When hundreds of incoming freshman arrive for their first day at Aurora Central High School in August, they’ll be greeted by a familiar face: their former middle school principal.

And that’s exactly the way Gerardo De La Garza wants it.

De La Garza, who was principal for nine years at North Middle School in Aurora, is the new principal at Aurora Central.

And he arrives at a pivotal time: The high school is one of the state’s lowest academically performing high schools and could face state sanctions as soon as 2017.

One of the reasons De La Garza accepted the position, arguably one of the most difficult in Colorado’s education community, was the chance to improve the school for his students.

As part of a school improvement plan, which has received a tentative OK from the State Board of Education, Aurora Public Schools will begin a process to free Aurora Central, and several other schools, from district and state bureaucratic red tape. By creating an Innovation Zone, as its known under state law, the district hopes to create an opportunity for schools like Aurora Central to meet the unique needs of their students.

Gerardo De La Garza
Gerardo De La Garza

It will be up to De La Garza, began his career in Denver Public Schools, to lead the school’s community of students, teachers, and parents, through this transitional period and — ideally — boost student learning at the same time.

And that excites De La Garza.

“I know we can come up with a plan to turn this thing around,” he said.

Chalkbeat spoke with De La Garza on Wednesday, his fourth day on the job. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you come to get this position, which is arguably the most difficult job in Colorado’s public education community right now?
When I heard about the innovation zone plan I had a conversation with my director and said, “When this thing gets going I would like to be a part of it…”

I end up sending most of my middle school kids here. So, I have a vested interest in what was going on.

At the end of the school year, my director asked me if I was serious. I talked it over with my family, my team at North, and other colleagues and decided it was the right decision.

So why do you want to be at Aurora Central?
These are my kids. And I think that it’s really powerful for our students to be able to see a face and see somebody that they know who cares about them and is going to do everything that he can to make sure that this place is a safe environment to learn and somebody there that is going to listen and go to bat for them.

I want to help this community to make this one of the best high schools in Aurora. I think it can be done. We have some great kids that come out of North.

How would you define your leadership style? What does that mean to you? How do you work? What can teachers and students expect from you?
What they can expect from me is somebody that’s going to come in and do a lot of listening and a lot of learning, and then lead.

I want to know what’s working so we can continue those practices and refine them and make them even better. I want to know what are the practices that aren’t working. If they’re not working, let’s stop doing them or fix them. We need to get the right people into the right places to do the job.

I am going to come in here and be collaborative: I want to work with you and we’re going to get the right people into the right places to get this thing turned around.

More philosophically, what do you think the role of a principal is, especially a turnaround school?
A turnaround principal needs to find out what are the best practices out there that have demonstrated that they work. Let’s see if those are some practices that we can bring here, to Aurora Central. I’m not saying that it needs to be a carbon copy. Let’s see if we can bring that here to Central, adjust it to the needs of our community and make sure that it’s the right way to do things here and then monitor it as well.

My job as a leader is to make sure that we are putting those things into place with fidelity. To make sure that the data we’re collecting is real data, to tell us if it’s working right.

What specific skill sets do you have that you believe makes you a good fit for Aurora Central? What’s in your resume that makes you the ideal person to lead central through Central?
I’ve been in this community for nine years so I understand the needs of this community, the needs of these students [and] of these families. That is a unique skill set. It takes a leader to be able to build the capacity of those folks and provide the support and resources those people need in order to be the best they can be to meet the needs of the students. I’ve been successful at doing it in all that locations that I’ve been at.

At North, student achievement data rose each year for your first seven years and then dipped in your eighth. There was a significant dip, 3 or 4 points in each subject area. And in some instances some students lost as much ground as they gained the year before. What do you think happened there? And how did you correct it?
When I got to North, my number one priority was building the capacity of teachers through professional development. And we worked very hard at that. And as a result we saw student achievement going up because teachers became better at their craft.

A lot of these quality teachers left North to take on leadership positions through out the district. What ended up happening is we hired a lot of new people, [and] unfortunately, their heart wasn’t in it. They weren’t ready to work with this kind of demographic and we quickly had to make an adjustment there.

So, the next year, we did an about-face with our selection process and asked different questions. We wanted to get to the heart of why those candidates wanted to be at North, why they wanted to work with middle school students. There’s going to be less turnover at North this year and I expect scores will go back up.

What do you need from Aurora Public Schools officials to be successful?
I don’t really know exactly what those supports will be right now or what they will look like. But I need to make sure that they will be there to support me when I reach out to them. With our system and our model in place I have no doubt that they’ll be there to support me.

What is going to be different on day one at Central compared to the last day of school last year?
One of the things that will change — and it will be a visible change — is administrator presence. My number one priority coming in here is school culture and making sure that kids understand and know who their principal is, who their assistant principals are, who their deans are … getting these kids into their classrooms where the learning needs to happen but doing that in a warm, demanding way. There will be a dramatic change as far as visibility of administrators.

You are one person. There are more than 2,000 students here. So, what systems do you need to put in place to ensure that every student is appropriately challenged to either catch up, stay up, or move up?
My expectation is that myself and my administrative team are in every classroom on a weekly basis meeting with that teacher, giving them feedback on their instruction within 24 hours. We will monitor ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to do that.

As an administrator, how do you know student learning is going on?
I want to hear discourse. Student-to-student, where they’re sharing their thinking with each other to solve problems. And the teacher is facilitating the learning. I want to see students doing the work, not the teachers.

There’s an ongoing debate in public education of whether adults can improve schools that serve predominantly poor students. Some believe schools can, regardless of poverty. Others believe schools can’t be tasked with boosting achievement without taking on poverty first. What do you subscribe to?
If you have the right people that are willing to do the right job and believe in these kids then it can be done.

Chalkbeat intern Doug Hrdlicka contributed.