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.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”