helpline

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 2014.

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.”

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.