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.”


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.