Reexamining APS

New report bemoans state of education in Aurora, but superintendent begs to differ

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

More than a year after a coalition of nonprofit groups issued a report critical of Aurora Public Schools, a follow-up released Wednesday reveals not much has changed.

Only one of five Aurora middle school students can read and write at grade level, states the new report published by the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado.

Graduation rates have increased slightly but available data still show only one in four students who start ninth grade in the district go on to enroll in college. And of those who do, half of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.

“Change — drastic change — is imperative,” the report says.

Last year, the school district released its own counter-report to outline the district’s recent reforms. But this year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was sharply critical of A-Plus Colorado, which published the report alone this year. The first report in 2015 was published by a group of 17 nonprofits with ties to either public education or Aurora or both.

“Organizations such as A+ demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora students.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Colorado, said the claim was “bizarre.”

“It speaks volumes about the focus of the school district that they’re trying to deflect from their poor performance instead of taking responsibility,” Schoales said.

Hanni Raley, director of systems advocacy for ARC of Aurora, one of the organizations that was part of the coalition to issue the 2015 report, said that she still believes the district is making progress, but that reports like Wednesday’s help keep everyone accountable.

It’s all of our jobs to continue to make those improvements and to provide those recommendations,” Raley said. “I think it’s hard to be critiqued, but we know it’s important to keep the conversation going because it is about the kiddos.”

Munn’s statement went on to defend the school district’s work, saying “APS is aggressively implementing a reform strategy.” He also pointed to positive developments, including a rising high school graduation rate, decreasing dropout rates and a decrease in student discipline.

The graduation and dropout rates are included in the A-Plus report. But Schoales said the graduation rate is “hollow” if student achievement isn’t also improving.

Munn was hired in 2013 to help improve the district’s low scores on state performance ratings. According to a report the district published in 2015 to counter the first report, Aurora schools have been working on reforms since 2013 when district leaders created a new strategic plan. Some efforts like grouping a number of low performing schools into a zone that gave the principals increased autonomy was started more recently.

But Aurora Public Schools received lower scores on the state rating in 2016 than it did in 2013 or 2014. If the district doesn’t improve those state ratings after results from this school year, it would face state sanctions in 2018.

Wednesday’s report provides four recommendations for the district to improve. The recommendations mostly echo those from 2015. They include:

  • Increasing engagement from school officials and the community for turning around struggling schools
  • Developing a school rating system to make school performance data more accessible
  • Adding high-quality schools of all types including district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, with a clear process for approving and managing them. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and innovation schools are run by districts but with many of the freedoms of charters.
  • Re-writing the district’s strategic plan to link goals and values to measurable student achievement data

The report also highlighted some schools that, according to the organization’s analysis, are doing better than most schools in the district. Among the high schools named are Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school, William Smith High School, a small alternative high school program, and Rangeview High School, a traditional district-run school.

“It is clear that there are practices within APS that are driving better outcomes,” the report states. “This is another opportunity for the district to look for lessons and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the district.”

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.