Aurora Central High, one of the state’s most academically troubled schools, is one step closer to a dramatic overhaul after teachers there Wednesday approved a plan that calls for new teaching methods, annual contracts for teachers and longer school days.
Before any changes, the district’s school board and the State Board of Education must also give their blessings.
Those governing boards are expected to OK the plan, in part because of the overwhelming support by the school’s teachers. More than 80 percent approved the plan. The Aurora school board had warned they would reject any plan that did not have broad community buy-in. And the state board has yet to reject an innovation plan that reached them.
“I am excited about this opportunity that will allow the Aurora Central community to create unique and targeted responses to the various challenges and opportunities within the school and zone community,” wrote Gerardo De La Garza, the school’s interim principal, in an email to the school’s staff obtained by Chalkbeat.
The vote, a year in the making, is a watershed moment for Aurora Public Schools and Superintendent Rico Munn.
The redesign efforts at Aurora Central — where most students are poor, black and Latino — has been the foundation of Munn’s improvement efforts in the district.
Before Wednesday’s vote at Aurora Central, three other schools approved similar plans. Together, they’ll form an “innovation zone” and work outside of many of district and state policies in an effort to boost student learning.
Student achievement and graduation rates in Aurora, the state’s fifth largest school district, have lagged state averages for years.
Aurora is the largest school district in the state that faces sanctions for poor student achievement. Districts and schools that are deemed chronically failing for five years face a variety of penalties including losing their accreditation, shut down or turned over to charter schools. The work at Aurora Central and at other schools has been in part to keep the state at bay.
“We are excited about the opportunity for Aurora Central staff to pursue innovation status,” Munn said in a statement.
While each school will look slightly different, all four will operate on a similar extended schedule, run common teacher training and will approach teaching through a “global leadership” theme developed by the nonprofit Asia Society.
The vote at Aurora Central was closely watched by education reform advocates, the district’s teachers union and state officials. When the first draft of the plan was introduced, observers were skeptical it would either pass a teacher vote, which is required by law, or be a success.
At the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Education Commissioner Richard Crandall said he was “very impressed” by Aurora’s proactivity and called the district one of the most proactive of those on the accountability clock.
Peter Sherman, the state’s chief school improvement officer, and his staff provided feedback during the last month to the district as the plan was being revised. Upon learning of the successful vote, he applauded the school’s efforts and said he is excited to review the plan teachers approved.
But he added, “The reality is, Aurora Central is facing a really high bar for quality because the school is entering the fifth year of the accountability clock. Identifying a school leader is also critical for implementation.”
Van Schoales, CEO of the education reform advocacy organization A+ Colorado, said he believes the school’s plan improved during multiple revisions but questions remain about how changes will be put in place.
“Our concerns regarding the plan have mostly to do with what they’re asking teachers to do,” he said.
The biggest change at Aurora Central will be a shift toward competency-based learning, a teaching method that allows students to prove their understanding of concepts at their own pace.
“It’s just really hard to do,” Schoales said. “And it’s especially hard to do when students are already at low levels of achievement.”
As part of that model, teachers will lead whole class discussions, provide instruction to small groups based on targeted one-on-one tutoring.
In addition, teachers will also be asked to conduct regular home visits and lead an advisory period.
Officials have said changes at Aurora Central will not happen overnight and will be rolled out over three years.