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.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

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

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

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

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.