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

Incentives

Aurora’s school district is testing out a stipend for hard to staff positions

Math teacher Kelly Hutchings, in her class at Boston K-8 school in Aurora on March 3, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district may experiment with paying some teachers and staff about $3,000, to see if the district can attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees.

The pilot plan has $1.8 million set aside for next school year to to attract and retain as many as 400 employees in hard-to-staff jobs. But in the long run, Superintendent Rico Munn said, the stipends could save Aurora money.

“This is a force multiplier,” Munn said. “If we can fill those positions ourselves, we can decrease our overall expenditures.”

Aurora’s stipends:
  • Nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists are eligible district-wide.
  • Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers are eligible at any of 20 targeted schools.
  • For employees who made an early commitment to return this fall: $3,000
  • For returning employees who don’t make an early commitment to return: $2,500
  • For new employees: $2,5000

Right now, when the district can’t fill certain critical positions, Munn said it must rely on contracting with agencies that help fill those jobs. There is an added cost paid to the agency.

The district’s school board is voting on the proposed budget on Tuesday. Officials say the money for the pilot program was set aside from a one-time increase of revenue the district received in the spring.

“We are really trying to be more strategic around how we recruit, retain, and develop our staff,” Munn said.

Over the past year, Aurora officials have focused on improving recruitment and retention. For instance, the next year’s budget proposal includes a request for about half a million dollars to send more principals through a University of Virginia training program.

This pilot, which the union opposed, would offer a stipend to all district nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers would be eligible if they work at any of 20 targeted schools.

The district selected schools that had higher turnover rates for these teachers than the district’s three-year average of 29 percent.

The stipend would be the same among jobs, but would vary if someone is a returning employee, or a new employee to the district.

In reviewing eligible positions, Munn said the district considered the number and length of existing vacancies, the number of applicants for those jobs, and how often the district had to seek help from an outside agency to fill them.

The district did not release detailed data on vacancies.

But in the case of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, Aurora officials said they resorted to an outside agency to fill 27 vacancies in the 2017-18 school year. That’s out of approximately 160 employees serving in those jobs that year.

Munn said that the district will track data on fill rates, number of applicants, and vacancies to see if the stipends make a difference.

“I think we’ll certainly have the data come August,” Munn said. “If it’s not successful then we stop talking about it. If it, is then we start looking at in what circumstances.”

Several other school districts in Colorado and across the country provide stipends for hard-to-staff positions. Denver schools, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses for various duties, including working in a hard-to-serve school through their ProComp model. Research findings on the model have been mixed.

National research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can attract more candidates and increase retention, but knowing whether quality candidates are the ones staying is harder to say.

Julia Wigert, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said stipends could be one way to attract more candidates, especially if they reward those who have additional credentials, but said there are other important factor that might help.

“We believe the most effective way… is to offer a competitive salary along with supporting a comprehensive role for school psychologists,” Wigert said.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union, said he is concerned that the program creates inequities “for people who do the same jobs in different buildings.” He added that union leadership has done surveys of teachers and staff in the past and has found that money is not one of the top considerations for choosing to take a job.

In the case of Aurora, the results of the pilot, if successful, could be one consideration in the district decision on whether to ask for a tax increase this fall, or could also affect district negotiations with the union to create a new plan for paying teachers.

While Munn said he isn’t planning to advocate for basing salaries on performance or positions, he added that nothing is off the table.

Wilcox had said he seeks a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on years of service and increases in education.

The list of 20 schools where some teachers will be eligible for stipends:

  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aurora Hills Middle School
  • Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
  • Boston P-8 School
  • Clyde Miller P-8 School
  • Columbia Middle School
  • Dalton Elementary School
  • Iowa Elementary School
  • Jamaica Child Development Center
  • Jewell Elementary School
  • Kenton Elementary School
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary School
  • Meadowood Child Development Center
  • North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus
  • Paris Elementary School
  • Sixth Avenue Elementary School
  • Tollgate Elementary School
  • Vaughn Elementary School
  • Vista PEAK Preparatory
  • Wheeling Elementary School

choice

Aurora could get two new charter schools, both with a community focus

Two co-founders of Aurora Community School pose for a picture with supporters of the proposed school outside the board room. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Two new charter schools, both with a large focus on community involvement, could open in Aurora in 2019.

One, Aurora Community School, would serve K-8 students in northwest Aurora using the “community schools” model, in which the school is a hub for other community resources such as food assistance, a medical clinic, and adult classes.

The other, Empower Community High School, would be a high school in central Aurora. It was designed by a group of parents, students, and community members who want to use project-based learning, in which students learn through real-life scenarios and projects — but specifically catering the education to immigrant and refugee students.

Read the full charter school applications here:

“They are trying to do the best they can so that these people who look different can have somebody on their side,” said Kodjo Amouzou, one member of the design team who spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday. “These people will not focus on what you cannot do, but instead what they are capable of.”

Aurora Public Schools has gradually reformed its position on charter schools. A series of changes in the last several years paved the way for new charter school options in the district, including last year’s approval of a school from the high-performing DSST network, which was invited to open in Aurora.

This year, district officials saw a spike in interest from applicants wanting to open their own charters in the district. Officials said they spoke with eight organizations who expressed interest earlier in the year. Later they received five letters of intent, and three submitted full applications. Two weeks ago, one of those applicants, a national organization of charter schools, withdrew their proposal.

District officials and committees evaluated the charter school applications this spring through a relatively new process that has continued to evolve. This year, for the first time, it included in-person interviews. The evaluation rubrics gave overall good scores to the two proposals, but district staff highlighted some areas where the applications weren’t as strong, including in their plans for educating students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, in their budget projections, and in their facilities plans.

Finding a place to house a school is consistently one of the biggest challenges facing charter school operators in the state. In Aurora, one charter school, Vega Academy, is operating in a temporary location and struggling to find a building in the northwest area of the city that isn’t near a marijuana dispensary or liquor store.

Aurora Community School is planning to open in the same region of the district, but is considering operating in modular units set up on vacant land.

District officials had been concerned that Empower would not find a location to open in by 2019, but at Tuesday’s board meeting they said the school has now identified a location they are in the process of securing.

Board members seized on some of the concerns district officials had cited, specifically around the plan for educating students with special needs or who are those who are learning the English language.

Aurora’s board includes four members elected in November after highlighting their concerns with charter schools during their campaign. They said they worried about how the proposed charter schools might affect district-run schools. In northwest Aurora, where some charter schools already operate and where DSST is planning to open in 2019, enrollment numbers are dropping at a faster rate than other parts of the district.

Because schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, some district-run schools in that part of town are struggling financially.

Other board members said the cost of creating a good option for students could be worth it.

“Having charters in our district affects our bottom line, but if a change to our bottom line raises the performance level of our students, I’m willing to mitigate that risk,” said board member Monica Colbert. “To say it affects our bottom line so we don’t look at choice, that’s bothersome to me.”

Board member Cathy Wildman pointed out that the area is gentrifying and questioned if the students the schools want to serve will still be there by the time the schools open.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the board the district is recommending the schools get approval to open. District officials are drafting proposed conditions that the schools would have to meet throughout the next year before they open.

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendations for the conditional approvals at a meeting June 19.