Looking for a leader that wasn’t far removed from leading a school himself, Aurora officials turned to Lamont Browne to take over their latest attempt at reforms.
Browne was hired this summer as executive director of autonomous schools for Aurora Public Schools. That means he is tasked with improving the district’s relationships with charter schools and ensuring five struggling schools — including Aurora Central High School — are improving under a new plan that gives school leaders more autonomy through a state approved innovation zone. They’re the 42,000-student district’s most ambitious school improvement efforts to date.
Previously, Browne worked as a principal and as a charter school leader in Philadelphia and Delaware. In 2011, he became executive director of a struggling charter school in Delaware, EastSide Charter School, and later also took leadership of Family Foundations Academy.
Principals of the five schools that established the innovation zone earlier this year interviewed candidates and helped the district pick a finalist.
Now, they meet with Browne or his director on a regular basis to get advice on how to make their school plans work.
“It’s not, ‘You’re trained and then I’m done,’” said Ruth Baldivia, the principal of Boston K-8, one of the five schools in the innovation zone.
Chalkbeat met with Browne to talk about his plans and ideas for his role with the schools. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about what made you want to take this job in Aurora?
I was really excited to work with this kind of initiative. There are a lot of districts doing the same things they’ve been doing for many, many years. Some districts are adopting strategies and not having a lot of success.
I was inspired to work for APS because it’s a new initiative that’s never been done in the district. It showed an outside-the-box thinking and approach and there’s a lot of opportunity for us to be creative and create it, as opposed to going into a district that already has an innovation zone or something of that magnitude. We have the ability to really work with the principals and create something. As a former principal, I know firsthand the benefit of being trusted and having the autonomy to do something a little bit different. I know firsthand how frustrating it is when you’re kind of forced to fit into a box that your kids or your staff or your community may not necessarily benefit from.
That’s what really, really motivated me to come here. My job essentially is to support the schools and lead my team through its strategic decision-making, providing opportunities for outside-the-box thinking whether it’s a new program, a new initiative or how do we spend the money in a different way to make sure that we are really acquiescent to the needs of our kids and our staff. I think it’s exciting for me to come in now versus a year from now because although there’s some structures in place, we’re still building it. I get to work with principals to really engage them. That word has a funny connotation sometimes. Sometimes people think engaging is letting you know what we’re doing or ‘here’s what we thought of’ and then ‘what do you think,’ versus really being on the ground floor and designing it together. In some ways I’m here at the right time and in some ways I’m a year behind, but that’s what really motivates me.
This is a very bureaucratic district. The idea behind innovation schools is to throw out that red tape. What are the most important areas where principals need flexibility from the district?
Ideally, in everything. The job of principal is impossible as it is. You are dealing with so many roles, but I think what benefits us, and I’ve felt it myself, is there is a ‘I trust you. Go-ahead-and-do-it-approach.’ Obviously the plan was already approved by the state and the schools have already been working on it before I was hired, but I feel a lot of space to do what it takes.
Although the communities are similar, the kids are different. Every grade has a different challenge. Every teacher has a different challenge and the principals need to have the autonomy to use the funds they have in a creative way that matches the need. We need to make sure they have that but also push other members of the district or other divisions who maybe used to do something else or are currently operating under a different structure and pushing and saying, ‘Here’s what our schools need.’ That also allows me to remove that burden from principals. It’s hard enough running a school but then having to push against other players in the district, sometimes it’s necessary but it’s hard to do both.
The innovation plans for these five schools are general in a lot of the ideas. As you start work to adopt them, what do you see as their strengths, and what are their weaknesses?
(One challenge) is just having the time on the front end to really have a strong operational plan. You can argue it takes two years to create a plan. Our kids don’t have two years for us to get it together so it’s really a manifestation of the urgency and the timeline that we had. Myself and Judy (Dauman), who’s our director of innovation and strategy, will be working this year to better operationalize the plans. For example, the Relay Graduate School of Education and the principal’s program is something that’s in the plans, but it doesn’t specify exactly what elements of the training will be used and exactly how it’s going to be done. That is the critical analysis that we’ll do to support our principals to create a more finite plan with more specifics, but also supporting them in analyzing what is working and what the schools need.
To me it’s less a matter of, ‘Is the plan strong or not?’, It’s, ‘Are we doing the right thing everyday in the best interest of kids and are we demonstrating the right level of patience and urgency when it comes to making changes that are necessary to benefit our kids and our staff?’
I read about some of the turnaround efforts at your last job including getting rid of textbooks so teachers would have to design plans based on their own students, and brief teacher observations by coaches every couple of weeks. How much of what you did to turn around schools in Delaware might be something you would try in Aurora?
