broken

At Aurora’s struggling schools, teachers say they don’t know how to teach state standards

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Public Schools bus picks up students after school.

Teachers at five academically struggling schools in Aurora aren’t prepared to teach. Students who are learning English at those same schools are often left behind. And their parents are out of the loop.

Those are some of the findings from a series of school audits conducted by an independent contractor working for Aurora Public Schools as the school district reimagines some of its lowest performing schools that sit on its Denver border.

The reports, which were compiled in October and November, are meant to inform the work of numerous committees setting a new course for the schools — one that will hopefully lift historically low student achievement and morale.

Among the recommendations from the consultant Mass Insight: Give more planning time to teachers, rethink how English language learners are taught and lay a new foundation for what is supposed to be taught at each grade.

“No one was in the schools arguing things were great,” said Matt Bachand, engagement director at Mass Insight. He added, “Schools are going to push the envelope, we hope.”

The work to create functioning schools that serve the mostly poor, black and Latino students in the Original Aurora neighborhood is in part an effort to stave off state sanctions. APS is the largest school system on the state’s accountability watchlist and is in danger of losing its accreditation if student learning doesn’t improve.

While each school — Aurora Central High, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, Boston K-8, Paris and Crawford elementary schools — faces its own unique challenges, the reports paint a picture of mostly broken schools where little learning happens, especially for the district’s most at-risk students.

“Though it appears as though Paris Elementary offered professional development for staff on unpacking standards, developing essential questions and daily objectives, most students could not communicate what they are learning in class,” the audit said. “Similarly, most students could not explain how they know if they are on or off-track in class.”

Jocelyn Stephens, the APS learning director who oversees Paris, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“These reports are a confirmation — and maybe provided us a couple of perspectives we didn’t have,” she said.

Parents’ perspectives, for one, were lacking, she said.

Last fall, APS was chastised in another report published by parent advocacy group RISE Colorado and the education reform group A+ Denver. The report encouraged the inner-suburban school district to engage its poorest families more.

Parents, students, teachers and school administrators were surveyed and participated in focus groups for the Mass Insight audits, Bachand said.

“The goal is when the report comes out, no one in the building says, ‘No one like me participated,’” he said.

One glimmer found by Mass Insight is that most teachers reported a positive working culture and felt respected by their principals.

While no immediate and permanent changes will take hold at the schools until after both the APS school board and State Board of Education sign off on the plans, Aurora officials say they’re working to improve schools now.

“What I think you’ll see right now is a response,” Stephens said.

In December, principals across the district were told they and their teachers were free to make curricular changes as they see fit. That conversation was a demarcation for a school district that previously sought consistency across its classrooms in an effort to support a highly transient student population.

Stephens said it will take time for the district’s culture to shift.

“It’s one thing to be shared and another thing to be lived,” Stephens said. “That is the work.”

While a shift at the district level is important, state officials hope those in the schools are able to come up with their own plans.

“We want to be sure that the schools are clear about what they’re trying to do,” said Peter Sherman, the state’s top school turnaround officer. “We want to see in those plans, the school focused on some of these core systems. We also want to see outcomes. We want the plans and the schools to be really clear about the outcomes they’re seeking for kids.”

Lisa Escarcega, Aurora’s chief accountability and research officer, told the school board last week that the schools’ plans should be made public the second week of February.

“But if the schools need more time,” Escarcega said, “we need to give that to them.”

Mass Insight’s School Readiness Assessments

Aurora Central High School


Aurora West College Preparatory Academy

Boston K-8

Crawford Elementary School

Paris Elementary

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.