Remaking Aurora

John Barry flunks retirement

John Barry can’t just quit.

Barry, now in his final week as superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, recently told EdNews Colorado about the July 1 launch of his new consulting firm, VISTA Quest (if that reminds you of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus that Barry likes to talk about, or Aurora’s strategic plan, VISTA 2015 — it’s not a coincidence).

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 in August 2012. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

His next plan? To tap the nation’s best former and current superintendents, hire them on contract and pair them with new district leaders — especially those coming from outside the word of public education — who need help and support as they get their legs under them. The firm will specifically focus on leadership training, mentoring and crisis management.

It’s no secret that Barry, 61, a retired Air Force general, fits in that category of non-traditional superintendent,  and he is certainly no stranger to crisis.

Barry came to public education after a lengthy and storied military career that included being in the Pentagon on 9/11, working for NASA during the Challenger explosion, investigating the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003, and doing a stint in private industry. He earned kudos from Arne Duncan, the nation’s top education chief, for his deft handling the aftermath of the Aurora movie theater massacre last summer. By the district’s estimate, 150 former and current Aurora students, parents and staff were in the Century Aurora 16 theater when a heavily-armed lone gunman opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.

With retirement looming, he decided he wanted to remain in education and not move — ever. In his military career he said he moved 26 times in 30 years.

“I am not going to pack another bag,” he said, during a recent interview in an increasingly tidy office that doubles as an incident command meeting room.

In addition to launching his new enterprise, the former fighter pilot will continue flying for his own entertainment and teaching Aurora kids to fly through ground school. He also may be spotted with fishing rod wading into Colorado’s abundant rivers and streams.

While his mind is on future ventures and erasing any lingering reference to him on files or name plates at APS headquarters so his successor D. Rico Munn can start July 1 with a clean slate, Barry took a little time last week to reflect on his experiences over the past seven years as he ran the 38,000-student Aurora Public Schools.

Barry said when he arrived in Aurora, he found a diverse district with a budget in good shape, well-maintained facilities and staff who “still had fires in their eyes.” But the elephant in the room was student achievement. It was going down.

The origins of VISTA 2010, and VISTA 2015

Barry committed his energy to tackling that issue with military-style precision. He began with an intensive internal process that culminated with his now well-known 90-day listening tour as he laid the groundwork for a strategic plan, known as VISTA 2010, which was condensed into an image-rich 12-page document that was shared with the public.  The goal was to connect the end (vision) with the means (goals and objectives).  One catch phrase, or rather, acronym bandied about in Aurora schools is PACE. That stands for people, achievement, community and environment.

Barry said he prides himself in clarifying the primary district goal of making sure that every APS student graduates with the skills they need to attend college without remediation, and working to achieve that.

“We argue that we had a transformation on the order of magnitude to anything going on in the country,” he said.

While Barry acknowledges that that is a “pretty broad claim,” he cites work over the past seven years to improve and unify the literacy program in APS, revamp and upgrade quarterly assessments to give teachers more real-time data on their students, give teachers more time to meet and strategize on key items, such as the Common Core State Standards, and emphasize student data at regular meetings.

Some 23 more instructional days were added per year, and APS cut its truancy rate by one third by changing some practices and policies. The district cut dropout rates in half, beefed up the five-year graduation rate by 20 percent, rolled out strategic professional development for principals and implemented equity training in a district that boasts 120 languages representing 130 countries and 70 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Barry gets very excited when talking about the crisis management system the district embraced since he’s been at the helm, and which was put to good use on a day no one in Aurora will ever forget — July 20.

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Alton Scales

Alton Scales, who began his post as president of the Community College of Aurora one year ago, said it is nothing short of awe-inspiring to watch Barry carry out a plan under intense deadlines.

“He is a master when it comes to logistics, and being able to stay on point when it comes to messaging,” Scales said.

He said CCA and APS have done a great service to the students of Aurora by working so  hard to create the number one concurrent enrollment system in the state. He described Barry as someone who was engaged and available.

“I have found him to be always accessible,” Scales said. “During our second meeting he gave me his cell phone number. He’s going to missed in that role.”

Amy Nichols, president of the Aurora Education Association, gave Barry high marks for his ability to forge key strategic partnerships that not only enhanced the quality of real-word educational opportunities in the district but netted support for bond and property tax measures in 2008 and 2012. She also gave him big props for his work to get the cutting edge Vista PEAK P-20 campus off the ground.

