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

one-time money

Aurora school district has more money than expected this year

Jordan Crosby and her students in her kindergarten class at Crawford Elementary on February 17, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district will have a slight influx of one-time money to spend on teacher pay and curriculum upgrades after seeing higher than expected increases in property tax revenue and accurately forecasting a decline in student enrollment.

The district received almost $9 million more in revenue than the $341.4 that was budgeted, and started the year with almost $11 million more than expected left over from last year.

The school board for Aurora Public Schools gave the budget changes initial approval at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Last year, when Aurora was reassessing its budget in January, officials found that they had to make mid-year cuts. This year’s mid-year changes, however, were good news, officials said, as the district finds itself with more money than they planned to have.

“In large part it’s because we hit our projections about enrollment,” Brett Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board. “Because we hit it right on the dot, a lot of what we are going to discuss is good news.”

Aurora schools recorded an official student count this fall of 40,920 preschoolers through 12th graders. That’s down from 41,797 students counted last year.

It’s a drop that district officials were expecting this time.

The district also brought in more property tax revenues than expected.

Johnson said district officials based their projections for the current school year’s budget on a property tax increase of about 9 percent. But revenues from property values actually increased by almost twice that amount. Typically when districts get more money from local property taxes, their share of state money goes down, making it a wash, but because Aurora has mill levy overrides, it can take advantage of some of the increase.

Robin Molliconi, the administrative division supervisor in the Arapahoe County Assessor’s Office, said that while there has been new construction and development within the school district’s boundaries, most of the increased revenue is a result of higher assessed values of existing properties.

As budget officials in the district closed out last school year’s budget, they also found that there was more money left over than they expected. Johnson said district leaders believe that may have been a result of district staff spending more cautiously at the end of last year when officials were expecting big budget cuts.

If the school board gives the budget amendments final approval at their next board meeting, the district will use $5 million of the unexpected dollars to upgrade curriculum, $3.1 million to give teachers a pay raise that the district had previously agreed to with the union, and $1.8 million to launch a pilot to try to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

Johnson said some of the money will also go to the district’s reserve account that had been spent down in previous years when enrollment had dropped much more than expected.

Clarification: More information was added to the story to explain that Aurora has mill levy overrides.

year in review

Aurora school district saw accountability, charter and budget changes in 2017

First graders eat their lunch at Laredo Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Reform work in Aurora schools was on the fast track in 2017.

In the spring, Aurora Public Schools officials defended their work to improve the district’s lowest performing school, Aurora Central High School, in front of the State Board of Education. The school, having had multiple years of low performance, was one of the first to face sanctions for poor performance. But after the district made their case, the state board approved a plan that allows the district to continue rolling out the school’s innovation plan with a deadline of demonstrating improvements within two years.

The district, meanwhile, received good news this year: that it was no longer at risk of facing state sanctions itself after a rise in state ratings.

More recently, the district began looking at the next school, Paris Elementary, that could face the same fate as the high school, and is considering changes to lift that school’s achievement before the state intervenes.

That school, like Aurora Central, is part of the district’s innovation zone — a group of schools with more flexibility than traditional district-run schools. The zone was introduced in Aurora in 2015, but officials are still fine-tuning the work at those schools, including on their goals and budgets.

The district as a whole made many changes to their budget and school funding process in 2017. After a better-than-predicted state budget that was finalized in the spring, district leaders didn’t have to make all the cuts they were considering.

But in the process of scrutinizing the budget to find where they could make cuts, district officials decided to cut funding to six schools that operated under special plans created with the district’s teachers union.

The district is still closely watching enrollment numbers that continue to drop. Besides the impact on the budget, the changing enrollment picture prompted the district to consider a different kind of long-term plan for its buildings and future priorities.

Both the district’s reforms and budget discussions were big issues in this fall’s school board election, which saw a union-backed slate win four seats on the seven-member board.

The other big issue in the election was around the district’s work with charter schools. This summer, the Aurora school board approved the contracts for a new DSST charter school. The district is also considering consequences for charter schools that are low performing, and working with one charter to see if it can operate a center-based program for students with special needs.

Another effort that attracted attention this year was the district’s work to diversify its workforce, specifically principals.

Expect many more changes next year.