aint over til its over

State board approves Aurora school redesigns, but Aurora Central isn’t off the hook

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education chairman Steve Durham, center, and vice chair Angelika Schroeder meet with Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn in May 2015.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved dramatic overhauls for five Aurora public schools, freeing them from a litany of local and state policies in an effort to boost student achievement that has languished behind the rest of the state.

The board’s approval was a major win for Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn’s school reform agenda, even as several board members raised concerns that the plans do not go far enough.

Wednesday’s meeting also set up a new debate about how to address dozens of failing Colorado schools that have reached the end of the state’s accountability timeline. State law allows the board to suggest failing schools be closed, redesigned or turned into charter schools.

Aurora Central High has been on the state list for chronic low performance for five years and faces sanctions next year. Two other Aurora schools — Boston K8 and Paris Elementary — are also on the timeline but are several years away from facing sanctions.

Munn’s redesign plans pertain to the schools on the timeline, plus Aurora West Collegiate Preparatory Academy and Crawford Elementary.

The plans are partly an effort by Aurora to stave off state sanctions.

However, the State Board of Education made clear it isn’t ready to say whether the plan for Aurora Central will be enough to prevent further action.

Instead, the board unanimously approved the plans under the state’s innovation law, which only requires the board to attest the changes won’t decrease student achievement and are fiscally viable.

Munn told the board he believes the changes, especially those at Aurora Central, will improve student achievement and meet any future requirements the board might set for schools on its watch list.

“We are very confident that these plans will meet that standard, although we know that standard doesn’t exist yet,” Munn said.

The State Board has only just begun to determine how it will hand out sanctions to schools on the state’s timeline. Part of that process is deciding how it will evaluate the quality of proposed innovation plans.

As for the plans approved Wednesday, major changes at all five Aurora schools will include a longer school day and year, more and different training for teachers, and more individualized and project-based learning for students. Parents will also be engaged in new ways, students will have more after-school opportunities and the schools will focus on building global leadership skills for their growing immigrant and refugee populations.

Board members Val Flores, D-Denver, and Deb Scheffel, R-Parker, voiced concern that the plans wouldn’t do enough for English language learners. Both said they found some parts of the plan confusing.

“I don’t see how you’re attacking reading,” Scheffel said.

Flores said she felt the district might be trying to make too many changes with too many outside partners. That could send mixed messages, she said.

“I can’t get it in my head what you’re going to do and how it’s going to cohere,” Flores said.

Munn responded that his schools are committed to literacy instruction and said the way the district teaches its English language learners is governed by the federal government and can’t be waived by the State Board. He added that his district has vetted all of its partners, such as the principal training programs Relay Schools and the International Studies Schools Network, to make sure their missions align to the district’s plans.

The board’s approval caps a 14-month process for Munn and the five schools.

Munn first pitched the idea for the overhauls in March 2015. His plan was met with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism. Last June, the State Board applauded Munn for being proactive in making changes.

At times this spring, it seemed as if everything would fall apart — especially at Aurora Central and Aurora West, where teachers raised concerns over their employment rights. But Munn’s team, including principals at the five schools, ushered the plans through the lengthy process to the State Board.

After the State Board granted its approval, those principals and some staff members gathered in the hall of the Colorado Department of Education

Paris Elementary Principal Tammy Stewart was smiling.

“I’m really excited for the kids,” she said.

'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.”