A new responsibility

In first for Aurora, charter school to run center for special education students

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

When Rocky Mountain Prep replaces Fletcher Community School in Aurora, the charter school will become the first in the district to operate a center for students with special needs.

As a district-run school, Fletcher for years has operated a regional program for students with autism. After the district decided last year to phase out the low-performing school and replace it with a charter school, conversations began about the fate of the program.

“From the beginning we’ve been really open and consistently stated that we would be excited to take it on if that’s what the district felt was best,” said James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. He said serving all students including those with special needs fits into the charter’s mission.

Now, district and charter officials have worked out a transition plan that will give the charter school a year to prepare — including hiring a new director to oversee the special needs programs and research best practices — to take over the center by fall of 2019.

“We recognize the good work that’s been happening at that center program,” Cryan said. “It’s a program that’s serving students really well.”

The program at Fletcher this year served 21 students with autism that come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Aurora Public Schools has 17 autism center classrooms spread across the district at district-operated schools.

Aurora officials last year started exploring how charters can share the responsibility of serving students with special needs, but there was no strategy or process behind the work, said Jennifer Gutierrez, director of student services.

“This is our opportunity to do this,” Gutierrez said. “I anticipate that down the road if we have more charters to come aboard that this might be something we would explore.”

She said having the option of putting a program in a charter school could be especially useful in neighborhoods with crowded schools.

“We continue to have space issues,” Gutierrez said. “If we need a targeted clustered program in a certain neighborhood, it can be really hard to find classroom space.”

Rocky Mountain Prep began phasing in its program at Fletcher in the 2016-17 school year by operating the school’s preschool. In the fall, the charter will take over the kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and by the fall of 2019, the charter will run the entire school.

As Rocky Mountain Prep takes over more grades, the school will need to train teachers so they can help integrate students from the autism center when their individual plan calls for them to be in a general population classrooms some or most of the time.

Officials have yet to decide how much the charter school will lean on district services provided to district-run schools operating special needs programs, including teacher training, coaching and consultants.

The charter is also still looking for funding to hire the director that would oversee special services and research best practices for running the program.

That work will also include figuring out if the model of the center program will change or stay the same. Right now, center programs include classes labeled with a level one through three. In level three classrooms students spend a lot of time in general education classrooms while level one classrooms serve the students that need the most individual attention.

Teachers work together across the levels to help move students, if possible, from one level to the next — or, potentially, back to a general education classroom in their neighborhood school.

What will look different at the center program is that it will have the Rocky Mountain Prep model. That includes the uniforms, having students respond to their classmates with hand signals during group instruction and school-wide cheers or meetings instilling the core values that make up the charter’s model.

“We consider all of our students to be our scholars,” Cryan said. “We integrate all students into our model.”

It won’t be the first time the Denver-based elementary charter school network will be running a program for students with special needs.

In one of its Denver schools, Rocky Mountain Prep began operating a center program for students with multi-intensive severe special needs this year after the district asked them to.

In recent years, Denver Public Schools has asked its charter schools to operate special education centers in return for access to district real estate, part of a “collaboration compact.”

Across the country, research has shown charter schools do not educate a proportionate share of special education students. DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep has learned general lessons from running the program in Denver that will help plan ahead for operating the program in Aurora, most importantly he said it’s why he asked for a planning year.

“We’ve also learned that having strong and consistent leadership really has an impact,” Cryan said. “And we really want to take time to learn best practices.”

District staff on Tuesday updated the Aurora school board on the overall transition of the school, including pointing to staff surveys that show school teachers and employees were happy with the changes.

District staff said the district plans to use the experience at Fletcher to create a process for any future school turnarounds involving changing a school’s management.

an intervention

Struggling Aurora elementary school gets creative to improve — but bigger changes may be coming

First graders at Paris Elementary in Aurora use toys and light pointers to help focus while reading individually. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When a fifth-grade boy was having trouble waking up in the morning and getting to school on time, officials at his Aurora school, just a block away, came up with an idea.

They gave the student a buddy — another fifth grader who lives two doors down. The boy agreed to knock on his classmate’s door every morning so the two could walk to school together.

“We had to get creative,” said Shannon Blackard, the interim principal of Paris Elementary. “He became more motivated to get to school on time.”

That buddy system is part of a broader push that has led to better attendance at the school — one emphasis to boost student achievement under a district improvement plan already in place. But bigger changes may soon be coming to Paris Elementary.

The 363-student school has logged five straight years of low performance, triggering the next step in Aurora Public Schools’ system for intervening in low-performing schools. District officials this fall put out a “request for information” from interested parties — which could include charter schools and consultants — seeking ideas for more aggressive steps for improvement.

After this week’s deadline to respond passes, the district will review the responses and ask the school board to vote on recommendations as soon as next month. It will be one of the first significant decisions for the seven-member board since four teachers-union backed candidates won election last month. Those new members have questioned some of the district’s reform efforts.

Superintendent Rico Munn created the district’s framework for intervening in low-performing schools after taking over the role in 2013.

