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Aurora school board rejects superintendent’s proposal in first big decision on school turnaround

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school board members voted against the superintendent’s plan to improve school performance at Lyn Knoll Elementary School after weighing competing recommendations Tuesday.

The vote — a split decision with two veteran members voting against the majority — was the first major decision for the new school board and could signal a new direction for how the district will handle low-performing schools. Four of the seven board members were elected in November as part of a union-backed slate.

Two weeks ago, Aurora Public Schools staff and Superintendent Rico Munn presented the board with a turnaround recommendation for Lyn Knoll, a school that enrolls fewer than 240 students and that earned, for the first time, the lowest quality rating from the state this year.

The district’s proposed plan was to contract with an external manager to help the school improve instruction, teacher training, and family engagement and to do marketing and recruitment to attract new students to the school.

“I believe that next year, if we leave the status quo, Lyn Knoll is likely to pop back up on the performance frameworks, but it’s about are the structures in place, as best we can tell, for a sustained improvement,” Munn said. “Those structures are not in place. This is not a recommendation to get rid of Lyn Knoll. This is not a recommendation to convert Lyn Knoll into a charter.”

Even so, board members questioned the need to hand over some management of the school to an outside company or consultant.

“I’m concerned the district would entrust our school to a partner who’s unfamiliar with our population,” said Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the board member who made the motion to reject the superintendent’s recommendation.

The alternate plan that the board approved was presented by the district’s joint steering committee, a group that oversees the district’s three pilot status schools, including Lyn Knoll. That recommendation was for the school to keep its current pilot status for another year under a set of conditions. The committee offered to watch over the school as they make changes, including some that are already in the works, such as the roll out of a new curriculum and new data planning.

Union President Bruce Wilcox, who is also a member of the committee, presented the opposing recommendation for Lyn Knoll, and told the board Tuesday that the decision would send a larger message to the Aurora community.

“Will the board make a fully informed decision or will the decision be made to move forward with a plan where the details remain a mystery to parents, community members, and teachers?” Wilcox asked the board before the decision. “This is about more that one school and one decision.”

Based on the district’s own policies, when a school earns a turnaround rating, the district reviews the school’s needs and prepares a recommendation for improvement which could include a number of options such as turning the school into a charter or into an innovation school with increased autonomy.

The school’s existing pilot status, a model that was created by former district leadership working with the district’s teachers union, already gives it some autonomy.

As part of the creation of that school model, a joint steering committee was created to oversee the pilot status schools.

Speaking for the committee, Wilcox said the loss of 12 teachers due to budget cuts may have contributed to the drop in performance, along with other factors

“They had undergone such a significant change last year in staffing and programming that we wanted to give them an opportunity,” Wilcox said.

Munn argued that his recommendation was not based on just one year’s data.

The board will later have to clarify how the district or the committee will oversee changes at the school.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent: