Aurora is proposing to hire an external manager for two struggling schools

The Aurora school board will consider a pre-emptive move next month: whether to offer to hire an external manager to pull up two struggling schools — before the state decides to intervene and impose a solution.

Under Colorado law, when schools continuously fail to improve student achievement, the state must order a solution. Aurora could seek to avert that.

Aurora Public Schools would be the first district in Colorado to take advantage of a new state provision allowing schools and districts to request early state approval of a district-devised plan to improve. The benefit, as district officials told the school board, is that they get some say in the decision and stability. District officials then can plan for state action, rather than having it imposed on them.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the district’s school board that sticking with one improvement strategy provides stability, rather than picking a plan this year, and then having to switch to one of four state options next year if achievement doesn’t improve.

Munn said he found support for the proactive plan among the staff of the two schools, Gateway High School and North Middle School.

“People appreciated that, one, they would have the ability to engage in that conversation and two, that they would fairly soon here, by the spring, know what the plan was for that school for the next four years or two years or whatever,” Munn said, “as opposed to the level of uncertainty of waiting to see what might happen.”

As one Aurora school board member, Debbie Gerkin, put it Tuesday night, “We’re taking the bull by the horns.”

The state’s process for stepping in when schools are chronically low-performing is relatively new, but in November, the State Board of Education ordered for the first time that a school district, Adams 14, hand over much of its authority to an external manager for the next four years.

In Aurora, the state has given low ratings for four years in a row to three schools — Gateway High School, North Middle School and Virginia Court Elementary — meaning they have one year to show improvement before the state could step in with its own improvement orders.

In the case of Gateway and North, Superintendent Munn is recommending that the district hire an external manager to help each school and that the district seek state approval for it as an official improvement plan for the next few years. Munn said he estimates it will cost the district between $300,000 and $400,000 per year.

For Virginia Court, district officials see more hope, and are recommending continuing with internal improvement strategies there.

The district already sought proposals and has selected managers for the two schools it wants to put on turnaround.

In the case of Gateway, the consultant, Communities in Schools, would be tasked with focusing on social and emotional learning, providing curriculum and mental health assistance “to mitigate the various non academic barriers” students there face.

At Gateway, a little more than half of its 1,500 students qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty, and also almost 5 percent are identified as homeless.

North’s consultant, MGT Consulting, would be granted authority mostly over improving teaching and curriculum. Teacher evaluations and some other operations would still be the principal’s responsibility.

District officials identified that as a primary concern, in particular because of high teacher turnover. It was 58.5 percent in the last school year. North has also had at least four principals in the last four years.

Virginia Court, the district’s third school on its fourth year of low performance, has given district officials more hope that it can improve soon, in part because of more stable leadership.

DJ Loerzel, Aurora’s director of accountability and research, said internal assessments, improved attendance, and teacher retention are all looking up at Virginia Court.

“They showed many factors that indicated they expect to see some strong improvements soon,” Loerzel said.

Officials also pointed out that elementary schools have an easier time moving up in state ratings because the state weighs growth more heavily at that level.

In the past, Aurora has been able to get a couple of schools off of the state’s watchlist for low performance, particularly at elementary schools. One of those success stories was Lynn Knoll Elementary, a school where the district last year proposed to work with an outside group, but in which the school board rejected the recommendation, and allowed the school to make its own changes. That school had only been low performing one year.

Aurora has also tried to be proactive before. In the case of Aurora Central High School, one of the lowest performing, and longest-struggling schools in the state, district officials told the state board in 2017 that it was already rolling out an improvement plan.

The district’s initiative gave the state board some confidence. Instead of ordering drastic action, that board allowed Aurora Central to continue with its own plan, and gave the school two years to show improvement.

Aurora school board members during the presentation Tuesday said they were not happy with the recommendation, but understood that it may be better than waiting to have such a plan imposed on them. They asked for district administration to provide a budget for the plan before their vote on Feb. 5.

Board members also said they were frustrated that the strategy of handing over some school authority to an outside group has not been proven to help schools improve.

Looking at the needs the schools have, such as improving teacher training and having more help for students’ mental health needs, board member Kayla Armstrong-Romero said the district has long known these are issues for schools.

“We’ve had these conversations,” Armstrong-Romero said. “I don’t know if someone from Washington, D.C., is going to help us get to where we need to be.”