high stakes

Aurora’s union-backed school board slate prevails, putting district on uncertain path

Debbie Gerkin, right, and others celebrating early returns for Aurora's school board race Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

AURORA — Four union-backed candidates running as a slate swept to victory Tuesday in the Aurora school board election, bring uncertainty to a long-struggling district that has shown recent signs of improvement. 

The winning coalition of four teachers union-endorsed candidates — Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Debra Gerkin, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey — ran as “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Cox and Gerkin finished with the highest percentage of votes, followed by Armstrong-Romero and Ivey.

Significant changes could be coming to the district as a result. The current board, though not always unified, has largely backed Superintendent Rico Munn’s strategies, which include recruiting high-performing charter schools to Aurora.

None of the winning candidates on Tuesday night hinted at big imminent changes, but their previously stated positions indicated that Munn’s vision may not align with theirs.

Ivey said Tuesday that he plans to start his term on the board with an open mind, working with the current school board members and giving Munn an opportunity to work with the new board.

“We want to make sure our traditional public schools are up to par first, but we’re not trying to close our charter schools either, or come in with an agenda” Ivey said. “That’s my attitude about it.”

Cox, who has been the most vocal in opposition to charters said it’s too early to say what the win will mean for charter schools, but said the slate’s win will mean they will “fully be able to support public schools.”

In response to Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire, Cox had said, “We should focus on building our public schools up to the desired level before trying to replace them with charters. With that being said, this is not a black and white issue.”

Gerkin, who in addition to support from the teacher’s union reported a $100 contribution from Democrats for Education Reform, said charter schools “do not offer a clear advantage for students” and said she was concerned about how they pull money away from “traditional classrooms.”

Two candidates who had the next highest number of votes — Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — support charters and the school district’s current direction, and have been backed by pro-education reform organizations.

Munn, four years into his role in the district, has led work to create a friendlier process to accept and review charter applications. Munn also took the step last year of inviting DSST, a high performing charter network, to open a school in Aurora, offering to cover half the cost of a new building for the school.

Last year, the district also decided to close a low-performing school for the first time, turning over management to a charter school that is now in the process of phasing in.

The union has been vocal in opposing many of those moves.

The district showed enough improvement to earn a higher state rating this year, which pulled APS off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance.

Outside groups have spent more than a quarter of a million dollars trying to influence voters this year, including groups affiliated with the state’s teachers union and Democrats for Education Reform. Individual candidates also recorded donations from Daniel Ritchie, a former chairman of the Denver Center for Performing Arts, and Patrick Hamill, CEO of Oakwood Homes. Both men are regular donors to Denver school board candidates, but were contributing to Aurora candidates for the first time.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said at a watch party Tuesday night that the campaign had help from teachers around the metro area and from as far away as Colorado Springs.

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.

Plus

Aurora school introduces out-of-the-box redesign with more electives, more teacher collaboration

Students at Aurora Hills Middle School work on creating huts in their STEM class. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

With new offerings of elective classes, a full day every week for teachers to train and plan together, and lots of positive feedback already, school leaders at Aurora Hills Middle School are optimistic about their school redesign.

Officials want it to be a win-win-win solution for the struggling school.

When the principal at Aurora Hills Middle School reviewed teacher surveys in the past, one thing stood out: Teachers were unhappy about their schedule.

Although it’s not uncommon for teachers to lament a lack of time for planning or teaching, an audit of Aurora Hills last year showed its teachers had a higher course load than in other district schools, higher-than-average class sizes, and less instructional time.

So, Principal Marcella Garcia jumped at the idea of working with consultant School by Design to redesign her school’s schedule. School by Design’s focus is on providing data about how schools use their time and helping schools find better ways to do things without requiring more staff or money.

“They really did help me to think differently,” Garcia said. “And the effect we can have is huge. We could have continued on, but I don’t know if I would have thought so outside of the box.”

The consultant has been working with all middle schools in the district as well as some high schools, but each school leader can choose what changes to make, and Aurora Hills took an early initiative to make changes.

Under the changes this year, the approximately 850 students at Aurora Hills have a full day every week for special courses like music, health, technology, or STEM.

Students and educators refer to that as their Plus day, and students say it’s the fun part of their week. Some students, like those requiring special education and English language learner services, have access that they wouldn’t have had in the past to take such classes.

While students in one grade level have their Plus day, their teachers spend the full day in training, led by teacher leaders, and in joint planning time.

So far, they’ve been using the time to look at how they grade and to share ideas about teaching. They’ve also said they want to spend time looking at attendance and behavior data, and learning how to teach social and emotional skills throughout the day.

Teachers have mostly responded positively, Assistant Principal John Buch said.

“One teacher shared, during their reflections, that in her years of teaching, she had not had an opportunity before to collaborate with a teammate and go in depth in planning like they did last week,” Buch said. “We also heard, I would say several comments, about the freedom they felt when planning isn’t cut off by a bell.”

Teacher Cynthia Krull signed up last year to help design the teachers’ new time.

“I really truly fell in love with the idea,” Krull said.

This year, she is a Plus teacher planning hands-on projects for students who take her STEM class once a week. Last week seventh-graders were designing a hut that would help them survive a set of given conditions while stranded on an island. As they worked in pairs to mesh their ideas of what a hut should do or what it might look like, while rushing to meet a deadline, the students clearly were relishing the challenge.

“They look forward to coming to that class,” Krull said.

Aurora Public Schools has been working with School by Design since 2017 to find ways to improve middle-school achievement without increasing spending. The consultant team is still working with a number of other Aurora schools this year, but officials said they expect Aurora Hills’ leaders can become in-house experts within the district, phasing out the need for the consultant, and helping other schools who want to keep thinking differently about their use of staff or time.

So far, the district has spent more than $146,000 on the consultant. District officials say the savings outweigh the cost.

At Aurora Hills, for instance, if teachers are able to have their professional development during the regular school day, the school can save on paying teachers for extra time on the clock or paying for substitutes to cover classes.

But there are also benefits that aren’t easy to quantify, such as giving teachers more time to work together. Or giving students more class offerings and more time to learn.

As part of the schedule, teacher teams also get a block period where students are in “flex time” which means two class teachers combine and split their students into groups and together provide extra help for those who might be falling behind, or give students a chance to delve deeper into a topic.

“Time is the most precious resource,” said Jack Shaw, the executive vice president of Schools by Design. “The win in schools is I’m able to get a bundle of benefit without any additional costs.”

This year, the consultant team will provide updated audit information, so that schools can track the impact of any changes they’ve made.

At Aurora Hills, Principal Garcia said she’s giving staff regular surveys to see how the changes are working. She’ll also be tracking staff turnover rates, and student achievement.

The school has received two consecutive years of low ratings from the state. Based on preliminary ratings released this week, Aurora Hills is in its third year of low performance. The school must improve before reaching five years of low state ratings, or risk state sanctions.

The Aurora district’s own plan for dealing with low-rated schools calls for the district to increasingly intervene in schools if ratings lag. District officials would have likely directed changes this year if Aurora Hills hadn’t created a redesign of its own.

School leaders said they are hopeful that the changes they’re rolling out will make a difference.

“We are encouraged,” said Buch. “We are early in the process, but we have a group of teachers and staff and students working pretty relentlessly to change outcomes. We believe that’s the right work.”