Principal tasked with improving — and closing — Aurora elementary school: I have to give teachers hope

While Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was making headlines for a proposal to turn a struggling elementary school over to a charter school — a first for the district — he also quietly appointed two of the district’s strongest elementary school leaders to help improve learning while the district winds down its own program at Fletcher Community School.

Under Munn’s proposal, Denver-based charter school Rocky Mountain Prep would begin taking over Fletcher one or two grade levels at a time starting with a preschool program in the fall.

Meanwhile, the district would continue to operate the higher grades. The school board, which has raised questions about Munn’s proposal, is expected to debate the matter Tuesday evening.

To head the district’s program at Fletcher, Munn has tapped Jill Lliteras, a district veteran who led her school off the state’s accountability watchlist in two years. Joining Lliteras as a principal in residence is Jennifer Buster, the former assistant principal at Crawford Elementary School who was named assistant principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Lliteras said her job to improve (and phase-out) Fletcher starts by giving teachers hope and structure. She also discussed how she went about improving her former elementary school, Fulton Academy of Excellence, and responded to a recent survey of district administrators that found most don’t believe the district has a clear direction to improve student achievement.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you end up as principal of Fletcher Community School?

Mr. Munn really had my name in the forefront of what he wanted to do. I knew that Fletcher was struggling for some time, so when I got the phone call I was excited about it. This is the ending of my ninth year at Fulton. My fourth year here, the state came in and said Fulton’s in turnaround and we need to do some things differently. We could replace 50 percent of the staff and the principal, or accept a $1.2 million grant for transformation. So that was kind of an easy choice to make. It wasn’t about the money that turned this building around. It was about the hard work and the focus of the teachers. We were able to rise from turnaround status (the state’s lowest school rating) to performance (the state’s highest rating) in a year’s time. I want to replicate that, and take it to Fletcher and be able to share that understanding with the district and help more schools than just Fulton and Fletcher.

While you did achieve the state’s highest rating, Fulton has slipped to the second highest rating. What do you attribute to that?

That’s a pattern that is shown throughout the whole nation. Typically you can jump, with the right work, from turnaround to performance in a year’s time. But typically, those schools that do that,tend to drop back just a little bit. We’re keeping on.It’s doable if you’re clean and focused, to be able to maintain that growth is a little more work. Right now Fulton is a good school, and we’re on the way to being a great school but we still have to keep pushing through.

You raised almost every single demographic and every single test score on average by about ten percentage points over the last three years.

Overall, the district as a whole is pretty low. When you look at Fulton compared to the rest of the data, we’re right in the middle of all schools. I know what we need to do with that rigor in the classroom, and that’s what we’re going to do at Fletcher too.

One thing we noticed about your demographic data is that your student mobility rate was cut in half.

You know when your test scores go up, everybody wants to be here. We really worked hard on bringing families back into Fulton. We have a family night every month, there’s a spaghetti dinner night, there’s a multicultural night. Once a month we have something that is a family event to get them back into the school. The parents really entrust us to do the right work, and when we are doing the right work it’s a big celebration. We brought community people in. What we’re doing here, I’m just taking it to Fletcher.

So what is job No. 1 for you at Fletcher?

I met with the staff, they say they need structures, expectations that are consistent, and they were OK with me just coming in and putting stuff in place right now. And if it didn’t fit, we can absolutely tweak it. We can at least come out with a solid foundation to get started on.

But what’s really important is giving those teachers hope right now. They just want to be the best they can be. Our first job is to get into those classrooms and let those teachers know that we believe in them, before we start jumping into some of the harder work. I need to come in there, and build them up, and show them what it takes. We do what we do because we love kids, but we need to make sure they are accelerating their learning, so they can get out of poverty. We’ve gotta get this out in the community and let people know Fletcher doesn’t suck. That’s the way they’re feeling. Those parents need to hear it, the staff needs to see it too.

What are some of the other key ingredients that you think are important to put in place?

Making sure we have a guaranteed viable curriculum. They’ve really got to understand what the power standards are. That’s what our teachers teach to. The district needs to adopt some sort of reading curriculum for the teachers. The teachers are begging for this. We’re gonna bring in Engage New York (curriculum) for reading. We now we have to build up the phonics and the phonemic awareness. So students are expected to read, write, listen, and speak on a daily basis in every single content. Then we’ve got to vertically align our expectations. The last piece is spending some time to determining whether or not students are getting that. It’s about giving teachers time to process, to plan, and to learn together.

