With new offerings of elective classes, a full day every week for teachers to train and plan together, and lots of positive feedback already, school leaders at Aurora Hills Middle School are optimistic about their school redesign.
Officials want it to be a win-win-win solution for the struggling school.
When the principal at Aurora Hills Middle School reviewed teacher surveys in the past, one thing stood out: Teachers were unhappy about their schedule.
Although it’s not uncommon for teachers to lament a lack of time for planning or teaching, an audit of Aurora Hills last year showed its teachers had a higher course load than in other district schools, higher-than-average class sizes, and less instructional time.
So, Principal Marcella Garcia jumped at the idea of working with consultant School by Design to redesign her school’s schedule. School by Design’s focus is on providing data about how schools use their time and helping schools find better ways to do things without requiring more staff or money.
“They really did help me to think differently,” Garcia said. “And the effect we can have is huge. We could have continued on, but I don’t know if I would have thought so outside of the box.”
The consultant has been working with all middle schools in the district as well as some high schools, but each school leader can choose what changes to make, and Aurora Hills took an early initiative to make changes.
Under the changes this year, the approximately 850 students at Aurora Hills have a full day every week for special courses like music, health, technology, or STEM.
Students and educators refer to that as their Plus day, and students say it’s the fun part of their week. Some students, like those requiring special education and English language learner services, have access that they wouldn’t have had in the past to take such classes.
While students in one grade level have their Plus day, their teachers spend the full day in training, led by teacher leaders, and in joint planning time.
So far, they’ve been using the time to look at how they grade and to share ideas about teaching. They’ve also said they want to spend time looking at attendance and behavior data, and learning how to teach social and emotional skills throughout the day.
Teachers have mostly responded positively, Assistant Principal John Buch said.
“One teacher shared, during their reflections, that in her years of teaching, she had not had an opportunity before to collaborate with a teammate and go in depth in planning like they did last week,” Buch said. “We also heard, I would say several comments, about the freedom they felt when planning isn’t cut off by a bell.”
Teacher Cynthia Krull signed up last year to help design the teachers’ new time.
“I really truly fell in love with the idea,” Krull said.
This year, she is a Plus teacher planning hands-on projects for students who take her STEM class once a week. Last week seventh-graders were designing a hut that would help them survive a set of given conditions while stranded on an island. As they worked in pairs to mesh their ideas of what a hut should do or what it might look like, while rushing to meet a deadline, the students clearly were relishing the challenge.
“They look forward to coming to that class,” Krull said.
Aurora Public Schools has been working with School by Design since 2017 to find ways to improve middle-school achievement without increasing spending. The consultant team is still working with a number of other Aurora schools this year, but officials said they expect Aurora Hills’ leaders can become in-house experts within the district, phasing out the need for the consultant, and helping other schools who want to keep thinking differently about their use of staff or time.
At Aurora Hills, for instance, if teachers are able to have their professional development during the regular school day, the school can save on paying teachers for extra time on the clock or paying for substitutes to cover classes.
But there are also benefits that aren’t easy to quantify, such as giving teachers more time to work together. Or giving students more class offerings and more time to learn.
As part of the schedule, teacher teams also get a block period where students are in “flex time” which means two class teachers combine and split their students into groups and together provide extra help for those who might be falling behind, or give students a chance to delve deeper into a topic.
“Time is the most precious resource,” said Jack Shaw, the executive vice president of Schools by Design. “The win in schools is I’m able to get a bundle of benefit without any additional costs.”
This year, the consultant team will provide updated audit information, so that schools can track the impact of any changes they’ve made.
At Aurora Hills, Principal Garcia said she’s giving staff regular surveys to see how the changes are working. She’ll also be tracking staff turnover rates, and student achievement.
The school has received two consecutive years of low ratings from the state. Based on preliminary ratings released this week, Aurora Hills is in its third year of low performance. The school must improve before reaching five years of low state ratings, or risk state sanctions.
The Aurora district’s own plan for dealing with low-rated schools calls for the district to increasingly intervene in schools if ratings lag. District officials would have likely directed changes this year if Aurora Hills hadn’t created a redesign of its own.
School leaders said they are hopeful that the changes they’re rolling out will make a difference.
“We are encouraged,” said Buch. “We are early in the process, but we have a group of teachers and staff and students working pretty relentlessly to change outcomes. We believe that’s the right work.”