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.”


New online map puts Aurora school information in one place

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

Aurora Public Schools has launched a new online map that for the first time creates a central location for parents to find information about a school’s performance, demographics and more — part of an effort to make school choice easier.

“It was to let them know what programs are available at our schools and to allow schools to be able to tell their story better,” said Corey Christiansen, a spokesman for the district.

The map, based on a similar one the district introduced last year to share information about proposed bond projects, did not represent an additional cost to the district because it was created by the communications staff.

When clicking on each school’s icon, a window pops up with information about student demographics, teacher experience, programs offered at the school and a link to a video of the school’s principal talking about the school. Principal videos for four schools are up so far. (There are 64 schools in the district).

The tab that gives viewers information about school performance uses uniform-colored bar charts in soft purple to show the school’s quality rating as given by the state.

But unless parents are familiar with the state’s terminology for different school ratings, what those ratings mean won’t be clear to site visitors. For schools that earn the two lowest performing ratings, a link is provided to the school’s improvement plans.

Screen shot of Aurora’s new interactive map.

“We continue to receive feedback on the interactive map and will make improvements as we can,” Christiansen said. “Linking to (Colorado Department of Education) resources is something we will consider.”

A+ Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group, has criticized the district in the past for not making school performance data readily available to families. The organization had suggested the district develop its own school rating system to share more data with Aurora families.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Colorado. “Having gone from zero to this is helpful, but it doesn’t really provide information that most families would understand about, for instance, how many kids know how to read at grade level. They need to provide a lot more information.”

The state ratings will be updated when the new ones are finalized later this fall, but Christiansen said he isn’t sure how fast district staff will be able to update any of the information when new data sets are out.

Superintendent Rico Munn highlighted the webpage at a community meeting last week when asked about how the district shares information with parents, and said it represents “a real opportunity for families.”

searching for leaders

How an Aurora high school in an “innovation zone” took a new approach to hiring a principal

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Lamont Browne listens to immigrant parents share their stories about Aurora Public Schools at a forum in June hosted by Rise Colorado.

When Aurora West College Preparatory Academy student Daniela Varela was helping vet principal candidates over the summer, she was impressed with how Taisiya “Taya” Tselolikhina emphasized the importance of building relationships with students.

On Tuesday, she saw that translate to action, as Tselolikhina introduced herself to students in the cafeteria or helped newcomers figure out their lockers and student ID numbers.

“It’s only the second day of school,” said Varela, a 16-year-old junior. “But she’s really getting involved with all the kids.”

Varela was more than an interested onlooker. She was part of a group of more than two-dozen people who helped pick Tselolikhina in a process made possible by new flexibility Aurora West and four other Aurora schools have as part of the district’s “innovation zone.” The status gives each school more autonomy from district rules and processes, including for hiring.

Although it’s common for students, parents and community members to play a role in selecting a school leader, the extent of this group’s involvement — outlining what candidates must do and questions they must answer during the process — is unusual.

By involving more people, Aurora school district officials hope to instill more confidence in the choice. It’s one way officials can use the flexibility that comes with innovation status to attempt to lift student achievement.

Aurora West, a sixth through 12th grade school with about 1,200 students, adopted a plan for school improvement under innovation status that included plans to change curriculum to better align the middle and high school, improve the development of English language learning, and plans to add social and emotional supports, among other changes.

Although the innovation zone started more than a year ago, a process for replacing a principal hadn’t been created until now, with the model developed for Aurora West.

It was on the last day of the 2016-17 school year that school staff learned they would need a new principal, with the departure of Brian Duwe.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, met with school staff and asked how they wanted to be involved, and what characteristics they wanted in a leader.

Feedback from staff and students was used to design questions and vet applications. School staff asked Browne’s office to review all applications and then introduce them to just a few good candidates to put through a series of interviews.

Then almost two dozen volunteers — including students, parents, teachers from each content and every grade level, staff and administrators — spent several hours over the summer working through the process and interviews.

“It was an honor to be included,” said Kandi Cantley, the school bookkeeper who said she had never been a part of a hiring process before. “I loved how the kids were involved, and their parents, and that it wasn’t just a sit-down interview. There were very different aspects to it.”

The process first included separate group interviews with students and parents, administrators, and with teachers. Candidates also had to lead a teacher training session and look at school data — about attendance, behavior or academics — and talk to a group of the committee about how the data should be analyzed and used to plan changes for the school.

But after observing candidates in those various roles, committee members met to talk and decided they wanted to know more. So they talked to district officials about adding another step.

“We met as a committee and we talked about what more information did we want to learn about the candidate that we were interested in,” said Jessica Rodriguez, an assistant principal who was part of the committee. “Together we typed up some questions as well as provided data that we wanted to hear her analyze and talk about.”

In the added step the committee designed, Tselolikhina had to do a mock session coaching a teacher. Browne gave her feedback and the committee members watched how she used it to adjust her coaching. Browne said he always looks for leaders who can use feedback to improve, but was glad that the group developed this way of seeing it in action.

“That’s what I appreciated,” said Tushar Rae, dean of instruction. “You got to see a candidate in several different realms.”

In the end, the committee members didn’t hold a vote, but provided Browne feedback for each of the candidates.

“The beauty of the process is that there were different steps that different people got to see,” Browne said. “At the end of the day I got to hear all the perspectives and take all that into account. Certainly I had a perspective of my own. Fortunately it matched what everyone else suggested.”

Tselolikhina, who had never been a principal before, said she applied for the job to be closer to where policy changes are applied. She previously was the manager of the professional learning center for Denver Public Schools, which plans teacher and staff training.

“The chance to have direct influence over students who deserve better access to equity is such an opportunity,” Tselolikhina said. “Here our actions and the dedication that this team puts in directly influences the lives of students every day.”

Tselolikhina said she used to live in the neighborhood, just eight minutes away from the school. She has goals of improving teacher instruction through data and through better planning, and decreasing student suspensions and expulsions by improving student relationships.

“I believe in her,” said Rodriguez, the assistant principal on the committee.