I’m trying to be very strategic in knowing that I have certain experiences that have worked to turnaround failing schools, but also be open-minded to these schools, our five schools, that may be similar but in some ways are different to schools I’ve run in the past. They certainly have different staff and certainly have different leaders. As much as I have experience and ideas and structures that I appreciate, I realize there are other things also and it’s my job not to bring in a plan, but to work with our principals to implement the best plan. Some of that is me suggesting something that they buy into and we do. A lot of that is me listening to them and hearing their perspective. A lot of that is just us having an open discussion about, ‘Hey, here’s our issue and what’s the best way to attack it.’
The more frequent, less formal, but very intentional approach to observing teachers and giving feedback and observing leaders and giving feedback is something that has been very beneficial to me in the past and it’s a good sign that the district also saw that same training and implemented it. Some of our principals went to the same training and actually had plans to implement that same process at the schools, so there was some alignment there. The benefit that I bring there is that I was trained not just to lead it but to actually train others in leading it. The principals came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’d love for you to train everybody so instead of the district having three people trained, which was the case 12 months ago, now there are 42 leaders and teacher leaders among the five schools.’ This year is the first year all five schools are using the same observation and feedback protocol.
How do you see your role with these schools now, and do you imagine that role evolving as the schools get a better foothold on adopting innovation plans?
We’re still in somewhat of a design phase, still assessing the need and still assessing the opportunities that exist and initiating a lot of plans and structures. A year from now, we’ll be able to celebrate successes from those structures and build upon them or identify where we struggled in other areas. In addition we have a commitment not just to the five zone schools but to the district so it could be that in the years to follow there could be best practices that we’ve implemented that have had a tangible impact in our schools that may be spread to other schools in the district.
I like to think that great leadership is always adjusted to the need. If it’s best that we’re meeting with principals every day, we’ll do that. If it’s best that we meet once a month, we’ll do that.
The schools you ran in Delaware were very segregated. Almost entirely black. The schools you’re managing in Aurora are in a sense, more diverse because you have black, Latino and immigrant students. What do you need to learn about how to educate those different types of students to do your job effectively?
I always assume every school is different. You may have the exact same demographic and ratio but I always remember it is a different building on a different block, with a different staff. It is my job to understand the differences and create a plan that’s going to support that. Regardless of what the percentages were, to me they’re still different and I don’t characterize schools based on a demographic. I categorize them based on the academic, social and mental health needs that a school has.
The only difference that stands out is that there are more languages. At the end of the day they’re all kids, they all deserve a great education. Every school has it’s challenges, so in that sense I don’t think it’s very different. The translation and adjusting to the various cultures is something we have to adjust to but also is a tremendous gift. I’ve always said that the best school environment is one in a very diverse community.
Similarly, your schools in Delaware had few English language learners. This district doesn’t have a great record of teaching English language learners and yet this wasn’t a big topic in the innovation plans. So are you doing anything to improve how kids learn English in Aurora?
Again, my job is to support the schools in implementing a strong plan. There’s a very tight timeline under which the plans were created so it’s not going to be as comprehensive but that is something we’re working on. We’re continuing to identify the areas that can be improved upon and how we prioritize them.
You may hear some similar things that all five schools will acknowledge and some differences between them. I would defer to the principals for that because the whole purpose of this innovation zone is that the schools have the autonomy to create a plan that’s best suited for their schools.
One area that has been discussed a lot in these changes is community engagement. But Aurora’s communities are changing right now with families getting priced out and lots of new homeowners coming in. Does that add an extra challenge to educators trying to increase engagement and neighborhood support?
Again, that’s a school-felt challenge. Each school has a different community. Some schools have more families moving out than others. The biggest challenge is that it decreases the amount of time each student is in a building. Our students who have been with us three years are going to have more understanding and adjustment to each school’s culture versus a kid who’s only been there for a year.
Each school is trying to do the best that it can to engage families in the community. The biggest challenge is there are so many priorities. I think folks have to be careful when they say things like ‘Hey, I don’t think this was addressed very strongly,’ or ‘this needs to be addressed more so in the plan,’ because the reality is when you are leading a school with this population there are significant challenges and there are many priorities and they’re all important. What the outside may see is this wasn’t prioritized very strongly, but on the inside there may be a specific reason why we’re focusing on it in the second half of the year versus the first half, or on year two versus year one.
How often are you in the schools and when you are, what are you looking for as you walk the halls?
I’m kind of tag-teaming with my director Judy. Our plan is to have a one-on-one meeting with the principals biweekly and then do random check-ins that are unannounced, so roughly between four and five times a month we like to be in the schools.
The first thing is how can I support the leader. Sometimes just the question, ‘What are you looking for?’ has a negative connotation. I don’t want any principal to feel like there’s a gotcha or I’m looking to find something. It is, how can I support? What are you doing well that I can learn from and spread? It is how can I make sure that every minute that I have is helping you do your job better.