Aurora super. finalists prep for final interview

The Aurora school board plans to pick a new superintendent early next week to replace outgoing district leader John Barry. The retired Air Force major general who took over Aurora Public Schools in 2006 will officially clear out of his office at the end of June.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference in August. EdNews file photo.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry addressed the media at a press conference. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

The four finalists – two who are presently administrators down the road in Denver – talked to members of the media Friday and were slated for interviews with the school board over the weekend. Whoever is selected will start the job  July 1.

Tracy Dorland

Tracy Dorland is deputy chief academic officer for teaching and learning in Denver Public Schools, where she provides executive leadership for the district’s academic departments, district-wide strategy for transition to the Common Core State Standards and integration of the district’s educator effectiveness system, known as LEAP.

She is a former principal at Smedley Elementary and has worked as a literacy coach and classroom teacher.

Meet the other finalists

Dorland described herself as a “values-driven leader.” She described those values as “equity, collaboration, integrity and joy.”

“I think we need joy in education,” she said. “I feel like a happy and joyful learning environment is incredibly important.”

Dorland said she applied for the position because she has the experience and passion to work with a diverse population of learners.

“I feel very strongly that Aurora’s strength is in its diversity,” Dorland said, noting that its student body represents 135 countries. “This is something I’ve sought my entire career.”

Dorland said with the Common Core Standards on the way, the focus needs to be “not only on how we’re teaching but what we’re teaching.”

Dorland was firm in her belief that teachers need to be at the table as plans take root in terms of evaluating teachers against academic goals outlined in the Common Core.

She said teachers remain the “biggest lever” in the classroom in terms of student learning. She described LEAP as a way to advance the profession of teaching.

Dorland also said it’s imperative to tap other community resources, such as AmeriCorps. She noted that when she was a school principal, AmeriCorps volunteers helped create after-school programs for kids based on what the kids said they wanted.

John Randal “Randy” Johnson

Randy Johnson, a native of New Mexico, has also held positions in education ranging from teacher to administrator in a large urban district. He currently serves as instructional superintendent at the secondary level in the Denver Public Schools. In the position, he supervises the district’s high school principals.

Randy Johnson talks to former Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

He also served as principal of Career Education Center – Middle College of Denver, a career and technical magnet high school, for one year.

As he introduced himself, Johnson talked broadly about the power of education.

“I understand the steps necessary for schools and districts to be effective,” he said. “You have to have a shared vision that everybody believes in and a plan to achieve that vision.”

He said Aurora is “well down the path to having a plan,” referencing PACE, the district’s concurrent enrollment system, and Vista 2015, a district vision statement.

He also said it’s key to “progress monitor the work you’re doing toward that vision.”

You need to “set targets and goals and hold each other accountable for getting there.”

Finally, you need effective leadership at the district and school level. At the end of the day, education is all about relationships, Johnson said.

“This is a people business. You can’t have plans without people. You always have to be intentional about how we connect with each other and speak to each other.”

He said much of the work he’s doing in Denver around teacher effectiveness and evaluation will translate into work in Aurora, since the demographics of the two districts are so similar. About 70 percent of both district’s students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

When asked about immediate challenges in Denver, Johnson said his main priority is working on schools rated red, which means accredited on probation, on the district’s School Performance Framework, especially the alternative schools serving at-risk students.

“We have to get right the work we do with kids who need alternatives…at what point did the child fail to pass through these gateways?”

Johnson said Denver is getting better at identifying kids earlier, but that more needs to be done.

As far as initiatives launched by Barry that Johnson would continue, he cited boosting IB and AP offerings.

“He has a great reputation for success,” Johnson said of Barry.

Asked about charter schools, Johnson said in Denver “we view charter schools as Denver Public Schools.”

“We have the same expectations of all of our schools,” Johnson said. “Ultimately it comes down to how (they are) actually guaranteeing that end result.”

As a supervisor of many innovation schools, schools that are freed from district regulations so they can try new things, in Denver, Johnson affirmed his belief that school systems “need to provide as many opportunities as they can” for students and families.

“One is not superior to the other,” he said of traditional vs. charter schools.

