Too much too fast?

Key piece of Aurora Central High School’s reform plan not yet in place

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

Nearly half a year after district officials laid out a plan for changes at Aurora Central High School, at least one major focus of reform is not yet in place despite an aggressive timeline the district spelled out in the plan approved by the state.

The school is one of five low performing schools that Aurora Public Schools grouped into an innovation zone, granting each school autonomy from various rules and policies so they can try different improvement strategies. Aurora Central’s plans focused on adopting a so-called competency-based learning model, which does away with traditional grade levels based on age and instead groups and advances students through levels based on what they know.

Officials say the plan included so many pieces that some changes took priority over others.

“Any plan we implement is only going to be as strong as how we implement it,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of Aurora Public Schools’ innovation zone schools. “One of our core pillars for the innovation zone is investing in people, so that’s where we started in the summer before the school year began.”

The innovation plan for Aurora Central — the only traditional high school in the innovation zone — included a timeline to start trying a competency-based model starting with ninth graders and adding one grade level at a time. An entire section in the plan covered the need for, and the details of, the competency based plan that would “provide flexibility in the way that credit can be earned,” “provide students with personalized learning opportunities,” and increase engagement, “because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs.”

“We are confident we can assemble a core set of strong, committee, and driven staff that would be willing and motivated to pilot this approach with our 9th grade for the 2016-2017 school year,” district officials stated in the plan.

The work was to start over the summer with teachers and educators meeting to align the competencies and determine if the resources and tests available were enough. Those meetings started, Browne said, but weren’t completed. Many teachers were new and needed more training.

“We didn’t anticipate having that many new teachers,” Browne said.

District officials say they are still researching the model and whether it is the right fit for the school. In the meantime, other changes are being made including some that were part of the plan and some that weren’t.

“We are working very hard to implement the plan, but more importantly to improve the schools,” Browne said.

Aurora Central’s innovation plan could be under scrutiny soon as the state gets ready to decide on sanctions for schools, including Aurora Central, that have recorded five years of low state ratings. Among the options, state officials could recommend the school for closure, or turn over management to a third party.

The state could also approve an innovation plan in place of the more drastic sanctions, giving the school more time to show improvement while it makes the changes.

Exactly how those plans would be reviewed to determine if they should be given time to show improvement, and how they would be monitored as schools work on the changes, is still not clear.

Peter Sherman, executive director for school and district performance at the Colorado Department of Education, said that his staff created a rubric that they used to look at Aurora Central’s innovation plan before it was approved by the state.

“We knew we were going to have innovation plans that come forward as accountability pathways and we knew we would need to look at those innovation plans through a different lens, so we created a rubric that sort of looks at it as a dramatic turnaround plan,” Sherman said. “We were trying to be proactive. Everyone at CDE thought their plan was good. We all can get behind it.”

However, Sherman later clarified that the earlier approval of the plan was not a sign that it was without faults. Before the state board approval, education department officials provided feedback that was critical of the plan, including concerns about how the school’s leadership would help put the new learning model in place and about the timeline for the “large number of initiatives.”

Browne said district officials are still not sure if Aurora Central’s innovation plan will be presented to the state as an accountability plan to avoid other state sanctions.

In the meantime as officials try improving the schools, the innovation zone team has an advisory group that includes teachers and school leaders meeting biweekly to constantly re-assess the needs of the schools in the innovation zone and prioritize the changes they make.

Included in the work that is happening at Central, Browne highlighted adjustments to teacher training days, training for school leadership teams through the nonprofit Relay Graduate School of Education, and programs to help ninth graders transitioning to high school including a pilot where a middle school counselor from Boston K-8 school is traveling to Central once a week to keep track of students coming from that school.

“We feel very confident in the adjustments we have been making,” Browne said. “But we have a long time before we’re satisfied. The amount of growth that is necessary is not going to happen overnight.”

This story has been updated to add more context about Peter Sherman’s comments.

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.