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.”

'Nothing magic'

Stay the course: Struggling Aurora Central will not face drastic state-ordered changes

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

Aurora Central High School will continue ongoing reforms but with help from a management company, avoiding more dire consequences for its chronic low performance over more than five years.

During a hearing Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow staff to finalize a plan that will give the struggling school at least two more years to keep working on reforms rolled out this school year. The board will vote on the blueprint next month.

“There’s nothing magic about this recommendation,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, told the board Wednesday. “It just takes an incredible amount of work and dedication. We think the staff members here have that dedication.”

The state department’s recommendations mirrored the district’s proposal, an outgrowth of the state’s approach of working with districts and schools facing state intervention to reach agreements before the accountability hearings.

Aurora Central’s last year of data showed declines in student performance. Attendance data presented Wednesday also has been going in the wrong direction. In the 2015-16 school year, daily attendance was 76.5 percent, significantly lower than the state average attendance rate of 93.2 percent.

But state officials told the board they saw the school’s culture improving, giving them hope the plan could lead to improvements. They also cited a rising graduation rate in the last school year.

“We believe a rigorous implementation of this plan can see rapid change in student achievement and growth,” Anthes said.

Aurora Central is the first large high school to face the state for possible sanctions after reaching its limit of years of low performance. The school enrolls about 2,100 students, of which 70 percent are still learning English as a second language.

Since the start of this school year, Aurora Central has been operating under innovation status, which gives it more autonomy from state and district rules.

Under the innovation plan, the school day at Central was extended, and the school was allowed to reject teachers the district wanted placed there and have more control over all staffing.

District and school officials Wednesday answered questions from board members about education for second language learners, serious attendance problems and their work to engage the community.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, told board members that community support of the school had significantly increased in the last year, as seen by donations to the school and community organizations that are working with school staff.

Board member Pam Mazanec questioned Aurora officials about the amount of money from multiple grants they had already been provided for school reforms in the last four years and why they hadn’t produced good results.

School officials said money spent in the past on teacher training was not followed with help to use the new techniques in the classroom. They said the number of instructional coaches at the school this year has significantly increased in an effort to change that.

“I don’t believe the systems and structures were in place,” said Jennifer Pock, assistant principal at Central. “There was not a time for teachers to collaborate. The support is very different this year to carry on the work that began.”

The new wrinkle in the state improvement plan is the addition of a management company, Boston-based Mass Insight. The company’s work will be in partnership with the district, but exact details of what the company would be in charge of are still being determined.

An official from Mass Insight said Wednesday the company intends to question the district and suggest what to focus on or change.

The school district will be required to provide the state updates about progress at least once a year.

staying the course

Why state education officials think Aurora Central’s latest reforms deserve more time

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

State education officials believe Aurora Central High School should get at least two more years to see its latest reforms through — with some help.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools went to the state and won innovation status for the struggling school. That gave the 2,100-student school more autonomy from certain rules and laws. Teachers could be hired and dismissed by school officials. The school day was lengthened and programming could stray from what the district was doing.

Some parts of the plan have been a challenge for the school, however, district officials acknowledge in documents.

Many teachers were new and unprepared for the work. The school has struggled to hire for certain positions. And teachers don’t have enough planning time to make student advisory periods “meaningful.”

Still, state officials evaluated the school’s progress and found hope that the plan still could lead to better student performance, and also that it has broad community support.

When state officials and Aurora leaders appear before the state Board of Education on Wednesday, they will present a plan to continue the school’s innovation plan while handing over management of some pieces of it to a Boston-based company. The board must approve the plan for it to move forward.

“Knowing that Aurora Central is a complicated and challenging environment, and knowing that their data is low and they’ve not demonstrated a lot of progress, we believe there are components on that innovation plan that have promise if implemented well and if led well,” said Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education. “We do believe the management partners piece is key.”

State officials were more critical of the plan in earlier feedback to the district, citing concerns about an aggressive timeline, questions about school leadership and more.

Aurora Public Schools would not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the plan, and the district’s written responses to emailed inquiries left many questions unanswered.

At a recent board meeting, district officials presented a brief update on Central’s accountability plan and said they were confident about the recommendation and the progress at Central.

“We feel that we’ve been aggressive in trying to turn around Central,” Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora, told the school board.

About 80 percent of Aurora Central’s more than 2,100 students are identified as low-income based on qualifying for free or reduced price lunches. About 70 percent of students are English language learners, and 12 different languages are spoken.

Less than half of the students at Central graduate within four years. Chronic absenteeism is a “significant problem for two-thirds of all students,” according to the documents the district submitted to the state. The number of students meeting expectations based on state testing has consistently been lower than most schools in the district and in the state.

The plan presented to the state last year for increased autonomy intended to address the school’s issues by creating competency-based learning, which allows students to earn credit as they prove they’ve learned a standard. That would give students more flexibility to earn credit and get lessons that are personalized.

The model has been piloted this year at Central in a limited way during one period of the day for ninth graders. Earlier in the year, Browne said moving to the model was slowed because there were too many new teachers and they needed more training. Now, the school has created a group to look at how to continue the roll-out of the model to 10th graders next year.

The school’s plan also called for a work group to address attendance issues. But according to the documents submitted to the state, the group had to narrow its focus to a certain group of students because of limited “manpower.”

Teachers were supposed to have more joint planning time, but were also asked to do home visits to increase parent engagement and run advisory periods that would allow adults to address students’ non-academic issues, including attendance problems.

Getting teachers and students to buy into the advisory periods has been a problem, the district’s documents state.

The documents also include some plans for adjusting work to address the current challenges.

For instance, to make advisory periods more meaningful, the school will change the schedule so they are only held twice a week. The school also will provide more training to teachers so they can plan those periods.

To improve the rollout of the competency-based model, leaders plan to increase the amount of training for teachers, among other strategies.

“(Professional Development) sessions will involve creating competencies for each standard, as well as coming to a building-wide consensus of what competency looks like based on the demands of each standard,” the document states.

The district cites having more ninth grade students on track for graduation as evidence that tweaks will make a difference. The recommendation cites some improvement on decreasing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate this year.

But results from schools that increase school-level autonomy have not been promising in the past. A report last year from the state found that only three of 18 failing schools across the state granted “innovation status” at the time had made enough progress to make it off of the list of schools facing action for low-performance. The findings called into question whether the autonomy granted made a difference for schools with such low performance.

But in the state recommendation for Central, other possible actions for the school — including closing it or converting it to a charter — were not deemed possible for now.

“Given the size of Aurora Central and the community support behind the current reforms being enacted, the Department recommends full implementation of the innovation zone for at least two years before considering conversion to a charter school,” the recommendation states. “CDE does not recommend school closure, first and foremost, because there is not capacity at other district high schools to serve the 2,172 Aurora Central students.”

The plan also proposes a management role for Mass Insight, a Boston-based company that already has been working under contract with some Aurora schools and helped gather input to draft the original innovation plans. Browne said at the board meeting this month that details of what the company would do are not completely worked out yet.

Documents state the company now would “focus on project management and performance management for innovation implementation.”

“Mass Insight’s responsibility is to support implementation of the innovation plan for Central so it is not directing action at all it’s just supporting the innovation plan,” Browne said. “What that looks like next year is still to be determined.”