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

choice

Aurora could get two new charter schools, both with a community focus

Two co-founders of Aurora Community School pose for a picture with supporters of the proposed school outside the board room. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Two new charter schools, both with a large focus on community involvement, could open in Aurora in 2019.

One, Aurora Community School, would serve K-8 students in northwest Aurora using the “community schools” model, in which the school is a hub for other community resources such as food assistance, a medical clinic, and adult classes.

The other, Empower Community High School, would be a high school in central Aurora. It was designed by a group of parents, students, and community members who want to use project-based learning, in which students learn through real-life scenarios and projects — but specifically catering the education to immigrant and refugee students.

Read the full charter school applications here:

“They are trying to do the best they can so that these people who look different can have somebody on their side,” said Kodjo Amouzou, one member of the design team who spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday. “These people will not focus on what you cannot do, but instead what they are capable of.”

Aurora Public Schools has gradually reformed its position on charter schools. A series of changes in the last several years paved the way for new charter school options in the district, including last year’s approval of a school from the high-performing DSST network, which was invited to open in Aurora.

This year, district officials saw a spike in interest from applicants wanting to open their own charters in the district. Officials said they spoke with eight organizations who expressed interest earlier in the year. Later they received five letters of intent, and three submitted full applications. Two weeks ago, one of those applicants, a national organization of charter schools, withdrew their proposal.

District officials and committees evaluated the charter school applications this spring through a relatively new process that has continued to evolve. This year, for the first time, it included in-person interviews. The evaluation rubrics gave overall good scores to the two proposals, but district staff highlighted some areas where the applications weren’t as strong, including in their plans for educating students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, in their budget projections, and in their facilities plans.

Finding a place to house a school is consistently one of the biggest challenges facing charter school operators in the state. In Aurora, one charter school, Vega Academy, is operating in a temporary location and struggling to find a building in the northwest area of the city that isn’t near a marijuana dispensary or liquor store.

Aurora Community School is planning to open in the same region of the district, but is considering operating in modular units set up on vacant land.

District officials had been concerned that Empower would not find a location to open in by 2019, but at Tuesday’s board meeting they said the school has now identified a location they are in the process of securing.

Board members seized on some of the concerns district officials had cited, specifically around the plan for educating students with special needs or who are those who are learning the English language.

Aurora’s board includes four members elected in November after highlighting their concerns with charter schools during their campaign. They said they worried about how the proposed charter schools might affect district-run schools. In northwest Aurora, where some charter schools already operate and where DSST is planning to open in 2019, enrollment numbers are dropping at a faster rate than other parts of the district.

Because schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, some district-run schools in that part of town are struggling financially.

Other board members said the cost of creating a good option for students could be worth it.

“Having charters in our district affects our bottom line, but if a change to our bottom line raises the performance level of our students, I’m willing to mitigate that risk,” said board member Monica Colbert. “To say it affects our bottom line so we don’t look at choice, that’s bothersome to me.”

Board member Cathy Wildman pointed out that the area is gentrifying and questioned if the students the schools want to serve will still be there by the time the schools open.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the board the district is recommending the schools get approval to open. District officials are drafting proposed conditions that the schools would have to meet throughout the next year before they open.

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendations for the conditional approvals at a meeting June 19.

the new deal

Aurora teachers could get a pay bump in the fall, with a chance for more in January

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora teachers will get a slight pay increase at the start of the next school year, with a possibility for an additional 3 percent raise in January, according to an agreement reached by district and union officials.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the teachers union, said officials have struggled in the past to ensure that raises can benefit new and veteran teachers alike, but the plan that officials reached this spring will do that.

The negotiated agreement gives all teachers a $1,600 annual salary bump for the 2018-19 school year and allows teachers to move up in the salary schedule, something that teachers have been prevented from doing in some years, even though they received some salary increases.

Aurora employs about 2,100 teachers. At the end of this school year, the pay for those teachers ranged from $39,757 for someone just starting out to $102,215 for one teacher with about four decades of experience. The average salary in Aurora is $54,742.

Aurora teachers joined others from across the state earlier this spring in marching to the state Capitol asking for more school funding and higher pay. Many school districts, including in Grand Junction, Boulder, and Jeffco, are using an increase in state funding to give teachers pay raises.

Teachers in Aurora have told the school board in the past that many teachers, especially younger ones, can’t afford the city’s increasing housing costs.

Aurora Public Schools is considering asking voters to approve a tax increase in November. The agreement states that if a tax measure is successful, the district will set aside $10 million from that request to give teachers an additional 3 percent raise starting in January. That money would also go into creating a new salary schedule for paying teachers.

Wilcox said the union’s goal in rewriting the pay scale would be to have a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on their years of service and increased education. While that’s the system in place now, freezes in the past have left some teachers behind where they should be, even as some newer teachers gain ground.

District officials said the current salary schedule “does not currently reflect our commitment to our human capital strategy. Unpredictable changes in state funding over previous years have made implementation of the current salary schedule challenging.”

Of teachers who cast a vote on the agreement, 91 percent voted to approve the deal, Wilcox said.

Now the school board must give their blessing. A vote, likely to approve the deal, is set to take place later this month.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that recent pay freezes have applied only to movement within the salary schedule. The district hasn’t had a complete pay freeze since 2011.