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

terms of the deal

Aurora school board approves contract for district’s first DSST campus

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management. (Denver Post file)

The Aurora school board on Tuesday night — in its last vote before new board members are sworn in — approved a contract with DSST Public Schools for the charter network’s first school outside of Denver.

The contract spells out enrollment and performance expectations, and upon request from Aurora school board members, ensures DSST will have representation from an Aurora resident on their own network governing board.

In June, the board approved DSST’s application to open four schools — two middle and two high schools — starting with one of each in the fall of 2019. The contract approved Tuesday is only for the first campus of a middle and high school.

During public comment, teachers, some parents and union leaders spoke to the board, as they have in past meetings, speaking against the DSST contract.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Debbie Gerkin, one of the newly elected school board members. Gerkin cited concerns with the plan to allow DSST to hire teachers who don’t yet have certifications, echoing a common criticism of charter schools.

“I appreciate there’s been so much hard work put into the DSST contact,” Gerkin said. “I ask that we continue to think about this.”

Board member Cathy Wildman asked the board if they would consider delaying the vote until the new board members are seated at the end of the month. A majority of current board members said they would not support a delay, noting they’ve spent more than a year working on learning about the DSST application and contract.

The school board first discussed the contract details at a meeting in October. At that time, board members asked district staff to go back to discussions with DSST to suggest that they commit to having someone from Aurora on their board of directors.

School board members asked questions about the details of the enrollment process such as whether there would be a preference for siblings, how student vacancies would be filled and whether the guidelines would really make the school demographics integrated.

According to the contract, DSST will give students in the surrounding neighborhoods, those served by elementary schools Rocky Mountain Prep, Paris, Crawford and Montview, first preference for half of the school’s open seats.

The remaining half will first go to any other Aurora students, but if seats are still available after that, students outside the district may enroll.

Enrollment numbers discussed in a separate presentation at the October board meeting show that the target area for the school, in northwest Aurora, is also the area with the largest declining enrollment. Schools in those neighborhoods have been near capacity, but not overcrowded like other schools in the district.

DSST will have a cap of enrolling no more than 450 students. An enrollment cap for charter schools in Aurora is standard, said Lamont Browne, the director of autonomous schools. In the first year, since the school will start with just sixth graders, the school anticipates enrolling 150 students. By April 1, DSST leaders must show the district that they’ve already enrolled at least 75 of those students.

A large section of the DSST contract spells out the district and school’s responsibilities in serving any students with special needs that may want to enroll at DSST.

The contract also includes a section that gives the district a right to close the school or deny a charter renewal if DSST earns a priority improvement rating from the state and doesn’t improve it after one year.

Recent contracts the Aurora school board approved for other charter schools also have requirements for performance, but not as stringent. The contract for The Academy of Advanced Learning, for instance, requires that school to improve after one year of earning a turnaround rating from the state. The turnaround rating is the lowest a school can get.

DSST has similar performance requirements in its contracts with Denver Public Schools allowing for a nonrenewal of a contract if a school has low ratings, but none of the Denver DSST schools have dropped to the lowest two categories of ratings. DSST schools, in fact, consistently are some of the state’s highest performing on state tests.

What the contract still doesn’t detail is a possible new name for Aurora’s DSST schools (the school originally was called the Denver School of Science and Technology) or how the district and the charter will split the cost of the building.

When Superintendent Rico Munn invited DSST to apply to open a school in Aurora, he offered to pay for half the cost of a new building for the charter school.

The bond voters approved in 2016 included money to pay for a new building for the charter school. The contract reiterates earlier commitments that both the district and the charter network must identify the money for a building by March 30.

A contract for the second 6-12 campus would be negotiated at a later time if the charter school meets performance requirements to move forward with opening the third and fourth schools.

Looking ahead

Union-backed candidates prevail in Aurora — and all sides downplay prospect of big immediate change

Union President Bruce Wilcox, far left, addressing four school board candidates: Debbie Gerkin, Kevin Cox, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey, as they awaited election results Tuesday. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

One day after school board candidates backed by the teachers union swept into power in Aurora, the district superintendent and leaders of charter schools he recruited downplayed potential conflicts and committed to working with the new members.

Union leaders made similar comments Wednesday, expressing optimism that the newly elected members and Superintendent Rico Munn will forge a fruitful relationship.

The four candidates who will make up a majority on the seven-member school board have been critical of charter schools in interviews with Chalkbeat and candidate questionnaires. But in public comments, including during campaign forums, several of the candidates expressed openness to working with some charter schools depending on the circumstances.

That has left some uncertainty about what the election might mean for charter schools, which are a key piece of Munn’s recent reform efforts in Aurora, and the district’s strategies overall.

The newly elected school board members emphasized Tuesday they want to work with the existing leadership and aren’t planning major changes immediately.

