Teachers at five academically struggling schools in Aurora aren’t prepared to teach. Students who are learning English at those same schools are often left behind. And their parents are out of the loop.
Those are some of the findings from a series of school audits conducted by an independent contractor working for Aurora Public Schools as the school district reimagines some of its lowest performing schools that sit on its Denver border.
The reports, which were compiled in October and November, are meant to inform the work of numerous committees setting a new course for the schools — one that will hopefully lift historically low student achievement and morale.
Among the recommendations from the consultant Mass Insight: Give more planning time to teachers, rethink how English language learners are taught and lay a new foundation for what is supposed to be taught at each grade.
“No one was in the schools arguing things were great,” said Matt Bachand, engagement director at Mass Insight. He added, “Schools are going to push the envelope, we hope.”
The work to create functioning schools that serve the mostly poor, black and Latino students in the Original Aurora neighborhood is in part an effort to stave off state sanctions. APS is the largest school system on the state’s accountability watchlist and is in danger of losing its accreditation if student learning doesn’t improve.
While each school — Aurora Central High, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, Boston K-8, Paris and Crawford elementary schools — faces its own unique challenges, the reports paint a picture of mostly broken schools where little learning happens, especially for the district’s most at-risk students.
“Though it appears as though Paris Elementary offered professional development for staff on unpacking standards, developing essential questions and daily objectives, most students could not communicate what they are learning in class,” the audit said. “Similarly, most students could not explain how they know if they are on or off-track in class.”
Jocelyn Stephens, the APS learning director who oversees Paris, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings.
“These reports are a confirmation — and maybe provided us a couple of perspectives we didn’t have,” she said.
Parents’ perspectives, for one, were lacking, she said.
Last fall, APS was chastised in another report published by parent advocacy group RISE Colorado and the education reform group A+ Denver. The report encouraged the inner-suburban school district to engage its poorest families more.
Parents, students, teachers and school administrators were surveyed and participated in focus groups for the Mass Insight audits, Bachand said.
“The goal is when the report comes out, no one in the building says, ‘No one like me participated,’” he said.
One glimmer found by Mass Insight is that most teachers reported a positive working culture and felt respected by their principals.
While no immediate and permanent changes will take hold at the schools until after both the APS school board and State Board of Education sign off on the plans, Aurora officials say they’re working to improve schools now.
“What I think you’ll see right now is a response,” Stephens said.
In December, principals across the district were told they and their teachers were free to make curricular changes as they see fit. That conversation was a demarcation for a school district that previously sought consistency across its classrooms in an effort to support a highly transient student population.
Stephens said it will take time for the district’s culture to shift.
“It’s one thing to be shared and another thing to be lived,” Stephens said. “That is the work.”
While a shift at the district level is important, state officials hope those in the schools are able to come up with their own plans.
“We want to be sure that the schools are clear about what they’re trying to do,” said Peter Sherman, the state’s top school turnaround officer. “We want to see in those plans, the school focused on some of these core systems. We also want to see outcomes. We want the plans and the schools to be really clear about the outcomes they’re seeking for kids.”
Lisa Escarcega, Aurora’s chief accountability and research officer, told the school board last week that the schools’ plans should be made public the second week of February.
“But if the schools need more time,” Escarcega said, “we need to give that to them.”
Mass Insight’s School Readiness Assessments
Aurora Central High School
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
Crawford Elementary School