Rico Munn

Rico Munn is a litigation partner at Baker and Hostetler and adjunct law professor at the  University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Rico Munn, director of Colorado Department of Higher Education
Rico Munn

He also serves on the Board of Governors overseeing the Colorado State University System and is the former director of the Department of Higher Education in Colorado and served on the state Board of Education.

Munn spent some time countering the characterization of his background for the post as “non-traditional.”

“I’ve been in and out of education for the past 20 years,” Munn said.

He said he has children enrolled in Aurora Public Schools and is excited about leading such a diverse school district and said the 40,000-student district is headed in the right direction.

Munn said his deep ties in education, business and law would serve the district well.

“Aurora schools are a very complex, half billion dollar entity,” Munn said. “This is a good background to bring to oversee and be chief administrator in the district.”

Munn said his main goal would be to “accelerate the pace of change” by delving more deeply into data to determine which approaches have the greatest impact on student achievement and engagement.

He also said his background would serve him well as he sought to build even more bridges with parents, along with community and business leaders.

Munn said it’s critical that Aurora continue its practice of giving students the opportunity to try various areas of emphases as it does now with its pathways program.

When asked if he believed there should be different types of diplomas for different types of students, he said he didn’t think that was a good idea.

“I don’t think we should start making decisions about a kid’s future when they’re 14,” Munn said. “To put kids on that definitive of a track when they’re that young is a disservice to them and the community. We need to offer them the option to explore different things.”

Munn said he would not be coming in to do a “turnaround job” in Aurora Public Schools.

He said the PACE and Vista 2015 programs are on the right track. In fact, he said he was one of the early supporters of concurrent enrollment programs in Colorado.

As for engaging parents, he said he would like to see the district start issuing “action reports” that clearly articulate how a child is doing and what a parent can do to support the child. He described the reports as “actionable intelligence.”

Munn said report cards and other student assessments can be difficult for the average parent to decipher.

“We need to do a better job interpreting that for parents, particularly when you have language barriers around the community.”

Tom Seigel

Tom Seigel was the superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District from 1997 to 2000. Since, then he has overseen the 18,000-student Bethel School District in Washington, which he described as being suburban and rural without a city in its boundaries.

tom seigel
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Tom Seigel

Like Barry, he came to education with a military background most recently having worked as deputy chief of the U.S. Space Command’s Joint Space Support Team for U.S. European Command and U.S. Transportation Command. He noted that at one point he lived in Aurora.

Seigel was asked about how he would deal with the issue of transience among students.  As someone with a military background, he said he could relate to the question.

“All you can do is the best you can do,” Seigel said. “We have to make sure we allow kids to be introduced to a new setting as quickly as possible.”

Seigel said his current district provides busing to homeless students so they can remain at the same school – despite moving around – so there is “some solid foundation for everyday life rather than bouncing from school to school.”

As for presenting a game plan for Aurora, Seigel said he would come with open ears and an open mind.

“Every job is different. You figure out what has to be done for the mission, and figure out how to get there.”

Seigel said he would fight for more resources for public schools in the state.

“You have to have a reasonable level of finance to actually do this,” Seigel said. “Public education is a labor-intensive operation. If you want quality people, you have to pay enough…and give resources to do it well.”

He said research has shown that smaller class size does make a difference at the lower grade level, which also costs money.

If you look at Singapore or Finland he said the U.S. might consider adding to the length of the school day or school year. In addition, more money is needed to address added demands of teaching students whose native language is not English, he said.

Seigel cited the words of his grandmother, “You get what you pay for.”

Seigel was asked about his time in Boulder Valley and how he handled site-based management. He said it’s a balancing act between creating accountability and forging an environment where creativity can bloom.

“You have to make sure, while you have decentralized execution, that there is overall organization to the system. It is a system. There needs to be continuity.”

Seigel cited one example in Boulder Valley in which a debate was raging over the best way to teach reading – phonics or whole language. He quickly realized that every teacher had a different interpretation of terms used around literacy instruction. So, each elementary school teacher was required to undergo a two-week training to ensure that dialogue would be constructive.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.