Game changer

The plan to revitalize Aurora’s schools: Longer days, new curriculum and more teacher training

Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Nearly a year after Superintendent Rico Munn announced his intention to overhaul five of Aurora’s most troubled schools, the public is getting its first look at what might be in store next year.

Among the proposed changes: Schools will abandon the district’s mandated curriculum and school calendar. Students will spend about 45 more minutes a day at school. Teachers will spend more time planning lessons together. And principals will have more control over their budgets.

The plans to redesign Aurora Central High School, Aurora West Preparatory College, Boston K8, and Paris and Crawford elementary schools were released by the district Friday evening following six months of work by committees that included teachers, students, parents and community members.

Friday’s release is a milestone for the inner-ring suburban school district, which has struggled to educate its mostly poor and Latino students for years. It’s also a halfway point in a lengthy process to avoid state intervention and a loss of accreditation.

A majority of teachers and administrators at the five schools must approve the plans, which include changes to the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement with the district.

Those changes will vary at each school. But at Aurora Central, a majority of teachers must agree to give up their tenure rights — a tough decision for veteran teachers that, if rejected, could prompt the state to step in with more drastic changes.

After the schools OK the plans, the Aurora school board must also give its blessing.

Additionally, the plans must be vetted by Colorado Department of Education officials, who have already signaled they will reject any plan they believe won’t boost student achievement.

And finally, the State Board must sign off on any parts of the plans that deviate from state law.

Superintendent Munn said he hopes the State Board can approve the plans before the end of the school year to allow time to put them in place.

“This is work that is definitely different in Aurora: A district that is heavily dependent on neighborhood schools, that has a traditional union structure that has not in any way shape or form created any autonomy for its schools,” Munn said in an interview prior to the plans being released. “For us, this is a big move.”

What’s changing?

While there are some common shifts among the five schools, no two plans are alike. Each spans dozens of pages and details changes in a variety of areas including instruction, hiring, school culture and money. The plans, if approved, would take three years to roll out and rely heavily on the school’s principal.

At Boston K8, students will do most of their learning by completing projects over several weeks and months. They will also be asked to do a community service project. And the school will market itself as a hub for the community, pulling in a variety of nonprofits and services for families.

At Crawford, students and their families will participate in an international writing program. Teachers will use EngageNY, a curriculum heralded for its alignment to the Common Core State Standards. The principal will be able to design her own hiring process. And the school will not have to accept any teacher transfers.

Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October. Last spring she was named principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October. Last spring she was named principal of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

At Paris, students will study literacy for longer periods. Teachers who are rated highly effective and recruited from another school district can have their higher salaries matched. And the principal will control the school’s money designated for at-risk students.

At Aurora West, students will be able to choose how they want to learn — be it in a traditional classroom or on their own. Students will also design training for teachers around cultural diversity. Teachers will spend more time throughout the day and school year planning and developing their skills.

At Aurora Central, traditional grade levels will be a thing of the past. Instead, students will earn credits at their own pace. There will be a later start time, pushing the current 7:30 a.m. start to 8 a.m. Teachers will be paid more if their position is considered hard-to-fill. And they will work under annual contracts.

One problem area that won’t be immediately addressed in a comprehensive way is how the schools teach immigrant and refugee students.

An audit conducted last year found that students learning English as a second language were often left behind at the five schools and that supports for those students needed a complete makeover.

While some schools outlined subtle shifts in teaching their English language learners, Aurora will need approval from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights before any sweeping changes are made to that program.

District and federal officials have begun that conversation, Munn said.

“We have to see if we can convince them that whatever the replacement policy is can meet the needs of these kids,” he said.

The toughest conversation

Perhaps the most contentious proposal is that no teacher at Aurora Central will be protected by tenure. All will work under one-year contracts.

It’s not the outcome English teacher Shari Summers wanted.

“It scares me that we’re going to lose some really good teachers,” said Summers, who helped create the school’s plan.

What’s next | The district will hold a community meeting at 4:30 p.m., Feb. 16.,at Aurora Central. Superintendent Rico Munn hopes the district’s school board will approve the plans by March 15. But a special meeting could be held March 22 for a final vote. The state would then have 60 days to approve or reject the plan.

But Superintendent Munn said there is no alternative.

“What we know is we can’t forward to the state an innovation plan that doesn’t include some significant waivers around talent management,” he said. “It’s a non-starter.”

Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement executive, has not seen the district’s plans yet, but said his office and new education commissioner Richard Crandall are looking for bold changes, especially at Aurora Central.

