On the trail

Aurora school board candidates, at forum, pitch few new ideas to improve schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora school board candidates, from left, Monica Colbert, Billie Day, and Mike Donald took questions from parents at a candidate forum Thursday.

AURORA — All seven of the candidates vying for three seats on this close-in suburb’s school board told a crowd of immigrant and refugee parents at a forum on Thursday that the struggling school district needs to do more to prepare students for life after high school.

But not every candidate agreed on how or what role parents should play in that effort.

The top three vote-getters in this election will join four others on the governing board of 42,000- student Aurora Public Schools.

Once sworn in, the new members will need to tackle the district’s grim reality: only one in 10 students is college ready, students and teachers don’t feel safe in their schools and parents lack information necessary to make good choices about their students.

Those were the findings of a blistering report, released earlier this month, produced by several Denver-based education reform advocacy groups and Aurora-based nonprofits, including RISE Colorado.

RISE, a parent advocacy group working in the Original Aurora neighborhood, was the sponsor of Thursday’s forum.

Meet the candidates | Learn where the seven Aurora school board candidates stand on the issues that matter to you here.

Few candidates were able to articulate any specific policy shift they would champion to reverse Aurora’s poor academic performance.

Linda Cerva, a community activist, said she would want the district to invest in more personalized-learning software for students.

Michael Donald, a small business owner, said he wants more teachers to look like Aurora’s mostly Latino and black students.

But as incumbent Dan Jorgensen pointed out, APS officials are already at work on a number of initiatives to boost student learning including those mentioned at the forum. He suggested some patience was needed to see if the district’s current reforms would work.

“We need stability in the district,” Jorgensen said.

All candidates said they supported the district’s new strategic plan, albeit a starting point.

And while most candidates put the onus of driving the district’s improvement on the school board and administration to boost student achievement, incumbent Cathy Wildman told parents in the audience, specifically, needed to step up to help the district.

“Many kids are not in the classroom because parents aren’t supporting them to be there,” she said.

School board candidates Grant Barrett, a small business owner, and Monica Colbert, who works for a foundation, said they believe parents and students need more school choice.

“We need to attract and bring in good high quality charter schools while focusing on student achievement,” Barrett said.

APS has historically been seen as unfriendly to charter schools. However, in the last year, APS has updated a number of policies to make it easier to open up a charter school in the district. But for the time being, APS has no space to offer a charter school, which is unappealing to well-established charter operators that otherwise would need to find their own space.

That could change after the 2016 election. The district is flirting with the idea of asking voters to increase taxes to fund new building needs. All seven school board candidates said they’d favor asking voters for more money.

One parent wondered why APS doesn’t try to replicate the teaching strategies of countries where most of its new refugee and immigrant students come from?

“That sounds like a great idea,” said candidate Billie Day, a retired teacher.

Day went on to say a first step in that direction would be recruiting more parent aids from a variety of international backgrounds.


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.