Seal of approval

After some doubt, teachers and staff at Aurora Central approve overhaul plan

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

Aurora Central High, one of the state’s most academically troubled schools, is one step closer to a dramatic overhaul after teachers there Wednesday approved a plan that calls for new teaching methods, annual contracts for teachers and longer school days.

Before any changes, the district’s school board and the State Board of Education must also give their blessings.

Those governing boards are expected to OK the plan, in part because of the overwhelming support by the school’s teachers. More than 80 percent approved the plan. The Aurora school board had warned they would reject any plan that did not have broad community buy-in. And the state board has yet to reject an innovation plan that reached them.

“I am excited about this opportunity that will allow the Aurora Central community to create unique and targeted responses to the various challenges and opportunities within the school and zone community,” wrote Gerardo De La Garza, the school’s interim principal, in an email to the school’s staff obtained by Chalkbeat.

The vote, a year in the making, is a watershed moment for Aurora Public Schools and Superintendent Rico Munn.

The redesign efforts at Aurora Central — where most students are poor, black and Latino — has been the foundation of Munn’s improvement efforts in the district.

Before Wednesday’s vote at Aurora Central, three other schools approved similar plans. Together, they’ll form an “innovation zone” and work outside of many of district and state policies in an effort to boost student learning.

Student achievement and graduation rates in Aurora, the state’s fifth largest school district, have lagged state averages for years.

Aurora is the largest school district in the state that faces sanctions for poor student achievement. Districts and schools that are deemed chronically failing for five years face a variety of penalties including losing their accreditation, shut down or turned over to charter schools. The work at Aurora Central and at other schools has been in part to keep the state at bay.

“We are excited about the opportunity for Aurora Central staff to pursue innovation status,” Munn said in a statement.

While each school will look slightly different, all four will operate on a similar extended schedule, run common teacher training and will approach teaching through a “global leadership” theme developed by the nonprofit Asia Society.

The vote at Aurora Central was closely watched by education reform advocates, the district’s teachers union and state officials. When the first draft of the plan was introduced, observers were skeptical it would either pass a teacher vote, which is required by law, or be a success.

At the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Education Commissioner Richard Crandall said he was “very impressed” by Aurora’s proactivity and called the district one of the most proactive of those on the accountability clock.

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer, and his staff provided feedback during the last month to the district as the plan was being revised. Upon learning of the successful vote, he applauded the school’s efforts and said he is excited to review the plan teachers approved.

But he added, “The reality is, Aurora Central is facing a really high bar for quality because the school is entering the fifth year of the accountability clock. Identifying a school leader is also critical for implementation.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the education reform advocacy organization A+ Colorado, said he believes the school’s plan improved during multiple revisions but questions remain about how changes will be put in place.

“Our concerns regarding the plan have mostly to do with what they’re asking teachers to do,” he said.

The biggest change at Aurora Central will be a shift toward competency-based learning, a teaching method that allows students to prove their understanding of concepts at their own pace.

“It’s just really hard to do,” Schoales said. “And it’s especially hard to do when students are already at low levels of achievement.”

As part of that model, teachers will lead whole class discussions, provide instruction to small groups based on targeted one-on-one tutoring.

In addition, teachers will also be asked to conduct regular home visits and lead an advisory period.

Officials have said changes at Aurora Central will not happen overnight and will be rolled out over three years.

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.

First expansion

Aurora school board votes to approve DSST charter schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View answer questions during class in 2014.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools on Tuesday voted to approve a charter application that will allow a high-performing charter network from Denver to open four schools in Aurora.

DSST applied to operate two campuses each with a middle and a high school. The first middle school would open in the fall of 2019. The application was written after Aurora’s superintendent invited the network to Aurora, offering to build the charter a new school with bond money approved in November.

Several people spoke during public comment, including students asking for the schools to be approved and teachers raising concerns about whether the charter will serve all students.

Two board members, Eric Nelson and Barbara Yamrick, voted against approving the application. Yamrick had said at a previous board meeting that she respected the school and its performance, but would vote against the application. Nelson said he wanted to postpone the decision to get more data about the outcomes of the charter school’s current students.

State law sets a timeline for voting on charter applications after they are submitted. DSST would have had to agree to postpone the vote Tuesday, but board president Amber Drevon said she was not going to ask for a delay after the work that had already gone into the application.

Board members also clarified that they will vote again in the fall to approve a contract with specific requirements around enrollment and performance.

DSST is known for intentionally seeking to build racially integrated schools, producing high state test scores and getting all of its students accepted into four-year universities. The network runs four of the five top high schools in Denver and has earned national attention, leading to donations from Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

DSST currently educates about 5,000 students and is planning to expand within Denver to operate 22 schools by 2024. The Aurora schools would be the network’s first ones outside of Denver.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the network, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting that Aurora’s invitation and the community’s interest in the schools — the charter presented hundreds of letters of support with their application — was a big factor in accepting the invitation.

But, he said, Aurora was also a good fit for DSST because of its proximity to Denver, the area’s need for better schools and the district’s offer of a building.

Initially, Aurora asked the charter network to come up with half of the funding for a new building. DSST offered to help raise funds, but said the district should take on the responsibility.

The resolution the school board approved Tuesday night set a March 30, 2018 deadline for coming up with the money for the first DSST campus — leaving the exact division of fundraising between the district and the charter network vague.

Kurtz said it should be made clear that the district will be responsible for paying for the construction of the building.

“Aurora Public Schools will own the building,” Kurtz said. “Because they own the building, they own the responsibility. We are happy to assist and support that effort but ultimately that is their responsibility.”