Game changer

The plan to revitalize Aurora’s schools: Longer days, new curriculum and more teacher training

Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Nearly a year after Superintendent Rico Munn announced his intention to overhaul five of Aurora’s most troubled schools, the public is getting its first look at what might be in store next year.

Among the proposed changes: Schools will abandon the district’s mandated curriculum and school calendar. Students will spend about 45 more minutes a day at school. Teachers will spend more time planning lessons together. And principals will have more control over their budgets.

The plans to redesign Aurora Central High School, Aurora West Preparatory College, Boston K8, and Paris and Crawford elementary schools were released by the district Friday evening following six months of work by committees that included teachers, students, parents and community members.

Friday’s release is a milestone for the inner-ring suburban school district, which has struggled to educate its mostly poor and Latino students for years. It’s also a halfway point in a lengthy process to avoid state intervention and a loss of accreditation.

A majority of teachers and administrators at the five schools must approve the plans, which include changes to the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement with the district.

Those changes will vary at each school. But at Aurora Central, a majority of teachers must agree to give up their tenure rights — a tough decision for veteran teachers that, if rejected, could prompt the state to step in with more drastic changes.

After the schools OK the plans, the Aurora school board must also give its blessing.

Additionally, the plans must be vetted by Colorado Department of Education officials, who have already signaled they will reject any plan they believe won’t boost student achievement.

And finally, the State Board must sign off on any parts of the plans that deviate from state law.

Superintendent Munn said he hopes the State Board can approve the plans before the end of the school year to allow time to put them in place.

“This is work that is definitely different in Aurora: A district that is heavily dependent on neighborhood schools, that has a traditional union structure that has not in any way shape or form created any autonomy for its schools,” Munn said in an interview prior to the plans being released. “For us, this is a big move.”

What’s changing?

While there are some common shifts among the five schools, no two plans are alike. Each spans dozens of pages and details changes in a variety of areas including instruction, hiring, school culture and money. The plans, if approved, would take three years to roll out and rely heavily on the school’s principal.

At Boston K8, students will do most of their learning by completing projects over several weeks and months. They will also be asked to do a community service project. And the school will market itself as a hub for the community, pulling in a variety of nonprofits and services for families.

At Crawford, students and their families will participate in an international writing program. Teachers will use EngageNY, a curriculum heralded for its alignment to the Common Core State Standards. The principal will be able to design her own hiring process. And the school will not have to accept any teacher transfers.

Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October. Last spring she was named principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October. Last spring she was named principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

At Paris, students will study literacy for longer periods. Teachers who are rated highly effective and recruited from another school district can have their higher salaries matched. And the principal will control the school’s money designated for at-risk students.

At Aurora West, students will be able to choose how they want to learn — be it in a traditional classroom or on their own. Students will also design training for teachers around cultural diversity. Teachers will spend more time throughout the day and school year planning and developing their skills.

At Aurora Central, traditional grade levels will be a thing of the past. Instead, students will earn credits at their own pace. There will be a later start time, pushing the current 7:30 a.m. start to 8 a.m. Teachers will be paid more if their position is considered hard-to-fill. And they will work under annual contracts.

One problem area that won’t be immediately addressed in a comprehensive way is how the schools teach immigrant and refugee students.

An audit conducted last year found that students learning English as a second language were often left behind at the five schools and that supports for those students needed a complete makeover.

While some schools outlined subtle shifts in teaching their English language learners, Aurora will need approval from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights before any sweeping changes are made to that program.

District and federal officials have begun that conversation, Munn said.

“We have to see if we can convince them that whatever the replacement policy is can meet the needs of these kids,” he said.

The toughest conversation

Perhaps the most contentious proposal is that no teacher at Aurora Central will be protected by tenure. All will work under one-year contracts.

It’s not the outcome English teacher Shari Summers wanted.

“It scares me that we’re going to lose some really good teachers,” said Summers, who helped create the school’s plan.

What’s next | The district will hold a community meeting at 4:30 p.m., Feb. 16.,at Aurora Central. Superintendent Rico Munn hopes the district’s school board will approve the plans by March 15. But a special meeting could be held March 22 for a final vote. The state would then have 60 days to approve or reject the plan.

But Superintendent Munn said there is no alternative.

“What we know is we can’t forward to the state an innovation plan that doesn’t include some significant waivers around talent management,” he said. “It’s a non-starter.”

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement executive, has not seen the district’s plans yet, but said his office and new education commissioner Richard Crandall are looking for bold changes, especially at Aurora Central.

“It sounds like the district is going to take some strong steps toward ensuring they have the right teachers in place at Aurora Central,” he said. “As the new commissioner makes his recommendations, those kinds of bold moves will be very, very important.”

But if teachers at Aurora Central don’t agree to give up their negotiated tenure rights, the innovation plan might never reach the state department.

If teachers reject the plan and a compromise can’t be reached, the entire staff may be fired when the school is “reconstituted.” Or the state may turn the school over to a third party.

“We’re trying to to work together on these difficult pieces,” said Amy Nichols, the Aurora teachers union president. “We’re all for creativity. We just want to make sure that non-probationary teachers that have been in those schools have an opportunity to teach and to be an asset to the district.”

Summers, the Aurora Central teacher, said she predicts a tight vote.

“I’m proud. The basics of the plan are really, really good,” she said. “I hope I’m around to help implement it.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.