As Aurora district is crafting next year’s budget, coaches who turn new technology into engaging lessons are going away

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Students prepare for statewide testing in Michelle Mugatha’s eighth-grade language arts class at Columbia Middle School in Aurora.

In one Aurora school, a personalized learning coach helped teachers guide students in starting their own Google websites to use as digital binders — to save and display all of their projects.

In another school, a coach showed a teacher how to use Spotify, and helped him create an assignment in which students wrote and recorded songs about the Bill of Rights.

“That was a really cool experience, not only for me, but for my kids,” said Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher, now a dean at a different Aurora school. “That type of activity, if I wasn’t being coached, wouldn’t have happened.”

Personalized learning partners, also known to teachers as EdTech coaches, help teachers in Aurora schools learn to use new technology, and more importantly they say, come up with new ways to use it in class. But the same district-level help may not be around come fall.

Aurora Public Schools officials told the team of six coaches that their department was being cut as the district creates next year’s budget.

The district, like many across the state, may see an increase in funding per student next year, but with enrollment in Aurora continuing to drop, and with a new board and new priorities to pay for, the district is still looking at cuts to some programs.

District officials say teachers will still get help, just in a different form. But the decision is causing an uproar among teachers, who have posted on social media, called and emailed board members, and spoken to the board during public comment. Some called the cuts a social injustice, one they say might create new inequities in the district.

The issue seems particularly relevant for some staff this year as the district has been rolling out new technology as part of a $20 million investment approved by taxpayers in the 2016 bond package. At the same time that most schools are moving toward a one-to-one technology model where each student has one device, this year the district is switching from Outlook to Google email systems. The EdTech department helped teachers with both transitions this year.

“The assumption is that when teachers are hired, they’re already familiar with how they use technology,” said Gwynn Moore, a teacher speaking at a school board meeting last week. “When you utilize technology in a classroom, it is a whole different ball game. You need training. You need to have guidance and modeling.”

At that meeting, the school board also scolded Superintendent Rico Munn for making the decision without letting them know about it first — one of their policies requires a six-month notification before cutting a program — but Munn told the board the district is just shifting how it helps teachers, not eliminating any programs.

Board members also raised concerns in the same discussion about cuts they heard were happening to another centralized team that provides professionals to help teachers try interventions on students that need extra attention. That help will still be there, Munn said, but within schools, not centralized the same way it is now.

“This is still a significant decision being made without any notification to us,” said board member Dan Jorgensen. “As long as I’ve been on the board, I’ve never seen anything like that where a whole group like that just disappeared and then I find out through a bunch of emails.”

Jorgensen said the lack of information meant the district used a poor process.

District officials declined an interview request to elaborate on the changes, saying that the district is “still in the preliminary stage of the budgeting process.”

The district also declined to provide a dollar amount for the estimated savings that cutting the department would produce. The elimination of the team, as the department described it on its Facebook page, means the six members will be out of a job this fall.

One reason for the lack of clarity is that some of the help the personalized learning coaches are now giving to schools and teachers may be incorporated in new ways next year. Right now, one personalized learning coach is assigned to each learning community — a group of up to 12 schools — and operated centrally.

“Personalized learning will be embedded in the professional development for teachers and leaders,” district officials said in a prepared statement. “Personalized learning will be embedded in our instructional coaching roles and professional learning. Previously, it only lived in personalized learning. Our shift is meant to strengthen supports for all schools district wide in a more equitable manner.”

Board members requested that the changes be a topic of discussion at another meeting soon. More details about how that would work may surface then.

Board president Marques Ivey said the concerns come down to whether more work will “fall on the teachers.”

Teachers, like Hogarty, also have that concern. But if the help is still there, and more site-based within schools, teachers said that could potentially be an improvement.

“Teachers are overwhelmed and underpaid,” Hogarty said. “At the end of the day all teachers want is help.”

time off

Language in contract for Aurora teachers changed conversations about walkouts

Colorado educators rally outside the State Capitol. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district’s contract with its teachers places a cap so that no more than 30 teachers can take personal leave on any given day. This mundane contract provision took on new importance when hundreds of teachers started requesting leave to attend rallies planned for Friday.

Over the weekend, union leaders, board members, and administrators discussed how this would play out. In the end, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn canceled classes. As of Monday, when the decision was made, about 1,000 teachers had requested the day off. That’s nearly half the district’s teachers.

A letter to staff, clarifying that the leave policy has not been lifted, sheds new light on the behind-the-scenes discussions.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the teachers union, said Monday that union leaders started many of the discussions Friday, as they sent out a survey to members asking if they were interested in walking out and asking if they would do it without pay. More than 400 teachers responded over the weekend, and of those who responded about half said they were willing to walk out without pay.

“This has been a fluid situation,” Wilcox said. “As an association we in no way want to violate our contract, but we also recognize that individuals believe this is going to be the biggest statement they can make about education funding in their individual careers. This has kind of reached a critical mass.”

Wilcox said union leadership reached out to board members and found that board members would not support disciplining teachers who violated district leave policies.

Board president Marques Ivey said he could only speak for himself, but confirmed that was his opinion.

“That’s definitely my feeling is that I don’t believe personally that anyone wants to see teachers disciplined,” Ivey said.

Munn’s letter clarifies that neither the administration nor the board have the authority to stop the district’s policy or contract from applying to Friday’s walkouts.

“The board has not taken any kind of formal position on anything related to this matter,” Munn’s letter states. “The board cannot change the leave policy or make a one time exemption for this purpose. If the board were to change policy for the express purpose of facilitating attendance at this event, it would be an act of the district using taxpayer dollars to support a political activity,” which is not allowed.

So, what will happen is that the first 30 Aurora teachers who asked for personal leave on Friday may get it as one of their three special leave days earned during the year. Most other teachers who want to take a day off must do so without pay.

Other districts, including in Jeffco, have similar policies, but without the cap on how many teachers can request leave. In Jeffco, teachers only get two days off per year for personal reasons. Those teachers who have already used their two days and choose to walk out this week will also have to take a day without pay.

Aurora’s cap on the number of teachers taking personal leave was added to the contract between the teachers union and the district in 2014.

“I don’t think the language, when it was put in the contract, was ever seen as something that would be used against someone,” Wilcox said. “Both the district and the association wanted to make sure we didn’t have a situation where a school or the district was impacted negatively.”

Wilcox said he isn’t aware of teachers reaching that cap any other time this year, but mentioned that certain social events such as the Broncos parade after their Super Bowl win in 2016 might have been a case where several teachers were requesting a day off.

Although the union was planning to have teachers stage walk-ins, Wilcox said teachers said they felt that was not enough.

“When you have 200 people saying I believe in this that much, to take a day without pay, that’s pretty significant,” Wilcox said.

Board president Ivey said overall he thinks the situation has been handled as well as it could have.

“There’s no handbook on how to deal with this,” Ivey said. “I believe the district and AEA are doing the best they can. I don’t believe the district is against the very fundamental policies that the teachers are marching for.”

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.