an intervention

Struggling Aurora elementary school gets creative to improve — but bigger changes may be coming

First graders at Paris Elementary in Aurora use toys and light pointers to help focus while reading individually. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When a fifth-grade boy was having trouble waking up in the morning and getting to school on time, officials at his Aurora school, just a block away, came up with an idea.

They gave the student a buddy — another fifth grader who lives two doors down. The boy agreed to knock on his classmate’s door every morning so the two could walk to school together.

“We had to get creative,” said Shannon Blackard, the interim principal of Paris Elementary. “He became more motivated to get to school on time.”

That buddy system is part of a broader push that has led to better attendance at the school — one emphasis to boost student achievement under a district improvement plan already in place. But bigger changes may soon be coming to Paris Elementary.

The 363-student school has logged five straight years of low performance, triggering the next step in Aurora Public Schools’ system for intervening in low-performing schools. District officials this fall put out a “request for information” from interested parties — which could include charter schools and consultants — seeking ideas for more aggressive steps for improvement.

After this week’s deadline to respond passes, the district will review the responses and ask the school board to vote on recommendations as soon as next month. It will be one of the first significant decisions for the seven-member board since four teachers-union backed candidates won election last month. Those new members have questioned some of the district’s reform efforts.

Superintendent Rico Munn created the district’s framework for intervening in low-performing schools after taking over the role in 2013.

Paris Elementary is not the first school to reach five years of low performance, but it stands apart because it is already under a district-approved innovation plan. That plan gave the school more flexibility in budgeting and setting the school calendar, and in making hiring decisions.

Speaking at a September school board meeting about schools facing turnaround, Munn characterized the recommendation for Paris Elementary as “the most high-profile.”

The district essentially is trying to step in before the state forces its hand.

On its fifth year of priority improvement, one of the lowest ratings the state gives, Paris is one year away from being on the list of schools requiring state action if it doesn’t improve. This year, the state did assign more points to the school in the ratings compared to last year, but not enough for the school to jump up into a higher category of ratings.

The school is a block away from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and is surrounded by apartments and multi-family housing. Every one of the students who attends the school qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Eight of every 10 are learning English as a second language. The students come from 16 different countries.

The school’s principal left the role at the beginning of the school year, leaving a district official to step in for a while before an assistant principal was named interim principal for the year.

School officials at Paris, including Blackard, the interim principal, are optimistic that current work at the school is already helping.

For instance, school-level data shows that the number of students reading at grade level this December has more than doubled school-wide compared to the same time last year. The improvements are at every grade level except kindergarten. And for the students that aren’t on grade level, school teams are now meeting regularly to come up with plans for how to help each one catch up.

Improvements are showing in math classrooms, too. Using a new math curriculum, third grade students in one classroom were excitedly engaged last week in an activity to see if they could guess how much a bag of crackers weighed and if they could use the scale to test it.

Early indications for attendance are also positive. The number of students who are chronically absent has dropped by 50 percent. This year so far, 11 percent of students are labeled chronically absent, down from 22.1 percent last year.

Blackard said she isn’t aware of the district’s plans to recommend possible changes to Paris, but said that she expects the school is on track to make improvements anyway.

“I’m very confident,” Blackard said. “We are very focused.”

When Munn discussed the timeline for district recommendations with the school board in September, he described a balancing act between giving schools time to make improvements while stepping in early enough to roll out changes in time when necessary.

“The question is how do we respond, so that we both don’t over-act but don’t react too late,” Munn said.

The district’s framework for dealing with low-performing schools prompts the district to intervene in schools that earn the lowest quality ratings by the state, increasing the level of intervention by the number of years on the clock. Here’s how it works:

When Paris had reached three years of low performance, part of the district’s plan called for the school to adopt the innovation plan and join a so-called innovation zone in northwest Aurora. Along with providing the flexibility of innovation status, the zone is meant to give its five schools the chance to work together and learn from each other.

If the school doesn’t improve enough by next year, the state’s options could include suggesting school closure or asking a charter school or outside group to take over.

Aurora officials have said they want to be proactive about improving schools before they are directed to make changes by the state.

Last year only Aurora Central High School was on the state’s watchlist facing state sanctions. In that case, using the same framework for responding to low-performing schools, district officials were already rolling out an innovation plan giving the school flexibility for changes before the state stepped in.

State officials and state board members recognized the district’s initiative and gave the district a chance to continue rolling out the plan to see if it would result in improvements.

In another case when the district was following the same playbook, the district in 2015 recommended converting low-performing Fletcher Community School into a charter school. The district tapped the Denver network Rocky Mountain Prep, which had responded to a request for information.

After the decision, Fletcher showed some improvements in test scores. This year, Fletcher’s quality ratings showed enough improvement to get off the state’s radar, even before the charter has fully taken over the school. Some teachers and union officials point to that as evidence that the district might have acted too soon instead of considering other options and allowing those efforts to show improvement.

“It’s not that you can’t ultimately get to that conclusion, the question is how do you examine it publicly,” said Bruce Wilcox, union president. “We’re not part of the conversation right now.”

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

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.