Seal of approval

After some doubt, teachers and staff at Aurora Central approve overhaul plan

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Aurora Central High, one of the state’s most academically troubled schools, is one step closer to a dramatic overhaul after teachers there Wednesday approved a plan that calls for new teaching methods, annual contracts for teachers and longer school days.

Before any changes, the district’s school board and the State Board of Education must also give their blessings.

Those governing boards are expected to OK the plan, in part because of the overwhelming support by the school’s teachers. More than 80 percent approved the plan. The Aurora school board had warned they would reject any plan that did not have broad community buy-in. And the state board has yet to reject an innovation plan that reached them.

“I am excited about this opportunity that will allow the Aurora Central community to create unique and targeted responses to the various challenges and opportunities within the school and zone community,” wrote Gerardo De La Garza, the school’s interim principal, in an email to the school’s staff obtained by Chalkbeat.

The vote, a year in the making, is a watershed moment for Aurora Public Schools and Superintendent Rico Munn.

The redesign efforts at Aurora Central — where most students are poor, black and Latino — has been the foundation of Munn’s improvement efforts in the district.

Before Wednesday’s vote at Aurora Central, three other schools approved similar plans. Together, they’ll form an “innovation zone” and work outside of many of district and state policies in an effort to boost student learning.

Student achievement and graduation rates in Aurora, the state’s fifth largest school district, have lagged state averages for years.

Aurora is the largest school district in the state that faces sanctions for poor student achievement. Districts and schools that are deemed chronically failing for five years face a variety of penalties including losing their accreditation, shut down or turned over to charter schools. The work at Aurora Central and at other schools has been in part to keep the state at bay.

“We are excited about the opportunity for Aurora Central staff to pursue innovation status,” Munn said in a statement.

While each school will look slightly different, all four will operate on a similar extended schedule, run common teacher training and will approach teaching through a “global leadership” theme developed by the nonprofit Asia Society.

The vote at Aurora Central was closely watched by education reform advocates, the district’s teachers union and state officials. When the first draft of the plan was introduced, observers were skeptical it would either pass a teacher vote, which is required by law, or be a success.

At the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Education Commissioner Richard Crandall said he was “very impressed” by Aurora’s proactivity and called the district one of the most proactive of those on the accountability clock.

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer, and his staff provided feedback during the last month to the district as the plan was being revised. Upon learning of the successful vote, he applauded the school’s efforts and said he is excited to review the plan teachers approved.

But he added, “The reality is, Aurora Central is facing a really high bar for quality because the school is entering the fifth year of the accountability clock. Identifying a school leader is also critical for implementation.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the education reform advocacy organization A+ Colorado, said he believes the school’s plan improved during multiple revisions but questions remain about how changes will be put in place.

“Our concerns regarding the plan have mostly to do with what they’re asking teachers to do,” he said.

The biggest change at Aurora Central will be a shift toward competency-based learning, a teaching method that allows students to prove their understanding of concepts at their own pace.

“It’s just really hard to do,” Schoales said. “And it’s especially hard to do when students are already at low levels of achievement.”

As part of that model, teachers will lead whole class discussions, provide instruction to small groups based on targeted one-on-one tutoring.

In addition, teachers will also be asked to conduct regular home visits and lead an advisory period.

Officials have said changes at Aurora Central will not happen overnight and will be rolled out over three years.

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.