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.”



open discussion

In renewing superintendent’s contract, Aurora board president says he didn’t run to ‘fire Rico’

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

Aurora’s school board had a last-minute discussion Tuesday about the superintendent’s contract before a 6-1 vote to approve a two-year contract extension.

It was the first time every board member spoke publicly about the process, the district’s future, and their confidence in Superintendent Rico Munn. Many praised the superintendent’s skills, but then talked about concerns that the district’s culture needs to change.

“Open communication and trust are sorely lacking,” said board member Debbie Gerkin. “We need a superintendent who will dramatically change the climate. Is that Rico Munn? It might be. I want it to be, but so far, I have to be honest, I haven’t seen that particular skill set demonstrated and that concerns me.”

The board had announced more than a month ago that it was renewing the contract. Two weeks ago, the board gave a nod, without public discussion, to the draft contract extension, with the final vote set for Tuesday.

When it came time to vote, board members, the majority of whom were elected on a union-backed slate in November, said they wanted to go on the record with their thinking. Board president Marques Ivey said he had received calls from voters who said they thought he had run for the school board in order “to fire Rico.”

Ivey disputed that idea and asked voters to give the new board a chance to do their job, assuring the public the board would not be a rubber stamp for Munn’s ideas.

“The concerns you’ve expressed to us and your anger, it’s felt by this board,” Ivey said. “We know about it. Believe me, we have discussed it.”

Board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the sole vote against extending Munn’s contract, said she has been “extremely frustrated” recently.

“I ran on transparency, and it’s obvious that’s lacking,” Armstrong-Romero said. “I am concerned about that.”

Munn was first hired in 2013, and his contract is set to expire this summer.

The four union-allied board members ran in part on their opposition to the expansion of charter schools, as well as on greater equity and transparency.

Union leaders and many teachers had been vocal in their disapproval of Munn’s reform plans, especially two involving charter schools. In 2016, the district closed a low-performing elementary, and brought in a Denver charter school to take over the school.

Then later that year, Munn invited high-performing DSST to open a charter school in Aurora, offering to pay for at least half the costs of a new building to house them with bond money voters later approved.

At the last board meeting, two weeks ago, one teacher who spoke during public comment told the board that he was disappointed members were planning to renew Munn’s contract.

“Frankly we voted you guys in, or four of you, in the hopes that this would change,” the teacher told the board. “To hear that you’re keeping the leadership in place is very disappointing.”

The new board, in its short time in office, has had disagreements with Munn. Earlier this year, the board rejected Munn’s proposed turnaround plan for an elementary school that earned the lowest quality rating this year. The board also criticized Munn recently for the process around budget cuts at the district level.

Veteran board members said they felt confident Munn could improve on the changes the board requested.

shot callers

Rico Munn’s inner circle: Meet the team leading Aurora’s district improvements

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

In five years as Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn has brought lots of change to a district that is one of the most diverse in the state and now gentrifying.

The district has become a place that is more open to charter schools, that has more flexibility for schools, and that has recently shown enough improvement to get off of the state’s watchlist for low-performance.

Recently, more change came with the election of four new union-backed union-backed board members after a campaign that saw more outside money than in any recent years.

The district still faces significant challenges, like declining enrollment and the task of improving academic achievement at several schools that are low-performing, including Aurora Central High School, which is now on a state-ordered plan for improvement.

The school board has offered Munn a two-year contract extension. A vote on that contract is set for Tuesday. Munn recently filled one of his cabinet positions after having an interim in the position since September when former chief academic officer, John Youngquist, left to return to Denver Public Schools.

With new members on Munn’s leadership team, officials are embarking on several significant projects, including writing a budget for next school year and working on a process to create a new strategic plan to guide the district through enrollment changes. Some schools have declining enrollment while the city rapidly expands on its eastern boundaries.

Here is a look at the seven people who report directly to Munn who are working on those projects, based on information provided by the district.

Marcelina Rivera

Marcelina Rivera, chief of strategic management
Salary: $160,121
Job description: To provide leadership, direction, and guidance for the chiefs of finance, human resources, support services, and the director of accountability and research. Leads the work related to how human and material resources are used to support the teaching and learning initiatives in the district. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive resource support for the academic improvement of all students. Aligns work with the chief academic officer. Drives the work in the school district’s strategic plan.

Bio: Rivera took the Aurora position in 2015. She has a law degree and previously worked at Yale Law School. Most recently, Rivera owned her own consulting firm, was an adjunct lecturer in English as a Second Language at the University of Denver, served as executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, and was assistant superintendent and general counsel to The New America Schools.