“One of his greatest accomplishments was his ability to create an external network that really supported Aurora Public Schools,” Nichols said. “Nobody’s perfect, but I give him 100 percent high marks in that regard.”

However, Nichols said the same personality traits that made him a topnotch tw0-star general were the same things that could make collaboration difficult.

“Teachers are taught to question: why, how come…?” Nichols said. “There were times he felt we were questioning him personally.”

Disappointment over TCAP scores

Looking back, a disappointment for Barry was not being able to move the needle more quickly and decisively on student achievement.

Under his tenure, the district failed to reach its goal of a 10 percent increase in TCAP proficiency for all grade levels and all content areas, but the district did report a 3 percentile or greater gain on the 2012 TCAP.  And the number of schools meeting state proficiency averages increased by 2 percent. Since 2006, Aurora schools surpassed the state CSAP/TCAP achievement rates for reading, writing, math and science every year.

“I think I was a little bit more naïve on how fast I could move that needle,” Barry said. “I wanted the hockey stick. I didn’t want the incremental growth.”

Still, he says the financial crisis didn’t help. Seventy million dollars were cut from the district budget over three years. He wonders what he could have done to boost student performance if the budget had remained intact.

He started the second phase of the strategic plan, VISTA 2015, four years into the first since 93 percent of the original goals had been reached. The second phase focused on external vs. internal transformations. He and staff reached out to forge partnerships with government and business entities and create ways for students to get real-world experiences and mentoring in the subjects they care about.

This emphasis on tapping into student interests is also at the core of the district’s Academic and Career Pathways program, which allows students to pursue a track focusing on health sciences, business, arts and communications or STEM all the way through school. Barry said he also feels good about the number of Aurora students earning college credits while still in high school. In fact, one district program allows students to stay in high school for a fifth year in order to earn college credits – if not an associate’s degree.  This past school year, Aurora high school students earned 10,000 college credits.

A key goal for Barry is to align academic development to economic development. One day, he would like to see Colorado have great talent right here so employers no longer have to import workers.

“What our team has done is put the mosaic of institutions together…to do two things –  accelerate student achievement and close the achievement gap,” Barry said. “You can’t do one without the other.”

In March 2010, Barry gave the district a grade of B+ based on the strategic plan in an interview with EdNews Colorado. This time, he gives it an A-.

“My basic mantra is you have to leave it better than you found it. Hopefully I’ve done that with my part.”

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests:

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New online map puts Aurora school information in one place

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has launched a new online map that for the first time creates a central location for parents to find information about a school’s performance, demographics and more — part of an effort to make school choice easier.

“It was to let them know what programs are available at our schools and to allow schools to be able to tell their story better,” said Corey Christiansen, a spokesman for the district.

The map, based on a similar one the district introduced last year to share information about proposed bond projects, did not represent an additional cost to the district because it was created by the communications staff.

When clicking on each school’s icon, a window pops up with information about student demographics, teacher experience, programs offered at the school and a link to a video of the school’s principal talking about the school. Principal videos for four schools are up so far. (There are 64 schools in the district).

The tab that gives viewers information about school performance uses uniform-colored bar charts in soft purple to show the school’s quality rating as given by the state.

But unless parents are familiar with the state’s terminology for different school ratings, what those ratings mean won’t be clear to site visitors. For schools that earn the two lowest performing ratings, a link is provided to the school’s improvement plans.

Screen shot of Aurora’s new interactive map.

“We continue to receive feedback on the interactive map and will make improvements as we can,” Christiansen said. “Linking to (Colorado Department of Education) resources is something we will consider.”

A+ Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group, has criticized the district in the past for not making school performance data readily available to families. The organization had suggested the district develop its own school rating system to share more data with Aurora families.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Colorado. “Having gone from zero to this is helpful, but it doesn’t really provide information that most families would understand about, for instance, how many kids know how to read at grade level. They need to provide a lot more information.”

The state ratings will be updated when the new ones are finalized later this fall, but Christiansen said he isn’t sure how fast district staff will be able to update any of the information when new data sets are out.

Superintendent Rico Munn highlighted the webpage at a community meeting last week when asked about how the district shares information with parents, and said it represents “a real opportunity for families.”