Munn told Chalkbeat on Wednesday he needs to hear from the new board before contemplating any shifts to district priorities.

“In our reform strategy we’ve laid out at least nine different strategies that we’ve been implementing across different schools,” Munn said. “Our current board, and I’m sure our new board, may not like every single one of those. But that’s just an ongoing conversation we have to have.”

Put on notice by state education officials in 2010 for low performance, Aurora Public Schools had little choice but to embark on reforms to better serve its diverse population, which has large numbers of black and Latino students, and young refugees fleeing strife around the world.

Munn, hired in 2013, has overseen an approach the district calls “disruptive innovation.” Along with recruiting high-performing charters to the district, Aurora has adopted a new system for hiring meant to strengthen its principal corps, given schools more control over budgets and created an “innovation zone” providing schools within it greater freedom to experiment.

The district’s efforts have attracted interest from private foundations, education reform groups — and a gradually greater investment of attention and money in school board races, a trend that’s nearly a decade old in neighboring Denver.

Two years ago, reform groups from the left and right and a more engaged teachers union sought to influence the Aurora election. The result was split — two incumbents prevailed, and one of two conservative-backed reform candidates won.

Most of this year’s investment from the reform side came from an independent expenditure committee tied to Democrats For Education Reform. The reform community’s two preferred candidates —Miguel In Suk Lovato and Gail Pough — finished fifth and sixth in the race for the four seats. As of the last big campaign finance report deadline, a committee bankrolled by the teachers union had spent even more to help the union-endorsed slate, billed “Aurora’s A-Team.”

Union leadership and the board candidates on the winning slate have expressed concerns about Aurora Public Schools’ decision to close a struggling school and replace it with a charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep. Also coming in for their criticism: Munn’s invitation to DSST, a high performing charter network, to open in Aurora, and his offer to pay for half the cost of a new building.

The DSST deal is expected to be done after the current board votes on the final contract on Nov. 14 — their last meeting before the new board is sworn in.

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST, said Wednesday the charter school network doesn’t have any concerns about working with board members elected as a union-backed slate.

“We’re excited to meet the new school board in Aurora, and excited about our work in Aurora,” Kurtz said. “Like any school board, we will work hard to start to build a strong relationship with the new board to collaborate so we can best serve students in Aurora … Our view of working with the school board in Aurora is no different today than it was yesterday.”

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, voiced a similar sentiment.

“I don’t have any concerns at this point,” Cryan said. “We’re proud to be a part of that community.”

Others who support some of Munn’s strategies are urging patience. Tyler Sandberg, a co-founder and senior policy adviser at Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit that also invested in the race, said education reform policy discussions are in the early stages in Aurora.

“Charters are only just beginning to demonstrate to the community the quality they can bring,” Sandberg said. “I’m hopeful that the new board members are going to go to the community and realize how empowering some of these charter schools have been for these students. I’m hopeful schools like Rocky Mountain Prep and DSST are going to be able to make a pretty good impression.”

Sandberg also said that reform groups were at a disadvantage against unions which have “built in ground game and funding structure.”

The state teachers union, Colorado Education Association, invested heavily in Aurora after new leadership at the local level began to highlight the concerns of educators including the charter conversion and the DSST invitation, union officials say.

“The community didn’t want to become Denver East,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, a reference to the charter-friendly district next door. “They want to create their own vision of their quality public schools and they want a healthy relationship with the school district, board of education and community.”

Munn has repeatedly expressed a similar message — that Aurora’s school improvement strategies are not a carbon copy of Denver’s and that they are tailored to Aurora’s needs.

Aurora showed enough improvement to pull itself off the state’s watch list for persistent low performance, sparing itself from a state-sanctioned improvement plan. Outside groups, however, including education reform-friendly groups, have complained that the district isn’t doing nearly enough, citing disturbingly low academic proficiency and other troubling statistics.

Although union members and supporters had plenty to celebrate after Tuesday’s election, not all of organizers’ goals were accomplished. Vicky McRoberts, a former union leader who helped work on the Aurora campaign for the teachers union, said Tuesday night that ambitious goals to engage teachers in the campaign fell short.

But she said volunteers who did help campaign were successful in connecting with voters on issues polls showed they cared about — such as increasing career and technical opportunities for students.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teacher’s union, said Wednesday that teachers from outside Aurora helped the campaign, as well.

“We also had more teachers than in the past from our own district,” Wilcox said. “A lot of our teachers did more that one event. I think teachers here in the district recognized that this was an important election.”

Wilcox said the union can’t control what the slate of new board members will do, but said teachers and the union just wanted more collaboration with the district, and to feel that their opinion will be heard.

“I don’t anticipate this board to make any sweeping changes,” Wilcox said. “I’m hoping this board can establish a relationship with Mr. Munn and move forward. We’re at a great crossroads. Our long range plans have come to an end. What better way to start that work moving forward.”