State accountability

More Aurora schools slip onto the state’s academic watch list

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

Six Aurora schools are no longer on a path to facing state sanctions for low performance, according to new preliminary ratings state officials sent to districts.

Aurora officials shared the news of those six school improvements with the district’s Board of Education Tuesday night. But the update also included news that another seven schools that weren’t on the state’s watch list have slipped and are now on it. Several others, including Aurora Central High School, failed to make enough improvements to get off.

In total, 19 Aurora schools this year have been flagged by the state for low test scores. That’s more than double the number of schools that were on the state’s academic watch list when Superintendent Rico Munn was hired three years ago to boost student achievement.

Because of the poor performance of its schools, the district also remains on the state’s watch list, but has one more year to show significant improvement before the state is required to take action. The district serving more than 42,000 students is the largest on the state’s watch list.

Munn said Tuesday the district is not where it needs to be yet, but said that there are “positive signs,” and that it’s too early to change the district’s improvement strategies.

Aurora schools on the state’s watch list |
Fletcher Community School
Gateway High School
North Middle School
Sixth Avenue Elementary
South Middle School
Vaughn Elementary
Virginia Court Elementary
Sable Elementary
Wheeling Elementary
Paris Elementary
Aurora Central High School
Jewell Elementary
Dartmouth Elementary
Kenton Elementary
Laredo Elementary
Aurora Hills Middle School
East Middle School
Vista Peak Prep
AXL Academy (charter)

The district’s most ambitious reform effort is the creation of an “innovation zone.” Approved earlier this year by the State Board of Education, five of the district’s schools have received waivers from some union, district and state rules. That freedom allows the schools to extend their day, create their own curriculum and give principals flexibility to staff their schools.

Another school that remains on the state’s watch list, Fletcher Community School, is in the process of being converted into a charter school.

“We are not waiting for CDE to give us a certain mandate,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools. “We are being proactive to improve our schools now.”

The latest preliminary ratings for the schools don’t capture all of those changes, officials pointed out.

“It’s too early to evaluate the work of the innovation zone,” Munn said. “It’s too early to evaluate a conversion process. It’s too early to evaluate some of that stuff.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, district staff told the board about anecdotal evidence showing improvements in school culture, declines in suspensions and expulsions, and increased engagement from students and teachers.

The ratings the state released Tuesday are not final, Munn told his school board, and the district plans to appeal some of them. The state will finalize ratings later this winter.

In the case of schools or districts, Colorado law says the state board must take action after five years of low performance based on reviews by the state. State officials could direct the district to close schools, turn over management to third party operators or charters, or create innovation plans.

Aurora Central High School is the only district school that has been on the state’s lowest performance ratings for five years and again failed to make improvements, meaning it will face state sanctions later this year.

Munn said the district will ask the state board to accept the already approved innovation plan as the state’s corrective action for the school. If it is accepted, the school would have more time to show improvements with the same plan.

Munn says the district is also going to look at the six schools that moved off the list: Century Elementary, Lansing Elementary, Lyn Knoll Elementary, Mrachek Middle School, Boston K-8 and Vista PEAK Exploratory. All schools except for Boston K-8 were on the state watch list for only one year. Boston K-8 had been on the clock for four years. State data on student growth, released last month, showed Boston K-8’s middle school students showed significant growth.

“It’s a lot of individual stories,” Munn said. “That rolls up to a district story at a certain level as to what trends are we seeing. How do we build on things that are working and stabilize those things?”

Munn says they have early indications that help provided by consultants hired to work with the schools on various issues such as discipline and teaching, are proving successful and said he is pleased with the number of teachers and administrators receiving training.

“We did a lot of launching over the first year and a half and this year is going to be about monitoring and about making sure that we got the right capacity,” Munn said. “I think it’s more about digging into the work.”

pinpoint

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.