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.”

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.