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.

Reexamining APS

New report bemoans state of education in Aurora, but superintendent begs to differ

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

More than a year after a coalition of nonprofit groups issued a report critical of Aurora Public Schools, a follow-up released Wednesday reveals not much has changed.

Only one of five Aurora middle school students can read and write at grade level, states the new report published by the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado.

Graduation rates have increased slightly but available data still show only one in four students who start ninth grade in the district go on to enroll in college. And of those who do, half of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.

“Change — drastic change — is imperative,” the report says.

Last year, the school district released its own counter-report to outline the district’s recent reforms. But this year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was sharply critical of A-Plus Colorado, which published the report alone this year. The first report in 2015 was published by a group of 17 nonprofits with ties to either public education or Aurora or both.

“Organizations such as A+ demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora students.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Colorado, said the claim was “bizarre.”

“It speaks volumes about the focus of the school district that they’re trying to deflect from their poor performance instead of taking responsibility,” Schoales said.

Hanni Raley, director of systems advocacy for ARC of Aurora, one of the organizations that was part of the coalition to issue the 2015 report, said that she still believes the district is making progress, but that reports like Wednesday’s help keep everyone accountable.

It’s all of our jobs to continue to make those improvements and to provide those recommendations,” Raley said. “I think it’s hard to be critiqued, but we know it’s important to keep the conversation going because it is about the kiddos.”

Munn’s statement went on to defend the school district’s work, saying “APS is aggressively implementing a reform strategy.” He also pointed to positive developments, including a rising high school graduation rate, decreasing dropout rates and a decrease in student discipline.

The graduation and dropout rates are included in the A-Plus report. But Schoales said the graduation rate is “hollow” if student achievement isn’t also improving.

Munn was hired in 2013 to help improve the district’s low scores on state performance ratings. According to a report the district published in 2015 to counter the first report, Aurora schools have been working on reforms since 2013 when district leaders created a new strategic plan. Some efforts like grouping a number of low performing schools into a zone that gave the principals increased autonomy was started more recently.

But Aurora Public Schools received lower scores on the state rating in 2016 than it did in 2013 or 2014. If the district doesn’t improve those state ratings after results from this school year, it would face state sanctions in 2018.

Wednesday’s report provides four recommendations for the district to improve. The recommendations mostly echo those from 2015. They include:

  • Increasing engagement from school officials and the community for turning around struggling schools
  • Developing a school rating system to make school performance data more accessible
  • Adding high-quality schools of all types including district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, with a clear process for approving and managing them. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and innovation schools are run by districts but with many of the freedoms of charters.
  • Re-writing the district’s strategic plan to link goals and values to measurable student achievement data

The report also highlighted some schools that, according to the organization’s analysis, are doing better than most schools in the district. Among the high schools named are Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school, William Smith High School, a small alternative high school program, and Rangeview High School, a traditional district-run school.

“It is clear that there are practices within APS that are driving better outcomes,” the report states. “This is another opportunity for the district to look for lessons and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the district.”

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.