“It sounds like the district is going to take some strong steps toward ensuring they have the right teachers in place at Aurora Central,” he said. “As the new commissioner makes his recommendations, those kinds of bold moves will be very, very important.”

But if teachers at Aurora Central don’t agree to give up their negotiated tenure rights, the innovation plan might never reach the state department.

If teachers reject the plan and a compromise can’t be reached, the entire staff may be fired when the school is “reconstituted.” Or the state may turn the school over to a third party.

“We’re trying to to work together on these difficult pieces,” said Amy Nichols, the Aurora teachers union president. “We’re all for creativity. We just want to make sure that non-probationary teachers that have been in those schools have an opportunity to teach and to be an asset to the district.”

Summers, the Aurora Central teacher, said she predicts a tight vote.

“I’m proud. The basics of the plan are really, really good,” she said. “I hope I’m around to help implement it.”

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including some from the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the innovation schools dropped use of just some of the services from the district’s human resources department.

On the right track

Aurora state test results mostly moving in positive direction

Students at Aurora's Boston K-8 school in spring 2015. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

Aurora Public Schools officials are optimistic after seeing their latest state test scores, a major factor in whether the district will pull itself off the state’s watchlist for chronic poor performance.

The number of eighth graders that met or exceeded expectations on English tests increased by more than the state average. The district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, nearly doubled the number of ninth graders meeting or exceeding expectations on their English tests.

Another Aurora school, William Smith High School, had the state’s fourth highest median growth percentile for English tests. That means that on PARCC English tests, those students showed improvements on average better than 89 percent of Colorado kids who started with a similar test score from the year before.

But the increases of how many Aurora third graders met expectations on English tests weren’t as big as the average increase across the state. The improvements also still leave the district with far fewer students proficient than in many nearby districts or compared to state averages.

“There’s evidence there that there has been some really hard work by our kids and our staff,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We’ve hit a mile marker in a marathon. But we fully recognize we have a lot of work left to do.”

Aurora Public Schools is the only Colorado district at risk of facing state action next year if state ratings don’t improve this fall. Those ratings will in part be based on the state test data made public Thursday. Munn said he has a “positive outlook” on what the data could mean for the district’s rating.

Disaggregated test data also seemed promising. While gaps still exist between students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch and those who don’t, the gap has shrunk. English language learners are performing better than native English speakers in both math and English language arts tests.

The trends are similar in other metro area districts, but Munn said there are some changes that might be responsible for the better performance by students who are learning English.

The district made changes in how schools teach English by including English language development throughout the school day rather than just during a specific time of day.

The district’s overall median growth scores also increased and reached above 50 for English language arts. For students to make at least a year’s growth, they must have a score of at least 50, something especially important in districts like Aurora where a lot of students are behind grade level.

Aurora’s five innovation zone schools, the biggest reform superintendent Munn has rolled out, saw mixed results. Last fall, the five schools each started working on plans the district and state approved giving them flexibility from some district or union rules and state laws.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

For instance, Boston K-8 school, one that was celebrated last year, had big increases in the number of sixth graders meeting standards on English tests, but big decreases in the number of eighth graders that do.

Central High School, another school in the zone, and one that is now on a state action plan because of low performance, had a median growth percentile of 57 for English tests, meaning the school’s students on average had improvements better than 57 percent of Colorado students when comparing them to students who had similar test scores the prior year. But the math growth score was 46 — below the 50 that is considered a year’s worth of growth.

Central also had a decrease when compared to last year in the number of students that did well on a math test taken by the largest number of students, or more than 400.

Munn pointed out that schools had only started working on the changes in their innovation plans months before students took these tests and said district officials aren’t yet attributing the results, negative or positive, to the reforms.

Some of the data for the individual schools was not released publicly as part of the state’s efforts to protect student privacy when the number of students in a certain category is low.

Districts do have access to more data than the public, and Munn said educators in Aurora will continue to analyze it, school by school, to figure out what’s working and what needs to change.

David Roll, principal of Aurora’s William Smith High School, said the test results for his school were somewhat unexpected.

“I was hoping we would continue to show growth, but I was anticipating an implementation dip,” Roll said. “What this is beginning to demonstrate to us in strong terms is that this is a powerful way for students to learn. And by the way it also shows up on their testing.”

The school, an expeditionary learning school which relies on projects and field work, made a change last year to eliminate typical subject courses and instead have students enroll in two projects per semester which each incorporate learning standards from the typical subjects such as history, English and math.

“We always envisioned we were working toward that,” Roll said.

Here’s how William Smith High School ranked on growth scores for English tests: