The central issue

Most want to improve Aurora Central High School, but not everyone agrees how

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
An Aurora Central High School student listens during his advanced science class in 2015.

AURORA — For Josiah Lopez, the 2014-15 school year was a waste of time.

The Aurora Central High School sophomore said he learned nothing new. Everything was “just repeat” from what he learned at a Denver charter school the year before.

“They don’t care about their education,” he said of his peers at the academically struggling high school in this suburb east of Denver.

“They don’t push us,” he said of his teachers.

“I hope they do make changes,” he said on one of the last days of school, as he sat on a park bench across the street from his school.

Specifically, Lopez said he wants more advanced classes, like an International Baccalaureate program, that can prepare him for college.

Oh, and healthier food in the cafeteria.

Lopez isn’t the only one with big ideas about how to improve Aurora Central High School, one of the 169 schools labeled as failing by the state. The city’s superintendent has a plan, too.

For five years, Aurora Central has been labeled as failing by the Colorado Department of Education, because most students perform below grade level on standardized tests, and the school’s composite ACT score and graduation rate are far below state averages. It is the largest high school on Colorado’s “accountability clock.” And its time has run out.

With the school facing state sanctions, Aurora Public School superintendent Rico Munn pitched a plan earlier this year to his school board to free the school of certain district and state policies. That freedom, he said, would help accelerate student learning.

"We’ve done everything. We’ll try anything. But I doubt there is anything that can be done until the root causes (poverty) are dealt with. And that’s not in our control."

The plan, dubbed ACTION Zones, would also include nearby elementary and middle schools with similar academic struggles and student demographics. Most of those students end up at Aurora Central.

If the plan goes into effect (at the earliest for the 2016-17 school year) and proves successful at schools in the original Aurora neighborhood, more such zones could be developed.

But making Aurora Central a better place for students to learn is going to be difficult, not just because modern day school improvement is far from a replicable science, but because it’s not clear that the community — from the school board to the students — is behind the superintendent’s vision.

Some believe Aurora Central is fine as is. Others don’t believe the district has moved fast enough. Some believe nothing can be done to drastically improve the school given the students it serves. Others say the state, not the school, needs to change its definition of what success is.

Munn’s plan, as well as other possible options for Aurora Central, will be the focus of a final town hall meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the school.

And on Tuesday, Munn will ask the city’s school board to take a first step toward approving his comprehensive plan for Aurora Central and five other schools.

To better understand Aurora Central, you have to better understand the unique demographics of its student population.

The school, sandwiched between one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and the booming Fitzsimons medical campus, serves slightly more than 2,100 students. Most qualify for government subsidized lunches, and are Latino, black, and/or a refugee. Four out of every 10 Aurora Central students are English language learners. And nearly 15 percent have special education needs.

“It’s just so unique,” said school board member Mary Lewis. “And we need to celebrate that.”

Student leaders say the school’s diversity allows them to find themselves and their passions in a safe place.

“There’s space to be an individual here,” said Yamel Ramirez, a senior.

Aurora Central High students discuss the school's future in a leadership class.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High students discuss the school’s future in a leadership class.

While diversity and individuality might be celebrated by those inside Aurora Central, students know many adults outside those four walls judge the school by their test scores alone.

And those scores are nothing to brag about.

In 2013, only 3 percent of black 10th graders were proficient or above in math, according to the state’s tests. Fewer than 13 percent of Hispanic 10th graders met the mark. Not even a third of the school’s white 10th graders were performing at grade level in math in the same year.

“This staff works extremely hard. But we have sophomores who are working two jobs to support their family,” said Sharon Summers, an English teacher. “We’ve done everything. We’ll try anything. But I doubt there is anything that can be done until the root causes (poverty) are dealt with. And that’s not in our control. Poverty is not an excuse — it’s a reality.”

If trends hold, about 40 percent of sophomores who took the state’s standardized tests in 2013 graduated on time earlier this month. While Aurora Central’s graduation rate has improved, it has failed to break 50 percent since 2008.

When students hear these numbers they say two things. First, they’re more than a test score. Second, they don’t try on tests.

“People put more effort into their class than those tests,” said Keshon White, a sophomore.

White, like many other students interviewed by Chalkbeat, also said it’s the students’ fault — not the teachers’ or administrators’ — that test scores aren’t higher.

“We get people ditching. But I’m taking advantage of my education,” White said, standing in the middle of the park across the street from Aurora Central. There were about two dozen students other students there during the middle of the school day.

White said he had had been excused from class by a family member.

Under state law, Aurora Central must either close, be handed over to an independent school management organization, be converted to a charter school, or seek innovation status from the State Board of Education. But exactly when that change will occur is now up in the air.

Until recent legislation, one of those changes had to take effect by the 2016-17 school year. However, House Bill 15-1323 put a temporary freeze on any accountability decisions being made based on standardized exams. So Aurora Central and schools like it have a little more breathing room before the state imposes its sanctions.

“It’s the gift of time,” said Peter Sherman, the state’s school improvement director. “But everyone is still on the clock. Schools have time, but they should use it wisely.”

Sherman said current trends in drastic school overhauls of the type the state expects to happen at Aurora Central include what’s called a “year zero.” That’s when school leaders have a full school year to pick a school model, hire staff, develop a budget, and design curriculum.

Superintendent Munn’s plan built in a year to engage the community and draft an innovation plan for the school, which under state law must be approved by a majority of the school’s teachers, parents, school board, and the state.

"We seem to have a flavor of the week. First they want you to put a learning objective on the board. Then they don’t. Central needs consistency."

An extra year for Aurora Central could mean more time to engage the community and formulate a plan. There’s also nothing stopping the district from moving forward with Munn’s timeline, or some variation of it.

Munn has repeatedly said his plan is designed to be what’s best for the students of Aurora Central and that it only meets state law by happenstance.

“Regardless of the new timeline, we are committed to improving student achievement,” Munn said Friday. “We plan to continue pursuing opportunities including ACTION zones to accelerate learning for every Aurora Public Schools student.”

Munn will need all the time he has to rally the school’s community behind his vision, and to dispel rumors.

Many students and even some teachers who spoke to Chalkbeat during the three months since Munn’s proposal went public have said they believe the school will either be closed or turned over to a charter school.

Teachers fear they’ll lose their jobs. Student fear the imposition of school uniforms and a closed campus.

Munn and the school board have said the school will not close. The district has nowhere else to send students. Unlike other academically struggling school districts across the country, Aurora Public Schools, is growing, not shrinking.

And because keeping Aurora Central intact as one comprehensive high school, instead of breaking it up the into smaller programs (as Denver Public Schools and other urban school districts have done) is a priority, charter schools are not likely to be interested to taking over the school.

Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam earlier this spring.
Aurora Central science teacher Tony Bullock prepped his students for an exam earlier this spring.

Aurora Central principal Mark Roberts said this is not the first time innovation status, the technical term for what Munn wants to do at Aurora Central, has been considered. In fact, he said, he was hired in 2013 to turn the school in that direction. But because he joined the school at the same time the Aurora school board hired Munn, those plans were put on hold.

Roberts has been missing from most board room discussions about Aurora Central. He said he’s been active in discussing the future of the school with district leaders in other settings. But Roberts said he wanted his teachers to be able to attend board meetings and share their opinions during public comment without having to worry about what he might hear.

“I’m involved as much as I’m asked to participate,” he said. “When [the board] starts making decisions, I’ll be attending more.”

He said the school would benefit from having more freedom to decide how to spend its budget, especially around staffing, professional development, and curriculum.

“We’ve seen results when the district’s curriculum has been supplemented,” he said.

But some teachers are concerned that innovation status could lead to more confusion and more half-initiatives.

The school already has some flexibility in how it has spent a multi-year $1 million grant to boost student achievement. And that has led to more professional development that hasn’t always been helpful, said science teacher Tony Bullock.

“We seem to have a flavor of the week,” Bullock said. “First they want you to put a learning objective on the board. Then they don’t. Central needs consistency.”

Above all else, teachers say they just want to know how Munn’s proposal will get different — and better — results.

A 2014 study of innovation schools in Denver, the school district with more such schools than any other state, found that while teacher morale was higher, student results were mixed at best. Innovation schools often did no better than schools managed more closely by the school district.

Aurora Central parents may be the most eager for change.

“I know my child will be OK, but I’m worried about the other children,” said Karen Porter. Her son is a junior and she serves on the district’s accountability committee. “The school is hostile. There’s too many different incidents. There’s always something.”

As of April, students have been referred to the office 143 times and suspended 105 times. Three have been expelled so far this school year. That puts Aurora Central on par with the district’s other high schools.

But those numbers mark a sharp decrease from the 2013-2014 school year when the school clocked more than 2,000 office referrals, 300 suspensions, and 21 expulsions. No other Aurora high school came close to those numbers that year.

“The data should have told us years ago there was a problem,” Porter said.

Parent Richard Rimpson agrees that whatever happens at Aurora Central, a more peaceful environment would benefit students.

“If you can’t control the classroom, you can’t teach,” he said.

However, he said, classroom management needs to be equitable and fair.

Both say the school needs more parent involvement — during the good times and bad — and the students and staff have to work together.

“We can be the flagship school of Aurora,” Rimpson said. “We need to believe that the students are capable, their families are capable.”

DSC_1210
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”