up to standards

Aurora Public Schools hopes a new curriculum — plus a new way of thinking — will equal better math students

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Lyette Olson teaches her fifth graders a math lesson on place value last week at Peoria Elementary School in Aurora.

Lyette Olson’s fifth-graders have no trouble telling their teacher she is wrong.

On a recent snowy Thursday morning, Olson gave her 23 students at Peoria Elementary a string of numbers to be multiplied and added — and provided what she said was the answer.

Her students caught her errors and told her she was incorrect. But Olson doubled down and insisted she thought she was right, asking them to explain their reasoning.

“Get your arguments ready,” Olson told her students. “You need to prove me wrong.”

Olson’s goals — to teach students that mistakes happen, work needs verification and answers must be justified — is part of a significant change in math instruction in Aurora Public Schools.

Olson is one of 28 APS teachers this year piloting different curriculum materials meant to boost student understanding of math through deeper thinking to meet higher state academic standards. The overhaul in the test classrooms is so far showing positive signs, officials say.

Math usually gives students across the state, including in Aurora, more trouble than reading. When Colorado adopted new academic standards five years ago, the gap between what was being taught in Aurora math classrooms and the new expectations was big.

Science and social studies resources were replaced in the last few years to align to standards, but it was done bits at a time. For reading, Aurora officials worked with their existing materials but added some extra and paid for teacher training. But in math, district officials found going that route wasn’t enough.

When teachers pieced together lessons using different resources, it created gaps. Students moving from one grade to another arrived in classrooms having learned different amounts of the content they’re expected to know, depending on who their teacher was.

Olson said as an example, the new fifth-grade standards asked students to know multiplication of fractions, but the existing curriculum only had about two days’ worth of lessons on multiplying fractions for fifth graders. Teachers had to independently look for more worksheets or lessons and had to vet if they were rigorous enough or if they aligned to the standards.

Now the goal is to free up that time for better use.

“Their time and energy and thinking will go into designing personalized lessons for kids in their class,” said Jim Hogan, a math instructional coordinator. “Resources don’t just magically up scores, but were looking at resource and instruction.”

According to 2015 PARCC test data, 13.7 percent of Aurora fifth graders in 2016 met or exceeded expectations in math, up from 11.2 percent in 2015. Statewide, 34.3 percent of fifth graders met or exceeded math expectations in 2016 up from 30.1 in 2015. Hogan said district officials expect to see the Aurora numbers keep climbing.

Both curriculums that Olson is testing — Bridges and Investigations 3 — have more lessons than she needs, she said.

“It’s better than not having enough,” Olson said. “And we’re all picking from lessons that are aligned.”

Instructional coordinators and district officials are visiting classrooms and tracking test data to see how kids are learning. In February, staff will make a final pick on which curriculum is best and ask the board to approve it.

Along with choosing the books or teaching guides, district staff are working to figure out how to more widely replicate the help they are giving teachers in the pilot.

Training in the pilot also emphasizes building a classroom culture that gets kids invested in math.

During that class last Thursday, the students talked about why place value matters and how to order numbers when solving problems. After practicing a few problems, the class gathered to talk about how it went. One boy raised his hand and independently volunteered that he had made a mistake when lining up numbers. He showed his mistake to the class, something that many students might want to hide.

Olson said the emphasis on culture has made a huge difference. “My planning is very particular to that,” she said. “My students can talk about math. They’re more aware of what they’re doing.”

Olson said she wants to make students comfortable with making mistakes so they don’t quit or think they’re bad at math because they don’t get it right at first.

“Those ideas are not completely gone,” Olson said. “But they’re starting to shift their thinking to this middle ground.”

Besides the summer training, instructional coordinator Kristen Gundel has visited and observed Olson’s class at least five times so far this semester. She uses a rubric designed by the pilot teachers over the summer to look for evidence that students are learning and afterward she talks with Olson about what she saw.

“Do students say a second sentence spontaneously?” Gundel said. “If a kiddo is doing this it suggests they’re thinking mathematically.”

District observers also notice that students in Olson’s class sometimes answer questions without raising their hands. They may at times get loud and excited. Some stand up to stretch their hand higher in the air and can’t wait for the teacher to call on them. It’s a good sign.

“It’s based on a realization that research is clear that mathematics is a language-rich subject,” Hogan said. “Students need rich discussion to learn and it’s a math standard now. There has to be a level of discussion.”

District administrators are asking Olson and other pilot teachers what training or feedback was necessary as they plan similar help for all teachers.

“We will not be successful if we just hope that teachers learn by accident,” Hogan said. “That’s the work starting right now. We’re trying to figure out what do principals need to understand? What do district leaders need to understand?”

'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.”