John Youngquist, at a DPS meeting in January 2012
John Youngquist, at a DPS meeting in January 2012 (Joe Mahoney/I-News Network)

Two months into his tenure as Aurora’s superintendent, Rico Munn has made his first big change, hiring John Youngquist, formerly DPS’s Director of Principal Talent Development, to be Aurora’s Chief Academic Officer.

Munn is new to the district himself, having replaced former superintendent John Barry in July. Barry, who served for seven years, tangled with unions while successfully working to raise graduation rates and improve student achievement. Munn has yet to make any drastic changes to the current system and, by the sounds of it, is unlikely to anytime soon.

The hiring of Youngquist, who gained praise at DPS for his work with principals, could hint at Munn’s path forward. But neither Munn nor Youngquist are discussing what changes they are likely to implement.

“A lot of people have asked me what my grand program is, what the silver bullet is going to be,” said Munn. “I don’t have one. I think we need to do less and do it better.”

This restrained approach aligns with his statements during the public interview process, when he said that he would not be doing a “turnaround job” on APS but instead “accelerate the rate of change.”

For his first big hire, Munn said he selected someone with a breadth of expertise across all levels of schooling and administration.

“You find few people who have worked at so many levels of education,” Munn said. Youngquist’s stint as East High School’s principal from 2007 to 2011 drew praise for his work on the school’s achievement gap. He left East High School to lead the district’s principal development program, where he was responsible for recruiting and training new principals.

“I believe he is a good leader and especially a good leader of principals,” Munn said. “He can help us get a strong sense of focus and responsiveness.”

Youngquist’s goal for the first few months on the job is figuring out what the district wants from him, part of Munn’s community-oriented approach.

“My biggest priorities are listening closely about where the district has been headed and figuring out the direction we need to be headed together,” said Youngquist.

Any changes are likely to be gradual. “Our interests are really about coming together, tracking our progress and making adjustments over time,” said Youngquist, whose position at DPS remains open.

Youngquist’s responsibilities will include aligning the curriculum with the Common Core, supporting professional development for principals and teachers and working directly with Aurora faculty and staff. He will join Munn’s stated commitment to increasing the speed of improvements, in part by focusing on fewer areas of reform.

“I see in Rico a real laser-like focus on accelerating student achievement, that that needs to be his priority every day,” said JulieMarie Shepherd, president of the Aurora Public School board.

As part of his process to determine what the district’s priorities will be, Munn has been visiting Aurora’s schools and school facilities. He plans to visit all of Aurora’s schools, including 15 in the next few weeks. His hands-on approach means that Aurora students may be seeing a lot of Munn’s new hire alongside Munn in their classrooms.

“I’m going to do my best to be in classrooms and schools 50 percent of my week,” Youngquist said. “That’s something I’ve really been missing and I am looking forward to being connected with what’s happening on the ground.”