Remaking Aurora

For low-performing schools, a crucial roadmap

PHOTO: Kate Schimel
Students work on their math skills at Castro Elementary School in Denver. Behind them is a progress chart. Several schools, like Crawford Elementary in Aurora, track student progress against its Unified Improvement Plan.

For the faculty and staff of Aurora Public Schools’ Crawford Elementary School, there is no escaping the campus’ goals. Not even in the restroom.

Posted directly across from the toilet reserved for teachers and visitors is a single sheet of paper with the school’s three goals. Crawford’s educators are reminded every time nature calls: Teachers will plan standards-based lessons, they will collaborate across grades and content areas, and students will write every day.

“Well, our goals are not on the bedside table,” said Lacey Farmer, a fourth grade teacher. “But they are a part of everything we do. They’re constantly around us.”

In every classroom. In every hallway. In the forefront of every teacher’s mind.

The goals aim to lift student proficiency, especially in writing, and develop every teacher’s ability to understand and teach to the new Colorado Academic Standards. They were developed through the Unified Improvement Plan process, in which the school’s leadership team worked with teachers, parents and central administrators to identify areas of improvement and set clear goals to increase student learning.

Before 2009, school improvement plans, often referred to as UIPs, were a bureaucratic compliance mechanism. There were plans for accreditation purposes, grants, and other state requirements. Since then, the state has combined all of those forms into a single template and its purpose has evolved into the quietest tool of school reform.

Every school and district in Colorado must develop a UIP annually, but the roadmaps are meant to be living documents that school leaders, teachers, administrators and board members refer back to throughout the year.

“If it’s viewed as an annual event, then nothing will change,” Youngquist said.

The intent is to keep focus on those goals educators believe will dramatically increase student performance and let all else fall by the wayside, said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer.

But if school leaders are brutally honest, understand their data, can articulate their desired goals and put together a plan to reach those goals, a big payoff should follow, he said.

New leader, new direction, brutal honesty

When Principal Jenny Passchier joined Crawford this school year, she knew one of her first tasks would be to visit the school’s UIP.

She wanted to honor established building goals, but knew a fresh set of eyes were needed. Hours of conversations and data sessions with her leadership team and teachers yielded a clear understanding of why Crawford was one of the district’s lowest performing elementary schools: teachers here didn’t know what proficient writing is.

That ‘brutally honest’ assessment is the type of inward looking reflection district and state officials are looking for in a school’s plan.

“It came from the teachers,” Passchier said. “They hadn’t had any professional development around writing to the new standards. They so desperately wanted that development to help the kids.”

Fourth grade teacher Clara Hernandez said the discussions were difficult but necessary.

“Other schools would be crushed,” she said. “But we don’t see it that way. We see this process as an opportunity to be a part of something.”

That this realization came from the teachers, not the school’s principal is important, said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the Colorado Department of Education.

“It’s about having those really tough discussions,” Medler said. “When it’s an inclusive process, it really can help.”

To correct this “root cause,” or one of the chief reasons why Crawford students are not demonstrating proficiency on state exams, Crawford students are now writing every day and there are regular schoolwide writing prompts teachers assess together.

Understanding data, correcting along the way

Previous iterations of Crawford’s UIP had a similar collaborative process. But something that was missing, teachers said, was a data component.

“With previous leadership, we had a lot of intention around climate,” said Jenny Buster, Crawford’s assistant principal. “Did we have safe classrooms? Did we meet our student’s social and emotional needs? We have that in place now. And we’re shifting to academics.”

Teachers keep detailed charts of student progress. Every Wednesday teachers team up to discuss student trajectories and create lesson plans focused on the new standards.

“There’s always a reminder of exactly where we are,” said Liz Soltys, a first grade teacher.

Consistently monitoring data is a crucial step, the district’s academic officer Youngquist said.

“Our challenge is making sure we implement our strategies effectively,” he said.

While there are hard deadlines to submit a UIP to the state, Medler suggests schools and districts should be regularly updating their UIP with the most timely information.

“Don’t wait on CDE,” Medler said with a chuckle. “Keep going.”

Because Aurora is on the state’s accountability clock, the district has been receiving direct assistance from Medler’s office. This year the state is expanding its services to individual schools on the accountability clock, as well.

“When you’re at the point of being either a priority improvement or turnaround district,” Medler said, referencing the state’s two lowest accountability ratings, “there’s probably a lot in your system to work on. But we’re trying to help focus on the few things that will make an improvement.”

For teachers at Crawford Elementary School that focus is just one bathroom break away.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.