parent voice

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classes and giving teachers feedback

Students at Rangeview High School work during an electronics class. (File photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

When a student at Aurora’s Rangeview High School was asked by a police officer last year to take a hair pick out of her Afro because it could be considered a weapon, her mom went to the school to voice concerns about the inequity of banning the wide-toothed combs.

“I tried to educate them,” said Katia Campbell. “There are other things that students wear that could be used as a weapon, but by targeting this item, you are targeting African-American students.”

Christy Hartford, the assistant principal at Rangeview, where about 21.6 percent of students are black, got to thinking.

“That really caused me to look at that and ask how can we use our parents to get feedback on the different practices at our school,” Hartford said.

So, last fall, Hartford recruited Campbell and other black parents to be part of a new group called the African American Parent Committee.

Once a month, seven parents get together and visit three or four classrooms. Parents observe how students are or aren’t engaging with the teacher’s lessons. Later, they sit down with Hartford and some teachers, and provide feedback on what they see. The student paper, the Rangeview Raider Review, first reported on the program.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said Tomeka Speller, a group member and mother of two Rangeview students. “If they looked or appeared comfortable; how they interacted with the environment; the temperature of the room; if the teacher had control of their classroom.”

Although Hartford considers it an experiment, she said it’s already generating good ideas and some uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations.

“It’s been really positive,” Hartford said. “Parents are picking up on things maybe I didn’t pick up on.”

A teacher speaks with parents of the African American Parent Committee. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Campbell, Rangeview Raider Review)

The ultimate goal, she said, is to help close large gaps in the achievement of black students and white students at Rangeview, by getting more ideas as to how to help students.

Hartford said she noticed the large achievement gap when planning last summer for her first year at the school, and knew she wanted to try to narrow it. The gap between the percent of black students and the percent of white students who met expectations on state tests was 18 percentage points.

Hartford said black students at Rangeview are the second-to-lowest performing group and are also the most overrepresented group among those who are disciplined.

As parents observe the classrooms, Hartford provides a list of features to watch for, including students’ attitudes in class and their understanding of the lessons.

In general, Hartford said throughout the year, the majority of parents are noticing that students are collaborating in class and are voicing their opinions. But parents have told Hartford that they notice not enough teachers provide examples during class that are relatable for students of color.

Hartford said that as she has shared feedback with teachers, she has started seeing some incorporating the advice into the way they teach — especially the part about trying to make content more relevant with real-world examples.

Parents say they’re getting something out of it too.

“I just thought this was an awesome and unique experience to be able to sit in,” parent Kyle Speller, another group member, said.

Parents said they’ve learned more about the school’s programs and needs that aren’t necessarily tied to teachers.

“The thing that I saw that needed the most improvement, in my opinion, is funding,” Speller said. “I would love to see more resources provided to the students in APS. There are different times when they would have to share textbooks. I felt that was a little bit disappointing.”

Campbell, who first raised issues about the hair pick ban (which has now been rescinded), said she learned that it’s good to be involved.

“I’m glad that I stepped up to have this conversation,” Campbell said. “I’ve learned that they listen to parents.”

Next year, Hartford said she wants to continue the parent group, but also wants to start a student group to give her “a pulse” on what they’re seeing and experiencing too.

“That’s what’s missing now,” Hartford said. “It’s the student voice.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

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

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.