E pluribus unum

Students to lead the way in Aurora while accountability clock ticks

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Public Schools board members Mary Lewis, left, Cathy Wildman, and JulieMarie Sheperd.

AURORA — The Aurora Public Schools board adopted a single strategic document for the inner-ring suburban school district Tuesday night.

But school and community officials are betting that the thousands of new individual academic plans students develop will be what drives achievement forward.

As part of the district’s new five-year strategy, every APS student will write his or her own plan for the future, be asked to develop a set of skills to implement that plan, and earn credentials toward college or a career.

Known as APS 2020: Shaping a Successful Future, the plan is a stark departure from the district’s former governing documents. Previous iterations of the APS strategic plan were lengthy, packed with goals and initiatives written in education jargon, and were focused on what teachers and administrators would accomplish.

But APS 2020, officials say, is student- and parent-friendly, will likely be printed on just two pages, and places the responsibility for academic success on the students.

“We agreed as a community that this plan was about student self-determination,” said Rico Munn, Aurora’s superintendent. “It’s about them having the capacity within themselves to shape their future.”

Much of the work outlined in the plan is already underway. APS has been a leader in developing career-pathways for students. And it recently rolled out a digital program that awards students certificates akin to scout badges for workplace skills like collaboration they can show they’ve mastered.

Aurora by the numbers
41,729 students
46 percent of third grader read at or above grade level
56 percent of students graduate on time
67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch
38 percent of students have limited English skills
18 percent of students are white

But many details still need to be worked out. It’s unknown what an academic plan might look like for a kindergartner. And it will be a challenge to have each of APS’s 41,729 students write these plans within 90 days, as called for in the the proposal.

It’s also unclear whether the plan will accelerate student achievement quickly enough to starve off state intervention. Aurora is the largest school district on the state’s accountability watch list. It has two years to boost student achievement or face a number of state sanctions that could include losing its accreditation.

Munn said the district’s responsibility to the state weighed on the committee that developed the plan, but it was ultimately more important for APS to do what its community felt was best for its own students.

“We’re doing the work that needs to be done and the work our community told us needs to be done to move each and every kid forward,” Munn said. “That will play out however it plays out at the state. But that’s the work that needs to be done to accelerate the learning for all of our kids.”

Munn said the district does have a sense of urgency to improve its schools, 18 of which are on the state’s watch list. And, Munn said, the plan gets straight to the point.

“It’s not about some broad philosophical education theory,” he said. “It’s about saying ‘every single kid, we need to move. And here’s the strategies we’re going to use to do it.'”

Aurora teacher union President Amy Nichols, who served on the committee that created APS 2020, said she’s excited to work with Munn in implementing the plan. But she does have some concerns about how teachers will have time to work with students to develop their plans.

She said APS officials will need to address testing mandates and class sizes, especially at the middle school level, as they ask teachers to implement student individual plans.

“The best way to get something done is to ask the teachers,” she said. “They’ll find a way.”

Veronica Palmer, co-CEO of nonprofit parent engagement organization RISE Colorado, said it’s important for APS to engage families as they roll out APS 2020.

“Parents are a vital resource,” she said. “If parents know how they fit in, they’re more likely to be involved.”

That could lead to more parents supporting the district’s school improvement efforts, Palmer said. Palmer also served on the committee that drafted the plan.

APS 2020 was approved on a rare 4-3 vote. Board members Mary Lewis, Barbara Yamrick, and Amber Drevon, voted against the plan because they said the vision statement, “every student shapes a successful future,” was uninspiring. However, those members said they generally supported the rest of the plan.

“I love every other word in the plan,” Lewis said. “I will support it completely.”

Presentation on Aurora 2020

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: