Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

blueprint

Shrinking here, expanding there, Aurora district wants to hear your thoughts on how to handle growing pains

A student at Vista Peak in Aurora works on an assignment. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The Aurora school district faces sharply dropping enrollment in its northwest corner, but anticipates tracts of new homes filled with students to the east in coming years. To help figure out how it should manage its campuses, the district is turning to the public.

The district held its first of four public meetings Wednesday, and has launched an online survey to gather more input. About 20 attendees Wednesday afternoon answered questions about their thoughts on Aurora — an overwhelming majority said it’s diversity that makes the district unique — on the most important thing schools should have — most said good academic programs — and expressed a desire for more science-technology-engineering-and-math programs, as well as dual-language programs.

Then participants talked with moderators from an outside consultant group hired by the district, while district staff and board members floated around listening to conversations.

The district seeks to address challenges explained to the school board last year, posed by declining, and uneven, enrollment.

In the east of the district, development is planned on empty land near E-470 and out to Bennett, and schools may be needed.

In historic, central Aurora, bordering Denver, gentrification is causing one of the district’s fastest drops in enrollment. But because many of those schools were so crowded, and are typically older buildings, the schools may still need building renovations, which would require an investment.

Aurora district officials told the school board they needed a long-term plan that can support the vision of the district when making facilities decisions.

The decisions may also affect how the district works with charter schools. Enrollment numbers show more families are sending their children to charter schools, and the district is asking questions to find out why.

The online survey, translated into the district’s most common 10 languages other than English, includes questions about why parents choose Aurora schools, what kinds of programs the district should expand, and about whether school size should be small or large.

The survey will be online until Sept. 24.

In the next phase of planning, a task force will draw from community input to draft possible “scenarios.” That task force includes one teacher and several officials from the district and other organizations such as the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, the Aurora branch of the NAACP and the Rotary Club of Aurora. The members include high-profile names such as Skip Noe, the former Aurora city manager who is now chief financial officer of Community College of Aurora, and William Stuart, one of the district’s former deputy superintendents.

A second task force of Aurora district officials will create action plans for the different scenarios.

Both groups will meet through December.

The next public meetings where you can provide your input are:

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, 6 p.m.
    Vista PEAK Preparatory, 24500 E. 6th Ave.
  • Saturday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.
    Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, 10100 E. 13th Ave.
  • Monday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m.
    Mrachek Middle School, 1955 S. Telluride St.