supporting leaders

Meet Lamont Browne, the man overseeing Aurora Public Schools’ boldest reforms yet

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Lamont Browne listens to immigrant parents share their stories about Aurora Public Schools at a forum in June hosted by Rise Colorado.

Looking for a leader that wasn’t far removed from leading a school himself, Aurora officials turned to Lamont Browne to take over their latest attempt at reforms.

Browne was hired this summer as executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora Public Schools. That means he is tasked with improving the district’s relationships with charter schools and ensuring five struggling schools — including Aurora Central High School — are improving under a new plan that gives school leaders more autonomy through a state approved innovation zone. They’re the 42,000-student district’s most ambitious school improvement efforts to date.

Previously, Browne worked as a principal and as a charter school leader in Philadelphia and Delaware. In 2011, he became executive director of a struggling charter school in Delaware, EastSide Charter School, and later also took leadership of Family Foundations Academy.

Principals of the five schools that established the innovation zone earlier this year interviewed candidates and helped the district pick a finalist.

Now, they meet with Browne or his director on a regular basis to get advice on how to make their school plans work.

“It’s not, ‘You’re trained and then I’m done,’” said Ruth Baldivia, the principal of Boston K-8, one of the five schools in the innovation zone.

Chalkbeat met with Browne to talk about his plans and ideas for his role with the schools. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about what made you want to take this job in Aurora?
I was really excited to work with this kind of initiative. There are a lot of districts doing the same things they’ve been doing for many, many years. Some districts are adopting strategies and not having a lot of success.

I was inspired to work for APS because it’s a new initiative that’s never been done in the district. It showed an outside-the-box thinking and approach and there’s a lot of opportunity for us to be creative and create it, as opposed to going into a district that already has an innovation zone or something of that magnitude. We have the ability to really work with the principals and create something. As a former principal, I know firsthand the benefit of being trusted and having the autonomy to do something a little bit different. I know firsthand how frustrating it is when you’re kind of forced to fit into a box that your kids or your staff or your community may not necessarily benefit from.

That’s what really, really motivated me to come here. My job essentially is to support the schools and lead my team through its strategic decision-making, providing opportunities for outside-the-box thinking whether it’s a new program, a new initiative or how do we spend the money in a different way to make sure that we are really acquiescent to the needs of our kids and our staff. I think it’s exciting for me to come in now versus a year from now because although there’s some structures in place, we’re still building it. I get to work with principals to really engage them. That word has a funny connotation sometimes. Sometimes people think engaging is letting you know what we’re doing or ‘here’s what we thought of’ and then ‘what do you think,’ versus really being on the ground floor and designing it together. In some ways I’m here at the right time and in some ways I’m a year behind, but that’s what really motivates me.

This is a very bureaucratic district. The idea behind innovation schools is to throw out that red tape. What are the most important areas where principals need flexibility from the district?
Ideally, in everything. The job of principal is impossible as it is. You are dealing with so many roles, but I think what benefits us, and I’ve felt it myself, is there is a ‘I trust you. Go-ahead-and-do-it-approach.’ Obviously the plan was already approved by the state and the schools have already been working on it before I was hired, but I feel a lot of space to do what it takes.

Although the communities are similar, the kids are different. Every grade has a different challenge. Every teacher has a different challenge and the principals need to have the autonomy to use the funds they have in a creative way that matches the need. We need to make sure they have that but also push other members of the district or other divisions who maybe used to do something else or are currently operating under a different structure and pushing and saying, ‘Here’s what our schools need.’ That also allows me to remove that burden from principals. It’s hard enough running a school but then having to push against other players in the district, sometimes it’s necessary but it’s hard to do both.

The innovation plans for these five schools are general in a lot of the ideas. As you start work to adopt them, what do you see as their strengths, and what are their weaknesses?
(One challenge) is just having the time on the front end to really have a strong operational plan. You can argue it takes two years to create a plan. Our kids don’t have two years for us to get it together so it’s really a manifestation of the urgency and the timeline that we had. Myself and Judy (Dauman), who’s our director of innovation and strategy, will be working this year to better operationalize the plans. For example, the Relay Graduate School of Education and the principal’s program is something that’s in the plans, but it doesn’t specify exactly what elements of the training will be used and exactly how it’s going to be done. That is the critical analysis that we’ll do to support our principals to create a more finite plan with more specifics, but also supporting them in analyzing what is working and what the schools need.

To me it’s less a matter of, ‘Is the plan strong or not?’, It’s, ‘Are we doing the right thing everyday in the best interest of kids and are we demonstrating the right level of patience and urgency when it comes to making changes that are necessary to benefit our kids and our staff?’

