Too much too fast?

Key piece of Aurora Central High School’s reform plan not yet in place

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Nearly half a year after district officials laid out a plan for changes at Aurora Central High School, at least one major focus of reform is not yet in place despite an aggressive timeline the district spelled out in the plan approved by the state.

The school is one of five low performing schools that Aurora Public Schools grouped into an innovation zone, granting each school autonomy from various rules and policies so they can try different improvement strategies. Aurora Central’s plans focused on adopting a so-called competency-based learning model, which does away with traditional grade levels based on age and instead groups and advances students through levels based on what they know.

Officials say the plan included so many pieces that some changes took priority over others.

“Any plan we implement is only going to be as strong as how we implement it,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of Aurora Public Schools’ innovation zone schools. “One of our core pillars for the innovation zone is investing in people, so that’s where we started in the summer before the school year began.”

The innovation plan for Aurora Central — the only traditional high school in the innovation zone — included a timeline to start trying a competency-based model starting with ninth graders and adding one grade level at a time. An entire section in the plan covered the need for, and the details of, the competency based plan that would “provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned,” “provide students with personalized learning opportunities,” and increase engagement, “because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs.”

“We are confident we can assemble a core set of strong, committee, and driven staff that would be willing and motivated to pilot this approach with our 9th grade for the 2016-2017 school year,” district officials stated in the plan.

The work was to start over the summer with teachers and educators meeting to align the competencies and determine if the resources and tests available were enough. Those meetings started, Browne said, but weren’t completed. Many teachers were new and needed more training.

“We didn’t anticipate having that many new teachers,” Browne said.

District officials say they are still researching the model and whether it is the right fit for the school. In the meantime, other changes are being made including some that were part of the plan and some that weren’t.

“We are working very hard to implement the plan, but more importantly to improve the schools,” Browne said.

Aurora Central’s innovation plan could be under scrutiny soon as the state gets ready to decide on sanctions for schools, including Aurora Central, that have recorded five years of low state ratings. Among the options, state officials could recommend the school for closure, or turn over management to a third party.

The state could also approve an innovation plan in place of the more drastic sanctions, giving the school more time to show improvement while it makes the changes.

Exactly how those plans would be reviewed to determine if they should be given time to show improvement, and how they would be monitored as schools work on the changes, is still not clear.

Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said that his staff created a rubric that they used to look at Aurora Central’s innovation plan before it was approved by the state.

“We knew we were going to have innovation plans that come forward as accountability pathways and we knew we would need to look at those innovation plans through a different lens, so we created a rubric that sort of looks at it as a dramatic turnaround plan,” Sherman said. “We were trying to be proactive. Everyone at CDE thought their plan was good. We all can get behind it.”

However, Sherman later clarified that the earlier approval of the plan was not a sign that it was without faults. Before the state board approval, education department officials provided feedback that was critical of the plan, including concerns about how the school’s leadership would help put the new learning model in place and about the timeline for the “large number of initiatives.”

Browne said district officials are still not sure if Aurora Central’s innovation plan will be presented to the state as an accountability plan to avoid other state sanctions.

In the meantime as officials try improving the schools, the innovation zone team has an advisory group that includes teachers and school leaders meeting biweekly to constantly re-assess the needs of the schools in the innovation zone and prioritize the changes they make.

Included in the work that is happening at Central, Browne highlighted adjustments to teacher training days, training for school leadership teams through the nonprofit Relay Graduate School of Education, and programs to help ninth graders transitioning to high school including a pilot where a middle school counselor from Boston K-8 school is traveling to Central once a week to keep track of students coming from that school.

“We feel very confident in the adjustments we have been making,” Browne said. “But we have a long time before we’re satisfied. The amount of growth that is necessary is not going to happen overnight.”

This story has been updated to add more context about Peter Sherman’s comments.

Lease for scholarships

Aurora Public Schools, CSU online degree program hammering out details of new partnership

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

Seven months after voters backed the project as part of a $300 million bond package, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado State University are negotiating terms of an unusual partnership that involves swapping building space for scholarships and other services.

Under the proposed deal, Aurora Public Schools would spend about $8 million to construct a new building to house CSU’s Global Campus, an online degree program under the Colorado State University system. If board members approve the final deal, CSU-Global would pay the district not through conventional lease payments, but in some combination of full-ride scholarships, discounted tuition for district graduates or teachers, and staff training.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn, who came up with the idea, views it as a chance to open another door to college for Aurora students, many of whom come from low-income families.

But some school board members have expressed skepticism about how many Aurora students will benefit, and one has raised questions about Munn’s position as CSU board member.

