State test growth results

Long-struggling Aurora middle school shows gains, offering hope for broader district plan

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

One Aurora school’s latest improvement strategy — built around fostering a positive culture and changing how kids are taught to write — could be paying off.

Boston K-8 on Tuesday received praise from district leaders as newly released state data showed student growth on English and math tests ranked among the highest in the district.

Middle schoolers at Boston had a median growth percentile of 80 in English. That means that on PARCC English tests, students showed improvements on average that were better than 80 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score. Boston middle schoolers’ median growth percentile was 70 in math.

“We’re very, very happy with our growth and we want to see much more,” Ruth Baldivia, principal of Boston K-8 told the school board Tuesday. “We’re not happy with where we’re at, but we are happy with where we’re going.”

Though Boston showed big growth gains, its students are still far below where they should be to meet state academic standards. Only 20.5 percent of Boston seventh graders met or exceeded expectations on English state tests last spring, according to previously released data. Of eighth graders, 51.2 percent did.

Boston K-8 is one of five schools that are a part of Aurora’s new innovation zone, the district’s latest attempt to get students up to grade level. By receiving innovation status, the schools can gain flexibility from some state, district and union rules.

Most Boston K-8 students end up at Aurora Central High School, which is also part of the innovation zone but fared poorly on the latest growth report. The high school ranked among the lowest in the district in English test score growth and is likely to face state sanctions this year after years of low performance.

Baldivia, who took over Boston K-8 last school year, said the continuing changes from the reform plan are only building off work that started last year.

“We had already known and we had already felt a difference,” Baldivia said. “This thing that teachers helped create, we’re going to continue to do because it’s good. We’ve got the proof now.”

Last school year, the school adopted a new writing curriculum and took advantage of its innovation status to carve out new joint planning time for teachers.

For the first time, the school’s four seventh and eighth grade teachers worked together to design writing lessons for not just English class but for science, social studies and math, too.

Students also took a lead, Baldivia said, in new morning meetings. To create a more unified and open culture, students lead the discussions and start each day by giving shoutouts to their peers for things such as helping them with homework.

The school’s elementary school didn’t do as well in the latest state test report. In English, the growth was 38. At a board meeting Tuesday, district staff presented the school’s elementary and middle school data combined, which put Boston K-8 in third place out of the district’s top 10 schools in growth.

School board member Dan Jorgensen explained to other board members the meaning of growth data, and said district numbers showed Aurora schools falling behind other districts. Overall, Aurora Public Schools got a 47 in English and 46 in math.

But he called Boston’s numbers “impressive.”

“For our kids to get where we want them, we need growth percentiles of 60, 70, probably 70 plus,” Jorgensen said. “If you’re around that median and definitely below it, you’re not really on track.”

John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer, said in a statement, that growth is a good measure of progress toward improved achievement.

“Both growth and achievement are of value,” Youngquist said. “Growth is an indication that current efforts are gaining traction and that students are engaging in learning at higher levels. The ultimate goal is to improve achievement overall.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting other school principals that made the district’s top ten schools shared what they believed helped them reach those high numbers. Among the reasons they cited: a data room where teachers talk about each student who needs extra help, training teachers how to teach kids to read and embedding core curriculum in projects across all classes.

Several also said it was simply about believing every kid could improve.

“I don’t want Boston to be the bad school. These are not bad kids,” Baldivia said. “They have not gotten the instruction and the support that they need and that’s what we want to figure out now and that’s why we’re here.”

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.