Andre Wright, chief academic officer

Andre Wright. (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools).

Salary: $171,000
Job description: Responsible for providing leadership, direction, and guidance for the strategic initiatives and day-to-day operations of the Division of Equity in Learning. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive academic improvement for all students. Leads the work to provide school-specific support to roll out district initiatives. Aligns work with the chief of strategic management on use of human and material resources.

Bio: Wright was appointed interim chief academic officer in September. Prior to the appointment, Wright served as a director of learning, overseeing a group of 10 schools since July 2014. Before coming to Aurora, Wright was area executive director for the Northeast Learning Community in the Atlanta-area Fulton County School System. He also served as a principal, instructional leader and assistant principal and first began his education career teaching middle school language arts.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith, chief personnel officer
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for coordinating all employment issues for the district, including overseeing all personnel budgets, troubleshooting issues, negotiating contracts with the local bargaining unit, recruiting, training, allocating, evaluating, and terminating staff. Also responsible for writing, revising, and rolling out policy and procedures, and representing the Human Resources Department on committees, boards, and councils.

Bio: Smith took over his current position in 2011, but has worked in public education for 26 years, serving as a school social worker, dean of students, assistant principal, principal, and central office administrator in the Denver and Aurora school districts. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and master’s degree from the University of Denver. Smith is also a graduate of Aurora Public Schools and has been a member of the Aurora community since 1975.

Patti Moon

Patti Moon, chief communications officer
Salary: $136,171
Job description: Provide leadership in developing, achieving, and maintaining proactive planning and communication outputs for district initiatives. Continually coordinate, analyze, and evaluate complex ideas and situations and communicate these items in easy-to-understand language. Also required to effectively communicate, negotiate, and advise. Also provides communications or public relations training, counsel, and advice to schools and departments.

Bio: Moon joined Aurora as the public information officer in March 2014. She was named the chief communications officer in February 2017. Prior to working for the district, Moon was a television journalist who worked in Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. She was a TV reporter and anchor working on stories on a wide range of topics including education, health, and crime. Moon earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. She is fluent in Korean and speaks French conversationally. Moon is a Colorado native who graduated from Lakewood High School.

Brandon Eyre

Brandon Eyre, legal counsel
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for providing legal services to the Board of Education and district administration. Supervises outside counsel doing the same. Communicate to appropriate staff any changes, updates, and recent interpretations of school and employment law. Conduct legal research and draft legal documents including contracts, policies, and correspondence. Supervises the district’s internal auditor.

Bio: Eyre came to Aurora in 2012 from Oregon where he was a partner at Baum, Smith and Eyre, LLC. Eyre’s practice focused primarily on municipal law and served clients throughout eastern Oregon. He represented public sector clients such as the La Grande School District, Union Baker Education Service District and the cities of Elgin, North Powder and Joseph, Oregon. Brandon earned his degrees from Brigham Young University.

Anthony Sturges, chief operations officer

Anthony Sturges

Salary: $182,497
Job description: Responsible for providing administrative and logistical direction and leadership to create and maintain safe, adaptable, and highly functional school and work environments. Serves as incident commander of the incident response team and is the district’s liaison to City of Aurora first responder groups including police and fire departments. Supervises the operational activities of athletics and activities, construction management and support, information technology, maintenance and operations, planning, security, transportation, and facility rental.

Bio: Sturges is a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora. He started working as a U.S. History and American Government teacher at Denver’s East High School in 1988 and came back to Aurora in 1993 to teach Honors U.S. History at Rangeview High School and then served as the Dean of Students at Aurora Central High School. From 1998 to 2002, he served as assistant principal for Thunder Ridge High School. In 2002, he became Aurora’s human resources director. Sturges has been in his current position since 2005.

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson, chief financial officer
Salary: $162,993
Job description: Responsible for advising the superintendent and school board on the financial and budget matters of the district. Also prepares and administers the district budget, guides the development of long-term capital financing methods, directs and supervises all business or finance functions including, but not limited to, risk management, budgeting, and grants management while adhering to district policies and procedures.

Bio: Johnson took over the district’s finance department in March 2017. Prior to working for the Aurora district, Johnson served as the director of the office of major project development for the Colorado Department of Transportation. At CDOT, he explored new methods to finance and procure major transportation projects. He has also worked as the deputy treasurer for Colorado and as the finance manager for the Governor’s Energy Office. During his time as deputy treasurer, Johnson focused on banking, investment, and accounting services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of Colorado.