aint over til its over

State board approves Aurora school redesigns, but Aurora Central isn’t off the hook

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education chairman Steve Durham, center, and vice chair Angelika Schroeder meet with Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn in May 2015.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved dramatic overhauls for five Aurora public schools, freeing them from a litany of local and state policies in an effort to boost student achievement that has languished behind the rest of the state.

The board’s approval was a major win for Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn’s school reform agenda, even as several board members raised concerns that the plans do not go far enough.

Wednesday’s meeting also set up a new debate about how to address dozens of failing Colorado schools that have reached the end of the state’s accountability timeline. State law allows the board to suggest failing schools be closed, redesigned or turned into charter schools.

Aurora Central High has been on the state list for chronic low performance for five years and faces sanctions next year. Two other Aurora schools — Boston K8 and Paris Elementary — are also on the timeline but are several years away from facing sanctions.

Munn’s redesign plans pertain to the schools on the timeline, plus Aurora West Collegiate Preparatory Academy and Crawford Elementary.

The plans are partly an effort by Aurora to stave off state sanctions.

However, the State Board of Education made clear it isn’t ready to say whether the plan for Aurora Central will be enough to prevent further action.

Instead, the board unanimously approved the plans under the state’s innovation law, which only requires the board to attest the changes won’t decrease student achievement and are fiscally viable.

Munn told the board he believes the changes, especially those at Aurora Central, will improve student achievement and meet any future requirements the board might set for schools on its watch list.

“We are very confident that these plans will meet that standard, although we know that standard doesn’t exist yet,” Munn said.

The State Board has only just begun to determine how it will hand out sanctions to schools on the state’s timeline. Part of that process is deciding how it will evaluate the quality of proposed innovation plans.

As for the plans approved Wednesday, major changes at all five Aurora schools will include a longer school day and year, more and different training for teachers, and more individualized and project-based learning for students. Parents will also be engaged in new ways, students will have more after-school opportunities and the schools will focus on building global leadership skills for their growing immigrant and refugee populations.

Board members Val Flores, D-Denver, and Deb Scheffel, R-Parker, voiced concern that the plans wouldn’t do enough for English language learners. Both said they found some parts of the plan confusing.

“I don’t see how you’re attacking reading,” Scheffel said.

Flores said she felt the district might be trying to make too many changes with too many outside partners. That could send mixed messages, she said.

“I can’t get it in my head what you’re going to do and how it’s going to cohere,” Flores said.

Munn responded that his schools are committed to literacy instruction and said the way the district teaches its English language learners is governed by the federal government and can’t be waived by the State Board. He added that his district has vetted all of its partners, such as the principal training programs Relay Schools and the International Studies Schools Network, to make sure their missions align to the district’s plans.

The board’s approval caps a 14-month process for Munn and the five schools.

Munn first pitched the idea for the overhauls in March 2015. His plan was met with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism. Last June, the State Board applauded Munn for being proactive in making changes.

At times this spring, it seemed as if everything would fall apart — especially at Aurora Central and Aurora West, where teachers raised concerns over their employment rights. But Munn’s team, including principals at the five schools, ushered the plans through the lengthy process to the State Board.

After the State Board granted its approval, those principals and some staff members gathered in the hall of the Colorado Department of Education

Paris Elementary Principal Tammy Stewart was smiling.

“I’m really excited for the kids,” she said.

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.