How are you going to create that safe space for your teachers?

I think I have enough respect in the district and enough credibility in the district that if something was to come down from the district I have enough of a voice to say, this is what I need to do to get the job done.

What you think about going into a co-location situation with a charter school, and the phase-out plan?

We will operate as a partnership. The proposal is that they’re coming in next year just with pre-school. We’ve aligned some space where they have their own separate entrance that is very welcoming to our pre-school families. We have to function together as a group. We already have a plan for transitioning as they go through the building. I’ve met with them, they can be a part of our professional learning. It’s gotta be seen as a partnership. I think the teachers really need to see that as well. We had a clear criteria or who we want in the building to really make a difference.

What do you think you could learn from Rocky Mountain Prep?

I think they have a lot of the family component that sometimes might be missing in school settings. We have to do that together for our families. That piece of it can be what we work on together.

Some Fletcher teachers hope that if you can help them improve learning, the district will reconsider shutting down its program at Fletcher. Do you foresee maybe a permanent co-location?

Mr. Munn was very clear that it will be a full-on transition. The hope that I have to give to teachers is that they’ll be the best teachers they can possibly be. Whatever transpires, that’s what I’ve been hired to support.

How many positions are you going to be hiring for? And what qualities are you looking for in a teacher?

Probably about 60 percent of the staff will be new to Fletcher. They understand where we’re going, and so they’ve both into it.
As far as skills, a background in teaching English language learners, hopefully. Some sort of experience with a diverse population. Experience that is not job hopping from place to place to place. Coming in here to Fletcher, you’re going to need a bit of experience. That’s what we’ve been looking for.

What do you want the parents and students of Fletcher need to know?

We’re going to be opening up that building so the parents can come through — just making that more inviting. I need the parents to come in and know that they are welcome at any time. They entrust us to do the right thing and we should partner up with them on that.

What role should parents play in a turnaround effort? What do you expect of parents?

We’ve got to make sure they understand the learning that’s going on in the environment, because it’s so much than they were used to. They’ve gotta understand their kids and how they think and that they are role models. How they act is really looked at by the kids through a microscope so their behaviors have to help the kids grow. It’s just being involved in the community and make sure the parents get exactly what they need.

What steps do you imagine taking to ensure that Fulton doesn’t take a step back?

I’ve worked really hard to build leadership throughout the building. We know we need work in our reading. The structure is in place. When Fulton’s new principal Dawn McWilliams comes into this seat, things are already done for her. We’ve only had to replace one teacher.

Turning to the district as a whole, in a recent survey, 44 percent of administrators believe that APS has a clear direction for improving student achievement. 66 percent believe that there’s a spirit of teamwork in the district. Forty percent believe that the Division of Equity and Learning are supporting schools. Where you think these numbers are coming from?

Let me say this: If I feel like I’m not being supported in some way, instead of complaining about it, I go do something about it. The way I look at it, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for myself if I feel like my needs aren’t being met. If the district is not meeting my needs, it’s my responsibility. No complaining, just self-advocating.

When you have Rico’s ear, when you have Chief Academic Officer John Youngquist’s ear, what are you telling them as far as making the lives principals and teachers easier?

You’ve got to be focused. You’ve got be clear on the right work and not throw things at principals. You’ve got to listen to the surveys are saying and react to them. Principals need to get into each other’s buildings. We have to learn from each other. Last year, the district tried that, and we had one day where we were able to get into one building and kind of walk through classrooms. Still to this day, I have (people) saying, “Man, I wish we could do that again.” Principals need to see what’s going on.

How would you describe Rico’s philosophy?

I don’t know. I’ll give you this: his philosophy really is to do what’s best for kids. He really truly does believe that he wants to do what’s best for kids. And to make sure our kids are learning no matter what poverty level they’re sitting in.

As a principal, do you feel you have clear direction on how you fit into Aurora?

I don’t think he would have asked me to go into Fletcher if he didn’t think I could make a difference. He believes in me, he believes in my philosophies. I think he wants to be able to replicate some that work at Fletcher as they do transition. He knows what it takes to turnaround a building just based on some of the work that we do at Fulton.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Fulton’s new principal. It’s Dawn McWilliams not Drew Hoelscher.