State accountability

More Aurora schools slip onto the state’s academic watch list

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Six Aurora schools are no longer on a path to facing state sanctions for low performance, according to new preliminary ratings state officials sent to districts.

Aurora officials shared the news of those six school improvements with the district’s Board of Education Tuesday night. But the update also included news that another seven schools that weren’t on the state’s watch list have slipped and are now on it. Several others, including Aurora Central High School, failed to make enough improvements to get off.

In total, 19 Aurora schools this year have been flagged by the state for low test scores. That’s more than double the number of schools that were on the state’s academic watch list when Superintendent Rico Munn was hired three years ago to boost student achievement.

Because of the poor performance of its schools, the district also remains on the state’s watch list, but has one more year to show significant improvement before the state is required to take action. The district serving more than 42,000 students is the largest on the state’s watch list.

Munn said Tuesday the district is not where it needs to be yet, but said that there are “positive signs,” and that it’s too early to change the district’s improvement strategies.

Aurora schools on the state’s watch list |
Fletcher Community School
Gateway High School
North Middle School
Sixth Avenue Elementary
South Middle School
Vaughn Elementary
Virginia Court Elementary
Sable Elementary
Wheeling Elementary
Paris Elementary
Aurora Central High School
Jewell Elementary
Dartmouth Elementary
Kenton Elementary
Laredo Elementary
Aurora Hills Middle School
East Middle School
Vista Peak Prep
AXL Academy (charter)

The district’s most ambitious reform effort is the creation of an “innovation zone.” Approved earlier this year by the State Board of Education, five of the district’s schools have received waivers from some union, district and state rules. That freedom allows the schools to extend their day, create their own curriculum and give principals flexibility to staff their schools.

Another school that remains on the state’s watch list, Fletcher Community School, is in the process of being converted into a charter school.

“We are not waiting for CDE to give us a certain mandate,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools. “We are being proactive to improve our schools now.”

The latest preliminary ratings for the schools don’t capture all of those changes, officials pointed out.

“It’s too early to evaluate the work of the innovation zone,” Munn said. “It’s too early to evaluate a conversion process. It’s too early to evaluate some of that stuff.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, district staff told the board about anecdotal evidence showing improvements in school culture, declines in suspensions and expulsions, and increased engagement from students and teachers.

The ratings the state released Tuesday are not final, Munn told his school board, and the district plans to appeal some of them. The state will finalize ratings later this winter.

In the case of schools or districts, Colorado law says the state board must take action after five years of low performance based on reviews by the state. State officials could direct the district to close schools, turn over management to third party operators or charters, or create innovation plans.

Aurora Central High School is the only district school that has been on the state’s lowest performance ratings for five years and again failed to make improvements, meaning it will face state sanctions later this year.

Munn said the district will ask the state board to accept the already approved innovation plan as the state’s corrective action for the school. If it is accepted, the school would have more time to show improvements with the same plan.

Munn says the district is also going to look at the six schools that moved off the list: Century Elementary, Lansing Elementary, Lyn Knoll Elementary, Mrachek Middle School, Boston K-8 and Vista PEAK Exploratory. All schools except for Boston K-8 were on the state watch list for only one year. Boston K-8 had been on the clock for four years. State data on student growth, released last month, showed Boston K-8’s middle school students showed significant growth.

“It’s a lot of individual stories,” Munn said. “That rolls up to a district story at a certain level as to what trends are we seeing. How do we build on things that are working and stabilize those things?”

Munn says they have early indications that help provided by consultants hired to work with the schools on various issues such as discipline and teaching, are proving successful and said he is pleased with the number of teachers and administrators receiving training.

“We did a lot of launching over the first year and a half and this year is going to be about monitoring and about making sure that we got the right capacity,” Munn said. “I think it’s more about digging into the work.”

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.”