tick tock

Aurora chief will propose changes for struggling Central high school

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

AURORA — Superintendent Rico Munn told the city’s school board Tuesday night that his leadership team will develop a plan this spring for a chronically low performing high school that is quickly approaching the end of the state’s accountability timeline.

Munn’s announcement came after the school board heard from officials at the Colorado Department of Education about sanctions the state may impose on the district if it fails to improve academic performance at Aurora Central High School.

The district’s goal: come up with a local solution that will improve student outcomes before a possible state intervention in 2016.

Aurora Central has been considered a low-performing school by the state for five years. If the school, which has made some slight improvements, doesn’t dramatically boost student tests scores and its graduation rate this year, the State Board of Education will likely ask the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education to take “dramatic and disruptive” action, the state officials said.

Among the possible actions: turn over the school to a charter operator; apply for innovation status that would give the school more autonomy from district policies and state law; or close it.

“As much as there are challenges, there are opportunities,” said Peter Sherman, executive director of the state’s school improvement office.

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State officials urged the school district and its board to take the long view. Nearly a third of Aurora’s 60 schools are considered low-performing. And the district itself is also at risk of losing its accreditation if it doesn’t improve as a whole within two years. That means the district, which is sits on Denver’s eastern border, could lose out on some federal funds, and students’ diplomas would be put in jeopardy.

Aurora is the largest school district on the state’s accountability watch list for chronically poor student achievement. Created in 2009, the state’s accountability system ranks schools and districts based mostly on student test scores and graduation rates. Schools and districts that fall in the bottom two categories of the state’s rankings are given five years to improve or face state penalty.

Aurora Central is one of 30 schools that is nearing the state’s deadline. The only other high school on that list is Adams City High School run by the Adams 14 school district.

“I think this is a lot to take in,” said board president JulieMarie Shepherd.

While the school board has had ongoing conversations with its struggling schools, the discussion Tuesday night between the board, state officials, and the district’s leadership seemed more frank given that the deadline for Aurora Central is drawing near.

Board members questioned the state’s motives and practices, how the district leadership team will engage teachers and parents in developing a plan for the high school, and wondered if the district shouldn’t take multiple actions simultaneously.

“It’s — scary isn’t the right word — I’m still looking for the partnership piece,” said board member Mary Lewis said, eyeing the state officials. “I’m looking for [you to say] we’re here to help.”

Aurora Central has about 2,100 students, most of whom are poor and black or Hispanic. It won a three-year, $2.3 million school improvement grant from the state and federal government in 2013. And state officials have been working directly in Aurora Central and with APS officials.

Lewis was also concerned that the district’s leadership team might act unilaterally without listening to the ideas of teachers.

“Teachers, all the staff, need to be included,” Lewis said.

Board member Amber Drevon said parents also needed to be consulted.

District officials said they are engaging with all community members. A survey was already sent to Aurora Central teachers. And the district will host community meetings in the near future.

Board member Dan Jorgensen urged the district to bring well-researched solutions to the table for teachers and parents to discuss. That would make for a better community engagement process, he said.

And while some board members were pointed about making sure adults outside of the district’s headquarters were listened to, Jorgensen refocused the conversation on students.

“Our decision shouldn’t be based on the clock, but on what’s best for kids,” Jorgensen said. “The rest is just gibberish. …  It’s about kids.”

Some audience members whispered “yes,” and “about time,” after Jorgensen’s comments.

Jorgensen also suggested the district seek bids for high-quality charter schools while it comes up with its own plan for the school.

About 30 members of the Aurora Central staff attended Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re invested and truly care about the future custody of the school,” said Corey Price, a social studies and psychology teacher. “Our plea is that we’re part of the process is determining the future of Aurora Central High.”

In an interview after the board meeting, Price said he believes high teacher and leadership turnover coupled with multiple initiatives from various levels of district bureaucracy have prevented Aurora Central from propelling student achievement forward.  He said he hopes the school board gives the high school more autonomy and supports the building’s principal, Mark Roberts.

Munn told the board it can expect a proposal by the end of the school year.

“Whatever the option is — we need to start now,” he said.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

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

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.