New issues

One guarantee in Aurora’s school board election: Change is on the way

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Whatever way you look at it, the Aurora school board election on Nov. 7 is likely to be a game-changer.

Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election — a majority that could potentially redirect the school district’s reforms. Of the nine people who will appear on the ballot for those four seats, only one is an incumbent. The other candidates include a lawyer who is married to a teacher, a former board member, a truck driver, a fire inspector, and a graduate of Aurora Central — one of the district’s lowest performing schools.

On the table are issues that have become controversial in Aurora, as they have been elsewhere, such as charters. And the future of the district is on the line, as it continues work to improve some of the state’s lowest schools while facing shifts in enrollment that are producing a new set of challenges for school leaders.

Also unusual in this race is the involvement of organized groups who see the election as an opportunity for minority voices — like those of immigrants or African-Americans — to be heard.

“I think that one thing that’s different in Aurora this year is the high numbers of candidates across the city — school board, city council. People, especially progressives, are feeling really activated,” said Jack Teter, a research director for Democrats for Education Reform, one of the groups supporting candidates in the election. “We’re engaging this year because while Aurora is making strides, there’s still a long way to go.”

Like any school board race, the election is also be a referendum on the direction of the district. In his four years as superintendent, Rico Munn has rolled out many changes with general, if sometimes mixed, support from the current school board.

While the district was until recently considered unfriendly to charters, Munn is phasing in a charter school to replace a district-run school that was not performing well academically. He invited another charter school network, DSST, to open in Aurora and offered to help pay for a new building.

He and the board granted five schools innovation status to seek autonomy from some district, union and state rules. And now the district is about to write a new strategic plan on how it should build and adapt to changes in enrollment that are affecting different parts of sprawling Aurora in different ways.

Critics of Munn say they want to see more change, and faster. Others are calling for the district to slow down or stop some of Munn’s initiatives all together.

“If one side wins, we could continue to see an expansion of a Denver model, if you will, of taking our schools and saying you’re not working, which I don’t believe is the answer,” said Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union. “I just don’t.”

Motivating several of the candidates to seek seats is the district’s embrace of charter schools. In particular, opponents have cited spending, with some saying Aurora can not afford to direct funds away from the public schools at a time when a drop in enrollment is shrinking the district’s budget.

Four candidates that are part of a union-supported A-Team slate oppose charter school expansion and call for holding the existing charter schools to higher standards. Two candidates supported by the reform-minded group Democrats for Education Reform press for more school options and support the district’s work and current direction. Board member Barbara Yamrick, the one incumbent seeking reelection, expressed interest in a moratorium on charter schools at a board meeting this week.

Both the union and Democrats for Education Reform are raising thousands to support the candidates. A few of the candidates have also received contributions from groups and individuals who have long contributed to reform-supportive candidates in Denver, such as Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, but who are new to Aurora’s scene.

In the past, dividing lines among Aurora’s school board members or candidates have not been as clear as they may be in other metro area districts. For instance, Cathy Wildman and Dan Jorgensen, two school board members supported by the union two years ago, voted in favor of approving the DSST charter schools for Aurora, something the union has opposed.

“We’ve changed the way charter schools are discussed in Aurora,” Wilcox said. “We’re going out and soliciting them. ‘Come to Aurora and fix our woes.’ I don’t think we’re putting the same emphasis on supporting our existing schools.”

Still, while the issue is an important one to the union and some activists, it may not always resonate with voters.

Abby Cillo, taught at Fletcher Community School, which is the only school Aurora has shut down and which is being replaced with a charter school. That change has pushed her deeper into involvement in the union (she’s now on the board of directors), and has motivated her to knock on doors after school to help campaign for the union-endorsed slate of candidates.

“We have our students at stake,” Cillo said. “What happens if Aurora schools get shut down and then the kids can’t get into the charter schools that replace them?”

In knocking on doors, though, Cillo said she has found that few voters have a full grasp of the issues around charter schools.

Community leaders agree that charter schools may have dominated discussions among educators and candidates, but they are not necessarily a priority with voters.

“When I talk to parents, they just want good public school options,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who hosted a forum for the candidates. “I don’t hear from parents talk about compensation or tenure or evaluation. Students, too, they want access to a quality education.”

Voices from people of color, who are a majority in Aurora, are speaking out more in this race than in the past, observers say. RISE Colorado, the Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA), and the African Leadership Group are among the local community groups that have hosted or are hosting candidate forums for the school board race. Students and parents have led these forums and posed their own questions.

A group of parents, students and community leaders organized through RISE Colorado earlier this year, helped draft a board resolution expressing support for immigrants facing fears about deportation. Those parents are also asking board candidates to express whether they support that statement as well.

YAASPA has been in Aurora for seven years and is helping students get involved in the school board election for the first time. The African Leadership Group has been in Aurora for 12 years and is also hosting a forum for the first time this Saturday.

“I think it’s time for us to make our voices heard,” said Sylvia Karanja, education coordinator for the African Leadership Group. “We do have the numbers, so you’re going to have to listen to us. We do have a voice.”

Karanja said the most pressing issue for community members they work with is for improved and expanded language and translation services. Some also have trust issues with the district, she said, and feel leaders have not done enough to support DACA students who are temporarily protected from deportation under a status that President Trump has moved to overturn.

Janiece Mackey, co-founder and executive director of YAASPA, said students were excited to be involved and to question school board candidates about issues they care about, including inequities in opportunities they find from one high school to the next and what they see as a lack of inclusion.

“The students didn’t realize that there was such a huge budget cut until they were experiencing the cuts,” Mackey said. “They ask, ‘why do you all get to make these decisions for us and why don’t we know what the heck is going on?’ ”

She said many see race and equity issues cutting across all challenges in the district, and they are watching to see how candidates respond to those issues in making their decisions on who to support.

“Personally I think these candidates are actually more oriented toward social justice and racial equity, which is kind of a different notion of education reform which we’ve seen recently,” Mackey said. “It’s not so much that these populations didn’t exist before, but there is more attention being called to their needs.”

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.