Paris Elementary is not the first school to reach five years of low performance, but it stands apart because it is already under a district-approved innovation plan. That plan gave the school more flexibility in budgeting and setting the school calendar, and in making hiring decisions.

Speaking at a September school board meeting about schools facing turnaround, Munn characterized the recommendation for Paris Elementary as “the most high-profile.”

The district essentially is trying to step in before the state forces its hand.

On its fifth year of priority improvement, one of the lowest ratings the state gives, Paris is one year away from being on the list of schools requiring state action if it doesn’t improve. This year, the state did assign more points to the school in the ratings compared to last year, but not enough for the school to jump up into a higher category of ratings.

The school is a block away from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and is surrounded by apartments and multi-family housing. Every one of the students who attends the school qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Eight of every 10 are learning English as a second language. The students come from 16 different countries.

The school’s principal left the role at the beginning of the school year, leaving a district official to step in for a while before an assistant principal was named interim principal for the year.

School officials at Paris, including Blackard, the interim principal, are optimistic that current work at the school is already helping.

For instance, school-level data shows that the number of students reading at grade level this December has more than doubled school-wide compared to the same time last year. The improvements are at every grade level except kindergarten. And for the students that aren’t on grade level, school teams are now meeting regularly to come up with plans for how to help each one catch up.

Improvements are showing in math classrooms, too. Using a new math curriculum, third grade students in one classroom were excitedly engaged last week in an activity to see if they could guess how much a bag of crackers weighed and if they could use the scale to test it.

Early indications for attendance are also positive. The number of students who are chronically absent has dropped by 50 percent. This year so far, 11 percent of students are labeled chronically absent, down from 22.1 percent last year.

Blackard said she isn’t aware of the district’s plans to recommend possible changes to Paris, but said that she expects the school is on track to make improvements anyway.

“I’m very confident,” Blackard said. “We are very focused.”

When Munn discussed the timeline for district recommendations with the school board in September, he described a balancing act between giving schools time to make improvements while stepping in early enough to roll out changes in time when necessary.

“The question is how do we respond, so that we both don’t over-act but don’t react too late,” Munn said.

The district’s framework for dealing with low-performing schools prompts the district to intervene in schools that earn the lowest quality ratings by the state, increasing the level of intervention by the number of years on the clock. Here’s how it works:

When Paris had reached three years of low performance, part of the district’s plan called for the school to adopt the innovation plan and join a so-called innovation zone in northwest Aurora. Along with providing the flexibility of innovation status, the zone is meant to give its five schools the chance to work together and learn from each other.

If the school doesn’t improve enough by next year, the state’s options could include suggesting school closure or asking a charter school or outside group to take over.

Aurora officials have said they want to be proactive about improving schools before they are directed to make changes by the state.

Last year only Aurora Central High School was on the state’s watchlist facing state sanctions. In that case, using the same framework for responding to low-performing schools, district officials were already rolling out an innovation plan giving the school flexibility for changes before the state stepped in.

State officials and state board members recognized the district’s initiative and gave the district a chance to continue rolling out the plan to see if it would result in improvements.

In another case when the district was following the same playbook, the district in 2015 recommended converting low-performing Fletcher Community School into a charter school. The district tapped the Denver network Rocky Mountain Prep, which had responded to a request for information.

After the decision, Fletcher showed some improvements in test scores. This year, Fletcher’s quality ratings showed enough improvement to get off the state’s radar, even before the charter has fully taken over the school. Some teachers and union officials point to that as evidence that the district might have acted too soon instead of considering other options and allowing those efforts to show improvement.

“It’s not that you can’t ultimately get to that conclusion, the question is how do you examine it publicly,” said Bruce Wilcox, union president. “We’re not part of the conversation right now.”

making it official

New Aurora school board members sworn in, take over leadership positions

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

Four new members of the Aurora school board took their seats Tuesday, beginning a new and uncertain period for a school district in the midst of myriad efforts to boost student achievement.

In its first action, the new board unanimously and with no discussion elevated the newcomers to leadership positions: Marques Ivey will serve as board president, Kyla Armstrong-Romero as vice president, Debbie Gerkin as secretary and Kevin Cox as treasurer.

The four new members, who comprise a majority of the seven-member board, campaigned as a slate endorsed by the Aurora teachers union.

Cox, a truck driver, and Gerkin, a retired Aurora principal, received the most votes, followed by Armstrong-Romero and Ivey. They beat two candidates supported by education reform advocates, an incumbent and two other candidates, including a woman who had previously served on the board.

While the new board members have said they disagree with some of the district’s reforms — which include recruiting high-performing charter schools to the district — they also said they are not in a rush to make immediate changes.

Their first board meeting will be Dec. 5.

In January, the new school board may be asked to vote on changes to Paris Elementary, a school in the district’s innovation zone. Schools in the zone get autonomy from some district, union and state rules. The school is struggling to show academic improvement. If it doesn’t improve next year, it could land on the state’s list of schools facing state sanctions. Aurora officials are trying to make changes to the school before that happens.

The new school board will also oversee the start of a process to draft a new strategic plan for the district and its facilities as enrollment changes create both underutilized buildings and leave some still overcrowded.