For the project to even be included on last fall’s bond question, state law had to change. After lobbying from APS officials, lawmakers did just that, allowing for bond-financed projects to build not just school district buildings but also buildings to lease to higher education institutions.

Aurora Public Schools then included the project in its bond package, which is also paying for two new school buildings, fixes to existing buildings and technology upgrades.

CSU-Global currently pays $500,000 per year to lease office space near the Denver Tech center, in the south suburbs.

“What we are doing right now is paying a landlord,” said CSU-Global president Becky Takeda-Tinker. “But we thought if we could keep the money in Colorado, and inside the public sector, it makes a lot of sense.”

Plenty of uncertainties remain. While the district has hired an architect, a site has not yet been determined. The initial proposed site, on vacant land the district owns near William Smith High School on Airport Boulevard, may not be available because of federal easements on the property. Munn said officials are considering about five additional sites.

As part of the deal, the district will have to set a lease amount based on market rates and the services the district receives must be worth that amount. But since a location hasn’t been set, officials aren’t yet sure how much the deal will be worth. The terms continue to change, Munn said, in part, because a location for the new building hasn’t been finalized.

Questions and concerns about the partnership came up at an Aurora school board meeting in December, when some board members said they were learning for the first time that students would not be able to enroll at CSU-Global directly after high school.

Because CSU-Global is set up to serve non-traditional students, and because state officials didn’t want the school to compete with existing schools and community colleges, the school only takes transfer students who already have more than 12 credits, unless they’re from outside Colorado.

At the meeting, board president Amber Drevon questioned Munn about how many students might benefit from such a scholarship if they have to go out on their own first.

“I thought we were trying to reach the students that wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise,” Drevon said. “But they are going to have to go spend that money or get scholarships first before they even have the opportunity to enroll in CSU-Global. That probably will not help a lot of kids we were trying to reach in the first place.”

Munn responded that even so, the thought of a portion of a four-year degree at an affordable price would be used as motivation for students.

“What concerns me is that you’ll lose them,” Drevon said.

“I appreciate that, but I think the challenge is we’re already losing them,” Munn responded.

Drevon did not return messages requesting comment for this story.

Early draft documents from July 2015 estimated that about 200 Aurora students per year could potentially benefit from scholarships or discounted tuition at CSU-Global. But Munn said the number of students who will benefit will depend on issues still to be resolved, including figuring out how many services the college will need to provide or whether the program prioritizes students who qualify for federal Pell grants or students studying a particular career program.

He said conversations are underway to see if money can be raised to help students pay for the credits they would need to earn at a community college or elsewhere before transferring to CSU-Global.

Board member Eric Nelson also raised alarm in December about Munn’s status as a governing board member for the CSU system. Munn became board chair just over a month ago.

“To me it seems the biggest beneficiary here is you, currying political favor with large CSU donors and other CSU board members at the expense of APS and our own district and student needs,” Nelson wrote to Munn in December.

Nelson said last week that his concerns haven’t changed.

Munn said he has disclosed both positions, has removed himself from all board votes or discussions at CSU about the proposed deal and is not at the negotiating table, though he will be making final recommendations on behalf of the Aurora school district.

Other board members are unconcerned about Munn’s two roles.

“I really don’t worry about it,” said board member Monica Colbert. “Because of the format CSU-Global offers, they’re the right ones to offer services to our students, regardless of Rico’s role.”

Munn says the clear goal of the partnership is to increase the district’s college going rate, and he said CSU-Global addresses some of the issues Aurora graduates cite in not going to college, such as not having the ability or desire to move away from their community, or the need to work while going to school.

According to a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, about 42 percent of the district’s graduates went on to college in 2015, which is lower than the state’s overall college-going rate of 56.5 percent.

If the same Aurora students are going to college, but just changing which school they go to, then the partnership will not have been a success, Munn said.

Michele Moses, professor of educational foundations and policies at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Education, said that she believes the proposal could increase college access, but that the district should question what an online-only college could provide that other colleges can’t, given the overall bad track record of online schools, particularly with at-risk students.

“It seems the question really is, ‘Is the investment that this is going to take for them, is that going to be worth the benefit, given that we have all of these concerns right off the bat?’” Moses said. “If the partnership with CSU-Global is seen as one piece as the larger puzzle of college access, then maybe, why not?”

Munn said he expects to have the major pieces of the deal in place to be able to sign a letter of intent this fall. And work on the building should be able to start this winter so the building could be ready next year.

“We know how it can benefit students and we know different ways it can benefit students,” Munn said. “Now it’s about using the resources that we have to structure it in a way that makes the most sense. I think we’re very close.”

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.