action plan

Less is more: Aurora principals simplify their school improvement efforts

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Five Aurora Public Schools that have the freedom to try new ways to improve student performance are turning to a basic principle: keeping the focus narrow.

Last year, the schools started rolling out the work laid out in their state-approved innovation plans. There were bold, ambitious ideas for change.

As it turns out, principals felt they were doing a little bit of everything.

“They were all well-intended,” said Lamont Browne, Aurora’s director of autonomous schools. “But if you have too many goals, you have no goals.”

In May, district officials and consultants from Mass Insight who are helping execute the plans started working on a different approach with the five northwest Aurora schools. This year, each of the schools has a detailed plan focused on just three specific goals.

Principals, along with leadership teams at each school, worked through the summer and the first few months of the school year to identify three goals that would make the biggest differences at their schools and have been tweaking their plans to accomplish them.

Among the schools’ goals: improving attendance and decreasing lost time from behavior issues.

“This specifically is not just about innovation but about school turnaround and school improvement,” Browne said. “There are some things that are just, ‘This is what good schools are doing.’”

Principals say it’s working.

Gerardo De La Garza, principal of Aurora Central High School, which is the lowest performing school in the zone and has innovation status as part of its state-ordered improvement plan, said he’s already seeing big attendance boosts.

In the first quarter of the school year, average daily attendance at Central was “hovering around 86 percent,” De La Garza said. That’s up from average daily attendance of about 73 percent last year. The number of students identified as having severe and chronic absences also has improved by about 45 percent, he said.

Part of the work to improve attendance has included hiring a student engagement advocate, tracking student attendance bi-weekly and creating intervention plans for students who are chronically absent.

“Having a goal around that attendance has helped,” De La Garza said. “But we continue to look at our data and continue to look at our action steps, and we’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year.”

Another goal at Central, and one that relates to attendance, is about changing the way students are disciplined at the school to stop many from missing classes during suspensions or expulsions.

As part of that work, De La Garza changed the administration’s structure so that each grade level has a dean specifically working with that group of students and teachers on behavior issues. That dean also meets with teachers and other staff to talk about comprehensive plans for students who need help. And the school’s teachers and administrators are now all getting training in restorative practices — work that emphasizes guiding students to think about their actions and the effect they had on others so they can come up with corrections to their own behavior.

Aurora West, a middle and high school that’s also part of the innovation zone, is focusing on restorative practices this year as part of its plan.

“It’s both supporting teachers on how to build positive relationships in the classroom as well as on implementing restorative practices circles,” said Taisiya ‘Taya’ Tselolikhina, principal of Aurora West. “It’s also supporting our campus monitors and putting systems into place so that each campus monitor forms strong relationships with students too.”

Tselolikhina said she’s also seeing early improvement is in teacher effectiveness.

“We’re collecting data on every teacher’s data plan and we are observing to see, how does the planning match implementation,” Tselolikhina said.

Twenty-seven percent of teachers were proficient at the start of the year, and now 78 percent are, she said.

Tselolikhina said that she had originally written the goal shooting to have 80 percent of teachers proficient in demonstrating “excellence in planning and delivering rigorous, standards aligned lessons.”

“When I presented to staff, they asked, ‘Why 80 percent? What really drove that number?’” Tselolikhina said. “We asked staff, ‘What do you think it should be?’ They said we should be able to get to 100 percent. So we changed it.”

Teachers also jumped in to identify the parts of teaching they could help each other with, and areas of teaching where they could benefit from training.

“Last year’s goals, I wouldn’t say they were bad goals and we’re still trying to improve achievement at the end of the day, but it’s about, how are we going to do it?” Tselolikhina said. “You can’t just hope you’re going to improve.”

District officials are meeting with principals regularly and are re-evaluating the goals quarterly to track progress. They’re designed to be year-long goals, but if schools need to change their goals or move on to address other issues, district officials will help them do that.

“Achieving the high quality we’re looking for is going to take certain time for some folks and longer for others,” Browne said. “It is a combination of how do we implement innovation plans, but also how do we maximize performance.”


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.

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.