I read about some of the turnaround efforts at your last job including getting rid of textbooks so teachers would have to design plans based on their own students, and brief teacher observations by coaches every couple of weeks. How much of what you did to turn around schools in Delaware might be something you would try in Aurora?
I’m trying to be very strategic in knowing that I have certain experiences that have worked to turnaround failing schools, but also be open-minded to these schools, our five schools, that may be similar but in some ways are different to schools I’ve run in the past. They certainly have different staff and certainly have different leaders. As much as I have experience and ideas and structures that I appreciate, I realize there are other things also and it’s my job not to bring in a plan, but to work with our principals to implement the best plan. Some of that is me suggesting something that they buy into and we do. A lot of that is me listening to them and hearing their perspective. A lot of that is just us having an open discussion about, ‘Hey, here’s our issue and what’s the best way to attack it.’

The more frequent, less formal, but very intentional approach to observing teachers and giving feedback and observing leaders and giving feedback is something that has been very beneficial to me in the past and it’s a good sign that the district also saw that same training and implemented it. Some of our principals went to the same training and actually had plans to implement that same process at the schools, so there was some alignment there. The benefit that I bring there is that I was trained not just to lead it but to actually train others in leading it. The principals came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’d love for you to train everybody so instead of the district having three people trained, which was the case 12 months ago, now there are 42 leaders and teacher leaders among the five schools.’ This year is the first year all five schools are using the same observation and feedback protocol.

How do you see your role with these schools now, and do you imagine that role evolving as the schools get a better foothold on adopting innovation plans?
We’re still in somewhat of a design phase, still assessing the need and still assessing the opportunities that exist and initiating a lot of plans and structures. A year from now, we’ll be able to celebrate successes from those structures and build upon them or identify where we struggled in other areas. In addition we have a commitment not just to the five zone schools but to the district so it could be that in the years to follow there could be best practices that we’ve implemented that have had a tangible impact in our schools that may be spread to other schools in the district.

I like to think that great leadership is always adjusted to the need. If it’s best that we’re meeting with principals every day, we’ll do that. If it’s best that we meet once a month, we’ll do that.

The schools you ran in Delaware were very segregated. Almost entirely black. The schools you’re managing in Aurora are in a sense, more diverse because you have black, Latino and immigrant students. What do you need to learn about how to educate those different types of students to do your job effectively?
I always assume every school is different. You may have the exact same demographic and ratio but I always remember it is a different building on a different block, with a different staff. It is my job to understand the differences and create a plan that’s going to support that. Regardless of what the percentages were, to me they’re still different and I don’t characterize schools based on a demographic. I categorize them based on the academic, social and mental health needs that a school has.

The only difference that stands out is that there are more languages. At the end of the day they’re all kids, they all deserve a great education. Every school has it’s challenges, so in that sense I don’t think it’s very different. The translation and adjusting to the various cultures is something we have to adjust to but also is a tremendous gift. I’ve always said that the best school environment is one in a very diverse community.

Similarly, your schools in Delaware had few English language learners. This district doesn’t have a great record of teaching English language learners and yet this wasn’t a big topic in the innovation plans. So are you doing anything to improve how kids learn English in Aurora?
Again, my job is to support the schools in implementing a strong plan. There’s a very tight timeline under which the plans were created so it’s not going to be as comprehensive but that is something we’re working on. We’re continuing to identify the areas that can be improved upon and how we prioritize them.

You may hear some similar things that all five schools will acknowledge and some differences between them. I would defer to the principals for that because the whole purpose of this innovation zone is that the schools have the autonomy to create a plan that’s best suited for their schools.

One area that has been discussed a lot in these changes is community engagement. But Aurora’s communities are changing right now with families getting priced out and lots of new homeowners coming in. Does that add an extra challenge to educators trying to increase engagement and neighborhood support?
Again, that’s a school-felt challenge. Each school has a different community. Some schools have more families moving out than others. The biggest challenge is that it decreases the amount of time each student is in a building. Our students who have been with us three years are going to have more understanding and adjustment to each school’s culture versus a kid who’s only been there for a year.

Each school is trying to do the best that it can to engage families in the community. The biggest challenge is there are so many priorities. I think folks have to be careful when they say things like ‘Hey, I don’t think this was addressed very strongly,’ or ‘this needs to be addressed more so in the plan,’ because the reality is when you are leading a school with this population there are significant challenges and there are many priorities and they’re all important. What the outside may see is this wasn’t prioritized very strongly, but on the inside there may be a specific reason why we’re focusing on it in the second half of the year versus the first half, or on year two versus year one.

How often are you in the schools and when you are, what are you looking for as you walk the halls?
I’m kind of tag-teaming with my director Judy. Our plan is to have a one-on-one meeting with the principals biweekly and then do random check-ins that are unannounced, so roughly between four and five times a month we like to be in the schools.

The first thing is how can I support the leader. Sometimes just the question, ‘What are you looking for?’ has a negative connotation. I don’t want any principal to feel like there’s a gotcha or I’m looking to find something. It is, how can I support? What are you doing well that I can learn from and spread? It is how can I make sure that every minute that I have is helping you do your job better.

'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.”