AURORA — Superintendent Rico Munn wants to free several of the city’s academically struggling schools from district and state red tape as well as the district’s collective bargaining agreement with its teachers union in an effort to improve student achievement, he told the school board last night.

The proposal to create three “innovation zones” comes as the district is beginning preliminary conversations with the Colorado Department of Education about the future of the struggling Aurora Central High School.

Based mostly on test scores and graduation rates, Aurora Central has been rated by the state as a chronically underperforming school for five years. If there isn’t drastic improvement by the end of the school year, Aurora Central will likely face state sanctions.

That is unless the Aurora school board and district act first, Munn said.

“I want you to be able to exert as much influence as possible,” he said.

Innovation zones are clusters of school that are given innovation status under a 2008 state law. Similar to charter schools, those schools are granted waivers from school district and state policies and regulations and usually any collective bargaining agreement the district has with its teacher and classified unions. Waivers usually lead to different school programs, calendars, and one-year contracts with teachers.

School leaders at innovation schools also usually have greater flexibility with their budget and professional development for staff. But unlike a charter school, which answers to an independent board, an innovation school remains under the control of the school district and its board.

Architects of the innovation law believe greater flexibility at the school level will allow educators to respond more quickly to the changing needs of students.

Community meetings planned
APS officials will meet with parents at three times to discuss the future of Aurora Central High School: 10 a.m., Thursday, March 19; 6 p.m., Thursday, April 2; 10 a.m., Saturday, April 4. All meetings will be held at the Aurora Central media center.

A majority of the teaching staff, parent advisory committee, and school board would have to sign off on an application in order for a school to receive innovation status. The State Board of Education must also OK the proposal.

The first innovation zone would include Aurora Central and some mix of Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, Boston K-8, Crawford and Sable elementary schools. Like Aurora Central, those schools serve mostly poor students, a large population of refugees, and English language learners.

If approved by the board, Aurora Public Schools would spend the next year developing a plan for how they want to change the schools for the 2016-17 school year. APS would then repeat the process in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school year.

Munn told the school board creating innovation zones would allow the district and its community to pursue a number different models and policies to improve its schools for students. But if the board fails to act now, the state could dictate a more limited solution like closing the school or turning it over to a private management company.

The proposal could be considered Munn’s boldest move yet since he was named superintendent in 2013 and it was met with skepticism and tepid support from the board.

“This scares me the least,” board member Mary Lewis said at the end of the conversation.

Other board members were equally lukewarm to the proposal. Several asked for more details and evidence that innovation status would lead to better schools.

“It’s important to me that [innovation status] looks different,” Lewis said. “If its just the same thing with a different acronym that would concern me.”

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn
Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn

APS already has a mechanism to allow schools more autonomy. Schools granted flexibility are called pilot schools.

A committee of teachers at Aurora Central did put together a proposal for pilot status last fall. But that proposal has been tabled in part because Aurora Central has 2,200 students. According to the district’s contract with its teachers union, which created the pilot school status, pilot schools can’t have more than 600 students.

Munn said it is important for the school district to seek innovation status for two reasons. First, the state recognizes the status as a possible solution for schools like Aurora Central that run out the state’s accountability timeline. Second, moving toward the state’s model would enhance the district’s model because of resources the state could provide like grant money and research.

Board member Dan Jorgensen appeared to be the most concerned that the district wasn’t doing enough to improve its schools.

Besides Aurora Central, APS has 17 other schools on the state’s accountability watch list and its graduation rate is the lowest among the state’s largest school districts.

Jorgensen suggested, as he has done multiple times, that the district begin soliciting charter school proposals. But district officials told the board Tuesday charter schools weren’t a viable option because the district has no buildings to offer. Further, it’s unlikely a charter school would agree to take over a large high school like Aurora Central, Munn said.

Jorgensen also said he’d be in favor of earmarking funds for additional staff members to research different school improvement efforts on an ongoing basis.

Freeing a school from district bureaucracy as a school improvement strategy has provided mixed results, Munn acknowledged. He said he thought of innovation status as more of a mechanism than a school model or design. The real work would be in how the schools are restructured once free from some district policies.

A series of reports from education advocacy organization A+ Denver examined those mixed results elsewhere. The most recent in 2013 found innovation schools in Denver weren’t outperforming similar campuses without innovation status. But students in schools with more autonomy were catching up at a faster rate.

“Innovation status can be a useful tool when thoughtful,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver. “To do it well, schools really need to understand what it is they plan to do.”

When Denver first launched its innovation schools, it did so haphazardly with unproven leaders who didn’t know how to operate outside the district’s bureaucracy, Schoales said. But the district is learning from those mistakes.

“It’s about the right leadership, culture, and school design,” Schoales said. “I hope Aurora will be very, very, thoughtful about what they want to do.”

Munn’s innovation proposal to school board