetted by Colorado Department of Education officials, who have already signaled they will reject any plan they believe won’t boost student achievement.

And finally, the State Board must sign off on any parts of the plans that deviate from state law.

Superintendent Munn said he hopes the State Board can approve the plans before the end of the school year to allow time to put them in place.

“This is work that is definitely different in Aurora: A district that is heavily dependent on neighborhood schools, that has a traditional union structure that has not in any way shape or form created any autonomy for its schools,” Munn said in an interview prior to the plans being released. “For us, this is a big move.”

What’s changing?

While there are some common shifts among the five schools, no two plans are alike. Each spans dozens of pages and details changes in a variety of areas including instruction, hiring, school culture and money. The plans, if approved, would take three years to roll out and rely heavily on the school’s principal.

At Boston K8, students will do most of their learning by completing projects over several weeks and months. They will also be asked to do a community service project. And the school will market itself as a hub for the community, pulling in a variety of nonprofits and services for families.

At Crawford, students and their families will participate in an international writing program. Teachers will use EngageNY, a curriculum heralded for its alignment to the Common Core State Standards. The principal will be able to design her own hiring process. And the school will not have to accept any teacher transfers.

Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October. Last spring she was named principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October. Last spring she was named principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

At Paris, students will study literacy for longer periods. Teachers who are rated highly effective and recruited from another school district can have their higher salaries matched. And the principal will control the school’s money designated for at-risk students.

At Aurora West, students will be able to choose how they want to learn — be it in a traditional classroom or on their own. Students will also design training for teachers around cultural diversity. Teachers will spend more time throughout the day and school year planning and developing their skills.

At Aurora Central, traditional grade levels will be a thing of the past. Instead, students will earn credits at their own pace. There will be a later start time, pushing the current 7:30 a.m. start to 8 a.m. Teachers will be paid more if their position is considered hard-to-fill. And they will work under annual contracts.

One problem area that won’t be immediately addressed in a comprehensive way is how the schools teach immigrant and refugee students.

An audit conducted last year found that students learning English as a second language were often left behind at the five schools and that supports for those students needed a complete makeover.

While some schools outlined subtle shifts in teaching their English language learners, Aurora will need approval from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights before any sweeping changes are made to that program.

District and federal officials have begun that conversation, Munn said.

“We have to see if we can convince them that whatever the replacement policy is can meet the needs of these kids,” he said.

The toughest conversation

Perhaps the most contentious proposal is that no teacher at Aurora Central will be protected by tenure. All will work under one-year contracts.

It’s not the outcome English teacher Shari Summers wanted.

“It scares me that we’re going to lose some really good teachers,” said Summers, who helped create the school’s plan.

What’s next | The district will hold a community meeting at 4:30 p.m., Feb. 16.,at Aurora Central. Superintendent Rico Munn hopes the district’s school board will approve the plans by March 15. But a special meeting could be held March 22 for a final vote. The state would then have 60 days to approve or reject the plan.

But Superintendent Munn said there is no alternative.

“What we know is we can’t forward to the state an innovation plan that doesn’t include some significant waivers around talent management,” he said. “It’s a non-starter.”

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement executive, has not seen the district’s plans yet, but said his office and new education commissioner Richard Crandall are looking for bold changes, especially at Aurora Central.

“It sounds like the district is going to take some strong steps toward ensuring they have the right teachers in place at Aurora Central,” he said. “As the new commissioner makes his recommendations, those kinds of bold moves will be very, very important.”

But if teachers at Aurora Central don’t agree to give up their negotiated tenure rights, the innovation plan might never reach the state department.

If teachers reject the plan and a compromise can’t be reached, the entire staff may be fired when the school is “reconstituted.” Or the state may turn the school over to a third party.

“We’re trying to to work together on these difficult pieces,” said Amy Nichols, the Aurora teachers union president. “We’re all for creativity. We just want to make sure that non-probationary teachers that have been in those schools have an opportunity to teach and to be an asset to the district.”

Summers, the Aurora Central teacher, said she predicts a tight vote.

“I’m proud. The basics of the plan are really, really good,” she said. “I hope I’m around to help implement it.”

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.