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.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.