Who ya gonna call?

A bureaucratic shuffle in Aurora to help schools get the support they need

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools administrators met last month to discuss among other topics how the district's new P-20 Learning Community support teams can help on the first day of school. Andre Wright, a P-20 director, told the room they needed to show up and "serve."

AURORA — As a principal at Vaughn Elementary School, Jocelyn Stephens sometimes found herself relying more on her personal connections to access support from her school district’s central office rather than the clunky and dawdling bureaucracy of Aurora Public Schools.

“The system was not responsive,” she said. “Support didn’t always happen through formal channels. I had to be creative.”

As a principal it could be time consuming to find help from any number of departments that makes up a school district: English language acquisition, special education, student engagement, technology and so on.

So when Stephens heard the suburban school district’s new chief academic officer, John Youngquist, was shuffling the district’s bureaucracy with the hope of providing better support  school leaders and teachers, Stephens jumped at the opportunity to be on the front lines of the “groundbreaking” movement.

Today, the first day of school for most of Aurora Public Schools’ 35,000 students, Stephens is taking charge of supervising, or as district officials like to say serving, 10 schools. She, along with four other Aurora administrators — who will each supervise their own networks of schools — will be the go-to people for teachers and principals as problems in the classroom arise.

The decision to restructure the district’s support services has been months in the making. The impetus came from an informal listening tour hosted by APS’s newest academic executive, Youngquist, and research from the University of Washington.

“The conversations were about relationships and how schools accessed support,” he said.

Previously, most schools operated in silos, Youngquist said. And professional development was cookie-cutter and usually targeted to grade levels.

“At meetings, it would be, ‘elementary school principals over there, middle schools over there, and high school principals over there,'” said Iowa Elementary School leader Luann Tallman.

John Youngquist
John Youngquist

Too often, Tallman said, principals can get caught up focusing only on their students’ present and not their future. They can forget students age through a system of schools. The new approach is reminding Tallman she’s not just accountable to her students through fifth grade, but to their entire educational career. And she’s accountable to the teachers and principals who she will hand her students off too.

It’s for that reason these new networks, known as “P-20 Learning Communities,” will include schools that serve all grade levels in nearby neighborhoods.

“P-20” is common education parlance for a coordinated system that extends from preschool through higher education. Aurora Public Schools, under former Superintendent John Barry, was an early adopter of the contemporary effort that links a student’s primary and secondary education to career-driven skills. The district’s signature initiatives, including the Vista PEAK P-20 campus and its “pathways” programs, have garnered praise from the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Youngquist’s new effort, a double-down of sorts, come at a crucial time for Aurora Public Schools. The district is the largest on the state’s accountability watch list. It has two years to improve student performances on Colorado’s standardized assessments and boost its graduation rate or face state sanctions.

In her role as director, Stephens will work to boost student achievement as some of APS’ lowest performing schools. Four of her 10 schools are considered chronically low-performing.

“That level of data tells me we’re not responsive to the students’ needs,” she said. “[We’re going to ask] what do we need to learn about those students that we might not know from the data. We’re going to change the type of questions we ask. We’re going to be very root-caused focused.”

The targeted support approach to schools that APS hopes to roll out, Stephens said, is no different that what a teacher is expected to do in the classroom.

“Gone are the days of the one-size fits all approach,” Stephens said.

And the change, Tallman said, is creating a new team spirit and sense of a accountability among schools and one, she hopes, will last.

If the initiative does last, it would beat the odds, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a P-20 education researcher for the Education Commission of the States.

First of all, most P-20 efforts have been coordinated by states, not local school districts, Dounay Zinth said. And those efforts have focused more on the links between high school and college and the transmission of student data. Second, most of the P-20 efforts have puttered out.

For Aurora to be successful, Dounay Zinth said, they’ll need to make sure their effort is “more than just window dressing.”

It will be imperative, Dounay Zinth said, for the learning community directors and their teams to have the autonomy to make decisions, and those teams will need to have representatives from both the district’s early childhood services and post-secondary readiness team.

Youngquist acknowledged Dounay Zinth’s advice.

“The teams should be and will be immediately responding to requests of their communities of teachers and principals,” Younquist said, he hopes within 24 hours.

And the district is working to ensure the new support squads are equipped and empowered to make the decisions they deem necessary. Further, each team will have a representative from the district’s post-secondary readiness team and the district has hired, for the first time, an early childhood learning director. Once the new director is in place, a team will be assembled to work with the P-20 Learning Communities, as well.

“They’ll go where they need to go,” he said.

Jocelyn Stephens, right, listens during a meeting of P-20 Learning Community directors July 31. In her new role, Stephens will coordinate a support team for 10 schools in the suburban school district.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jocelyn Stephens, right, listens during a meeting of P-20 Learning Community directors July 31. In her new role, Stephens will coordinate a support team for 10 schools in the suburban school district.

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including cutting the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

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: